Cheri's tiny house on wheels

[Cheri Lucas Rowlands’s tiny house in California. Photo: Cheri Lucas Rowlands]

Cheri Rowlands on life & writing in the real & digital worlds.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

[Cheri Lucas Rowlands: story wrangler]

In a slightly earlier era, Cheri Lucas Rowlands might have written for newspapers or magazines. She’s got a similar but more fluid job, one not nearly so place-bound. She works remotely: when she’s not at home in Sonoma County, California, she travels the world, writing, editing, and taking photographs for herself and for the internet publishers who employ her.

Rowlands is a “story wrangler” and editor for San Francisco-based Automattic, the parent company of and (among other products). WordPress is the world’s most popular web and blogging software, and currently powers over 60 million sites on the internet. This very website runs on WordPress software, though when I launched it—eight years ago this month—I started on the hosted version,

I met Rowlands when we were classmates in Goucher College’s MFA program in creative nonfiction, 2005-2007; in fact, she may have been one of the twenty-somethings I asked back then about which blogging platform to use and was told “go with WordPress without a doubt,” which turned out to be solid gold advice. Knowing Rowlands gave me confidence recently to pitch her my essay “Why I Hate My Dog,” which she liked and passed along to the editor-in-chief of Longreads, who gave it the green light and returned it to Rowlands for editing.

As I explained in my last post, after working with me on my essay, she agreed to answer some questions about editing writers, online publishing, blogging, Longreads, Automattic, and her career in the digital world of writing and publishing.

Q. Longreads is such an interesting mix of nonfiction. There are famous writers, newsy stories, and now, apparently, quirky essays like mine from left field. What are the goals of your burgeoning site? Why should writers pitch Longreads instead of, or as well as, a site like Slate?

I admired Longreads from afar, before it joined Automattic in 2014. I liked discovering writing that was recommended by fellow readers, and loved that all of this happened on Twitter—that I could broaden my reading experience simply by following a hashtag (#longreads). So when Longreads joined Automattic, I was thrilled. Longreads has grown to publish exclusive and original reader-funded storytelling, from both established and emerging writers. It’s great to see how it has published a mix of in-depth journalism and high-impact stories in a short time.

Mark Armstrong, who founded Longreads in 2009, has shared his insights on the whys behind Longreads. In his post about being a better editor, he wrote about the advantages that we can offer our writers: establishing deep, lasting relationships with writers; helping them to produce the highest-quality work; and promoting stories to a strong, loyal following of publishers and readers. On Longreads’ seventh birthday this past April, he also talked about our continued dedication to produce original longform stories.

Personally, I’m eager to work on stories that introduce me to new ideas and topics; I knew nothing about Jorge Luis Borges before I worked on “Borges and $,” for example, and it was a bit intimidating at first, but ultimately a wonderful way to stretch myself—and get to know Borges and his work. Building both an editor-to-writer and writer-to-writer relationship is also important to me. I continue to grow as a writer, and I’m interested in working on stories that push me as a writer as much as an editor.


[Cheri Lucas Rowlands works remotely and took this while traveling in Lisbon.]

Q. How do you see your role as an editor?

I’ve worked in editorial in some form for 20 years—as a high school reporter, newspaper book reviewer, magazine fact checker, marketing proofreader, freelance travel and education writer . . . But it’s only since being an editor at a blogging company that I’ve felt truly comfortable as an editor. Over the past four years, I’ve become more adaptable.

Automattic is the first tech company I’ve worked for. It’s been a learning experience working in an environment in which the majority of people are not writers, but developers, data scientists, and others with more technical backgrounds. Externally, I’m also engaging with bloggers every day from around the world, all with different needs, interests, voices, and computer skill levels. I continue to adapt on both fronts, doing a variety of tasks and working with all kinds of content —copy inside an app, in your blog’s dashboard, on a technical support page, across official social media profiles, but also publishing author interviews, company announcements, and now longform pieces for Longreads. My job title—story wrangler—reflects most of my day-to-day work quite well: I herd words and stories.

Working on and editing for Longreads is different. It’s less about multi-tasking and dipping in here and there, and more about slowing down and going deeper into a project. I’m reminded of our MFA years at Goucher College: reading, writing, and thinking about writing all the time and losing myself in others’ worlds.

Cheri blog tinkering on laptop

[Rowlands’s laptop in blogging mode.]

Q. You’re also a popular blogger! How is your blogging evolving? What about the blogging genre itself?

Like you, I started my site eight years ago, and I’ve experienced growing pains since, and especially after evolving into somewhat of a public face for the platform. I’m not sure how many times I’ve retreated into myself, turning away from the readership I’ve amassed on my blog, afraid to publish something that’s not perfect or unhappy because I now write less for myself and conflate writing with publishing.

I like to try other platforms, like posting on Medium, creating photo essays on Exposure, or experimenting on now-defunct spaces like Hi and Maptia. Nothing else ever sticks. Other services feel like rented space, and I always come back to, which I consider my online home. But I certainly get restless—periodically changing from a blog to a static website and back to a blog, switching themes several times a year—which is a natural response, I think, like renovating a physical home. I’m reminded of Frank Chimero’s piece on digital homesteading: “I want a unified place for myself—the internet version of a quiet, cluttered cottage in the country.”

I’ll read the “blogging is dead!” proclamations from time to time, but I generally tune out the noise. Whatever you want to call it: blogging, online journaling, writing in real time for an audience—that fundamental human urge to express yourself won’t go away.

Q. What’s the relationship of your blogging and your other writing?

Cheri in London Station

[Rowlands in London train station: Paris-bound.]

I recently excavated bits of my graduate manuscript and put it out there (my blog’s “1997” category), which was very much a personal thing, as I needed to close that door. During my time at Goucher, some of us may have had blogs, and I’m sure I could have found classmates on MySpace or whatever I was using those days. But I was too focused on writing. I can’t imagine doing an MFA today and blogging and (social) sharing my way through it. I’d be too distracted!

Dani Shapiro once wrote a lovely New Yorker piece on memoir in the age of social media: “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself.” If I was blogging while writing my manuscript, it would have been a different experience.

But I revisited and published parts of my memoir on my blog because I was also trying to get excited about writing again. Being on a blogging platform all day, every day, has made it more challenging to write just to write. Posts, instead, have become social media updates: declarations, documented highs or lows of my life. So I’m happy I’m now editing longform pieces at Longreads—diving into that shared space with another writer, rediscovering the process of writing. Ultimately, I like this balance in my work: the ability to face outward into a glowing screen and connect with bloggers from all walks of life, but also the opportunity to retreat inward, in that more intimate space I’ve neglected since my MFA.

Both modes are important. And even though blogging consistently and confidently isn’t easy, I value being able to publish to an immediate audience, and to contribute to conversations happening now.

Q. Your career seems uber cool, and I wonder what life and educational experiences have led you to it?

All of my internships, jobs, and travel experiences have led me to my position at Automattic. I’ve always enjoyed writing, even when I was a little girl, so I sensed I’d hone that skill no matter what I did, and whether or not a job directly involved writing. That was the case when I was a teaching assistant in a sixth grade language arts classroom—I wasn’t writing, but I was reading and grading papers, talking to kids about their essays, and chatting about literature in small groups. And when I was a proofreader at a women’s college, proofing ads, admission brochures, and course catalogs, I wasn’t really writing then either, but I was working with words, and continuing to build a very broad skillset.

I caught the travel bug early, especially after a visit to Paris when I was thirteen, and traveling frequently has prepared me for writing and editing on the web, arguably as much as my editorial jobs. You have to be pretty nimble and aware of what’s going on in the world, especially while working for a global platform like, on which you’re potentially reaching millions of readers. I’ve learned to be more open, flexible, and empathetic from my time studying, living, and working abroad. These experiences have been invaluable and have helped me shape a perspective that makes my work better.

Cheri in Macau

[In Macau, an autonomous territory beside China. Photo: Cheri Lucas Rowlands]

Q. It’s hard for me to picture what must be a fast-evolving, fluid work environment in the online realm. Are you able to travel and work remotely?

Yes, I can work from anywhere I can connect to the internet! Automattic is a distributed company, so its nearly 500 employees can work from any location they choose. We work from home, in coworking spaces, from RVs or tiny houses (that was me for the past year!), or are completely nomadic. We have a physical office in San Francisco, but the majority of the company is scattered across 45 countries.

It’s such an interesting setup that works, and I now can’t imagine working any other way. The bulk of our interactions are text-based: we communicate and interact on Slack and on internal team and project blogs called p2s, where conversations are transparent and searchable. We have occasional video hangouts. We rarely use email. There are spaces for high-level discussions, project updates, and watercooler-like chats about everything from our company culture, the tech industry, our passions, and our lives. And so, much of my world unfolds on this very screen, where I type these words.

Before Automattic, I juggled part-time jobs with freelance work for a newspaper and several websites, so I’m used to bouncing around and working from home. I’m also pretty introverted and self-directed, so this setup works well for me. But I know working remotely isn’t for everyone.

Q. Besides Longreads and blogs on WordPress, what are you reading these days that excites you, online or off?

I can’t say I’m loyal to any publication nor have any favorites. But broadly, I enjoy reading about home and identity (I’m reminded of this piece from Guernica), and writing about living with technology that isn’t too academic (I occasionally come upon essays in The New Inquiry, and have read a few pieces in the fairly new Real Life mag, but otherwise, I welcome recommendations for more literary nonfiction about life in our tech and social media age). While I don’t do any long distance running anymore, I’m interested in fitness, running, and ultrarunning stories, and writing about outdoor adventures and national parks (I tend to enjoy the features at Outside).

close-up for thumbnail-medium-size Interestingly, I’ve become fascinated with, umm, poop. For the past year, my husband and I have been using a simple bucket toilet and composting our waste, which has been a surprisingly great, eye-opening experience. As a society, we use so much clean water to flush away our waste. I suppose my (tiny) living situation over the past year has opened my eyes to a lot of things, so I also like to read about minimalism, people’s relationship to space and stuff, and alternative energy.

[My last post told the story behind my essay Rowlands edited, “Why I Hate My Dog.”]

[Belle at the beach, January 2014.]

[Belle in Florida, a photo Rowlands chose for “Why I Hate My Dog” on Longreads.]


  • shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for introducing me not only to Cheri but also to Longreads and Automaticc. All new to me.

    So many ways to use the skills of reading, writing, and editing!

  • David C. Bailey says:

    From the perspective of an “old timer,” someone who stayed almost solfe in print his whole career (though I did have a blog), writing for a living for 15 years, and then writing and editing for 26 years, it’s fascinating to read about how a smart and versatile journalist operates nowadays.

    At times I catch myself thinking that journalism and writing has gone into a decline, but your Q&A prompts me to think otherwise. Your story, for instance, and others like it, are available to such a wide audience on such a range of media. And the give and take you describe in the editing process is nothing short of enlightened. Thanks for the perspective.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Shirley and David for the comments! David, I felt the same way as an old print journalism dog. In our day, journalists were widely dispersed because publications were. Today, journalists are everywhere because publications are in cyberspace. Change!

  • J.V. Wylie says:


    I very much enjoyed and, actually am downright fascinated by reading about a young person’s (I am 75) life really lived mostly in cyberspace. I noted that you are a self-described introvert, and so am I, big-time; I think that, If I were your age now, I would have loved to have lived the life you are living (I think). It sounds like a total gas! But I’m not sure if I would have had the guts.

    But maybe that’s a generational thing, and cyberspace is not considered so far out for your generation. As it is, I am a retired guy, who had a regular job in a little office with a window from which I would sometimes longingly look out and dream about being a writer. Now feel as if I have been born-again into the freedom of the blogosphere; Even though I have been blogging away in obscurity for 4 years, I absolutely adore it.

    My question is, do you ever feel, well, slightly agoraphobic in that little tiny house while living such a footloose life?

    -An admirer.

    • Hi J.V.,

      Thanks for reading! Yes, I’m definitely an introvert — comfortable expressing myself on the page but pretty reserved (and quite inarticulate) in person. So I thrive a bit in my current work environment, but also feel I’m in front of a screen too much each day. Funny that you see me as a “young person with a life lived mostly in cyberspace” — did you read the recent Washington Post story about what’s it’s like to be 13, right now? I can wrap my head around the internet, sure, but reading about growing up as a teen/pre-teen right now? Oh my. I’m happy to have grown up in a pre-Internet/digital world, but also have been able to adapt to today’s tech-filled world. That in-betweenness was a big thread in my own manuscript at Goucher, actually.

      Not totally sure what you mean by your final question (feel free to clarify and let me know if I’ve digressed) — but the way I read it, it sounds like you’re asking if I’m at all anxious about my life at present (living in a tiny space, working with (ostensibly) less structure). It’s a great question (if that is your question), and I could write a entire post on that, but the short answer is no :)

      We built our tiny house and have lived in it as an experiment of sorts — as a first step in a bigger plan. It’s been an interesting learning experience — discovering what, exactly, “home” means to me and how and where I’d like to live (the house, on wheels, offered mobility if we wanted it). But after a year of living in it, the tiny house has played its role, and it’s now time to move on (my husband and I just bought a (somewhat normal-sized house). I’m looking forward to settling into it, planting roots (and a garden!), and being able to flush a toilet again :)

      The ability to travel has always been a priority for me, but the inner pull to build and shape “home” has grown to be equally important. (If you’re interested, I’ve written a bit about the whys behind the tiny house, like this post).

      • J.V. Wylie says:

        Thanks for your fulsome reply; you caught my trick question about being agoraphobic lifestyle in claustrophobic quarters; and thanks for playing along with my favorite role of old codger. John

  • pinklightsabre says:

    Lovely story, embraces the spirit of full transparency and brings a very interesting person to life digitally. Intrigued by the notion of balancing ‘off-line’ writing and the social media kind; I’ve been toying with that myself, trying to find where they all meet, trying not to judge but view it all as good, as long as it comes, and goes out. Great place to be here, thanks for hosting. If you’re heading out to the kitchen I’ll take another, please.

    • Richard says:

      The drink at present is vodka with lite cranberry juice, pinklightsabre. Glad to pass you a virtual one! Here ya go . . . Thanks for reading and commenting. I am glad if I have even partly captured what a gracious, creative person Cheri is.

    • Hi! Thanks for coming over and reading this. If you haven’t visited here before, Richard publishes solid posts on craft, memoir, creative nonfiction, and the essay (among other things). I still like his blog even though he ditched us to become self-hosted :)

      as long as it comes, and goes out

      Well said.

  • owen1936 says:

    Richard, I grinned and then laughed my way through this delightful post–you and Cheri have opened new worlds to me–not worlds that I a two-fingered 80 year old introverted blogger with a handful of readers am likely to inhabit–tho, if ever I am working remotely from Easter Island I will send a photo–but I am thrilled to know that there are people like Cheri out there surfing and making use of so much that is new. Talk about being nimble and aware. And, thanks, too, to Cheri for the links that will help me to take a few more steps in directions I would like to go.

  • LanieTankard says:

    What a fascinating glimpse into a dream job! I like the nuance of the term “story wrangler.” As one who wears both the editor hat and the writer hat (but not at the same time!), I know how hard it can be switching from one to the other. My hat’s off (ahem!) to Cheri for accomplishing that feat so effortlessly. Since she mentions having always been interested in writing, “even as a little girl,” I’m curious about what fostered her love of words during childhood. Did she read a lot? Was she read to from early on? Which books might have first influenced her to try writing on her own?

    I’ve followed Longform for quite a while, but it’s different from Longreads: So now I’m following Longreads, too!

    I, too, love travel and really enjoyed the Guernica piece Cheri referenced about home and identity—a topic particularly relevant to the growing number of diasporas around the globe as various peoples are displaced from their homelands and forced to acclimate within vastly different cultures.

    She mentions being interested in recommendations of literary nonfiction “about life in our tech and social media age.” I just finished a book, albeit fiction, that I’d recommend: READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline. It’s a marvelous metaphor about the VR & AR cyber worlds of social media. The book came out in 2011, and Steven Spielberg is directing the movie due out in 2018 (with Mark Rylance!).

    Thanks for the informative post, Richard, and congrats on your dog essay!

    • Did she read a lot? Was she read to from early on? Which books might have first influenced her to try writing on her own?

      I enjoyed books when I was little, but I’d be lying if I said I was an obsessive little bookworm, reading under the bed covers after my parents turned the lights off or escaping to the library during recess.

      But I loved journals and scrapbooks, teaching imaginary classes with my chalkboard, and drawing and creating little stories, especially for my aunt, who lived with us for a time.

      My main inspiration growing up came from films, not books. I tend to see and think cinematically (I got my BA in screenwriting). As a pre-teen/teen, I secretly wanted to be an actress (despite being so incredibly shy and allergic to attention and public performances of any kind) and produced movies in my head. Not just thinking of the plots and stories, but selecting which real-life actors/actresses I’d work alongside, and the execs and directors who’d make them. In middle school, I started writing scripts in WordPerfect, on my parents’ PC. My first was an action film fusing The Fugitive and Natural Born Killers; another was a Reality Bites-ish story with four young characters, which I’d written by hand, in a notebook!

      Thanks so much for the book recommendation.

  • Richard and Cheri, All I can say is “Wow! What a lifestyle, and what an intimidating (to me) work system!” Maybe I’m just a lazy blogger. (And as long as you’re fond of cranberry and vodka, why not try Campari and cranberry, just to make things a little more intense?).

  • canzo says:

    Some random thoughts:

    1. Cheri Lucas Rowlands is clearly a gifted, accomplished writer, photographer, editor, polymath.

    2. Technology, social media, etc.: This post makes me consider that perhaps we are getting too dependent on the trendy, hot, now-ness of technology? And the rush of immediacy? I suppose the sheer effort of keeping lots of balls in the air is, in some sense, exhilarating, but for a part-time Luddite, it’s also a bit flash and dash.

    How fast can you dance? For how long? And does it matter? There’s so MUCH out there nowadays. Does really good writing get lost in the sheer mass x velocity of the word vortex? Is branding yourself the most important thing for a writer/editor in today’s world?

    Or, I could just need a drink…. I feel more and more like the tortoise these days…. Not that the tortoise drank…. Well, maybe if he HAD!

    • Richard says:

      I hear ya, canzo. One of the reasons Cheri is a hero to me is the way she balances carefully her use of social media. Maybe she will return and discuss her decisions, such as the mix she’s chosen, not everything .

      Writers are being enjoined to endlessly self-promote. But at some point quick, that gets in the way of work! I say, do the work (whatever it is you do) and muddle along on social media however feels comfortable and manageable.

      The other thing is that there’s a distinction between online publications, of which there are more and more, and social media. Longreads incorporates a neat aspect of social media’s blogging aspect, however: readers can hit a “Like” at the end of a story. Mine has gotten well over 600 Likes at this point. Since not everyone has an icon to do that, or chooses to Like, I think this indicates a big readership. But I know that 655 people, at this point, liked my essay enough to hit Like. Which I love! Plus I got paid. So for me, Longreads, this evolution out of blogging, beat a traditional print or online literary journal in several ways.

  • Beth says:

    Hello, Richard and Cheri! From my flat here in London where I’m spending time this summer working in archives, I can see the spires of St. Pancras station, and I have seen the statue you’re standing by in your picture, Cheri! Right now, I’m sitting in the British Library, thinking about your work as writers and editors, the nature of blogging, our ever-changing relationship to the book, and as always, words. Right in the center of the library is a tower of books, George III’s gift to the nation long, long ago. Seemingly static, stolid, old. Yet one day I watched with awe as a shelf moved back, corridors opened up, and a man replaced a book someone had borrowed for research. What seemed untouchable, in a museum, remote, suddenly opened up, was accessible, close. What book was it? I wondered. Who needed it? For what project or passion?

    What struck me as I read about Cheri’s life with words was its portability. She can take her work with her wherever she goes. Other people can see her work wherever they go. It’s overwhelming to think about (for me, someone who likes to sit with a book and that drink, preferably a glass of sauvignon blanc) and yet also exciting. Here’s what I wonder — how do people find you? I know there are all sorts of roundabout ways that can happen. So, for example, I now know about Cheri’s work because I follow Richard’s. But how, if you didn’t know about Longreads, would you find out about it? In some strange way, is it still “word of mouth”? Are there clearinghouses or “libraries” or ways in if you’re just coming in off the street or the web?

    I enjoyed learning more about WordPress, too, and Automattic and some of the newer technology that’s coming.

    I noticed right away that the weekend Guardian newspaper here has an article that fills two full newspaper pages. It’s a weekly column called Long Read. Doesn’t seem to be any rhyme nor reason to the topic — just something that deserves longer treatment. It’s intriguing to me that in this media world of sound bites, there seems to be a move back toward depth and length. Would either of you like to comment on that?

    What also struck me was that in some way — don’t ask me to explain it, it’s just a gut feeling — people who read and write and edit are still relating to words, language, sentences, thought in the same fundamental way they have for a long, long time. One thing I learned at the Virginia Woolf in Cambridge course last week, for example, was that publishing (at least in the traditional sense, with a print book at the end) actually happened more quickly in the 19th century than it does now. Translation occurred much more quickly, too, and, she said, a six-a-day post was not too shabby! You could change the time for meeting for tea by sending a postcard in the middle of the day . . . When we asked this wonderfully knowledgeable Victorian scholar why she thought that was, she said there were fewer middle men, fewer people and departments that a book had to go through. The relationship was pretty much between author, editor, and publisher. But to get back to my original point — when we exchange work, when editors work on manuscripts, when writers wrestle with words, when readers read the result, aren’t we still doing the same thing we’ve always done, whether it’s on the internet, across a First Watch table, in a study, library, or train? I’m thrilled by the passion for words and image and literature I see in both of you . . .

    All right. Time to head home. What a fun interview, Richard. How lucky I feel to have met Cheri Lucas Rowlands in cyberspace!!

    • Hi Beth — what a lovely response. Last time I was in London, we stayed in a cozy Airbnb flat in Bloomsbury, so close to St. Pancras. I’ve passed through that station so often, but the visits never get old. Grand and beautiful, inside and out. A few thoughts on some of your questions:

      Here’s what I wonder — how do people find you?

      Most new readers come from my interactions and activity across the WordPress universe — there’s definitely a nice blogging community there. Others may find me or my work via Twitter or Instagram. I have a Facebook account, but it’s private and inactive, used mainly for work admin purposes. I know I’m missing out audience-wise by not using Facebook, but there is only so much social media I can handle. Since I’m not working on any personal writing projects or do any freelance writing, I don’t do much promotion of myself online; I’m active in the blogging community for work, but don’t market myself across social channels, or cross-promote my writing across the web.

      But how, if you didn’t know about Longreads, would you find out about it?

      Longreads’ main social outlets are Twitter and Facebook, so if people are sharing our stories from the site, their friends/followers might find out about us in these spaces. Our founder occasionally attends nonfiction, journalism, and narrative conferences — serving on panels about the state (or future) of longform writing — so that is an (offline) avenue of exposure. We’ve done a few story nights of readings with some of the writers we’ve published (Portland, San Francisco, New York) which give us the opportunity to gather our readers together in person; there’s a word-of-mouth element there, although I sense most of it happens online.

      It’s intriguing to me that in this media world of sound bites, there seems to be a move back toward depth and length. Would either of you like to comment on that?

      When I started following the #longreads tag on Twitter some years ago and began to spend a lot of time reading on my iPhone, I remember the excitement around digital longform writing — like the NYT’s immersive, interactive “Snow Fall” article. And then, later, the backlash. (“Just because it’s long doesn’t mean it’s good!”) I’m not really the best person to comment on this, though from what I’ve personally browsed and read, there’s some compelling longform storytelling and investigative journalism published online right now. Some recent favorites:

      Body on the Moor, BBC News
      My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard, Mother Jones
      The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife, the Atlantic

      I think there are some publications that are doing a solid job supporting and publishing in-depth digital storytelling. (I’m happy that Longreads is one of them!)

  • Have been following Cheri Rowlands’ blog for awhile, and am always inspired by how she puts words together. A big fan of long reads in general, but have never checked out Long Reads. When I have the time! Nice to meet you.

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