Writing, Listening, Connecting, Changing | Hall of Fame 2018 Inductee: Linda Breneman

UW Department of Communication Hall of Fame 2018 Inductee: Linda Breneman (B.A. 1978)

 A lifelong resident of Washington state, Linda Breneman grew up in Eastern Washington before moving to beautiful Seattle to study at the University of Washington. “I always liked reading and writing,” Breneman says, “I worked on my high school newspaper in Richland, Washington, ‘Sandstorm.’”

Like many students when they first arrive on campus, Breneman was undecided about what subject to study. “I didn’t know what I wanted to major in when I got to the UW, and I was influenced to choose Communications by my love of writing and the movie, All the President’s Men,” she recalls. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, the 1976 Oscar-winning film focuses on “The Washington Post” reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they uncover damning details about the Watergate scandal. Their investigative efforts played a key role in President Richard Nixon’s eventual resignation. “Watergate had hit me hard as an idealistic teenager,” Breneman explains, “and seeing journalists being the heroes was inspiring.”

Breneman describes her undergraduate experience as “a pretty intense grind: classes, work, homework, sleep, rinse and repeat,” but one that ultimately made a huge difference in her life. “Since I came from a family where few of us had gone to college, just being in class, hearing from the great professors, doing the work and the reading–those basic building blocks expanded my mind and outlook,” she recalls. “I remember learning to write faster and edit better in my Newswriting class, and learning how to examine my assumptions and check sources in my Propaganda class.”

After earning her B.A. in Communications in 1978, Breneman worked as a technical editor and writer at Battelle, Boeing, and Weyerhaeuser. She then applied her skills to Seattle’s burgeoning software industry, transitioning eventually to focus on writing poetry, fiction, and essays. “Writing well is absolutely essential to just about any job,” Breneman insists. “I worked with so many engineers, scientists, and programmers who felt insecure about their writing and were shocked to find out they had to somehow, at minimum, learn to convey information clearly in order to succeed at their jobs.” In order to help others achieve success as storytellers, Breneman approached her work with a deep sense of empathy. “Lots of technical folks loved seeing me coming with my blue pencil and a sense of humor, ready to help them communicate better,” she remembers. “I enjoyed that role.” However, despite the fun she had during those early technology days, Breneman also recalls moments that were “demeaning and maddening.” One of the most important lessons she learned while in the technology industry was that the system rewards initiative, but it isn’t fair. “I was willing to take some personal risks and work hard, and the opportunities and rewards were there for me–but there wasn’t much that was fair or equitable about that environment,” Breneman admits. “Any time there’s a big disruption in human technology–like, say, the Internet–there’s going to be opportunity,” she reflects. “I hope in the future, the opportunities get distributed more fairly to everyone.”

A long-time advocate and supporter of the literary arts and humanities, Breneman recognized that “there is much life to be lived, and good to be done, outside the corporate environment,” so she turned her talents toward the foundation of a new literary center, the Richard Hugo House. “A place for writers,” Hugo House offers readings, classes, book launches, workshops, teen programs, consultations with professional writers, and many more resources for anyone who wants to write or have a space in which to celebrate words. Breneman reports that establishing the beloved Seattle organization has been one of the most surprising elements of her decades-long career. “I founded the center along with friends Frances McCue (a professor in the UW Department of English), and Andrea Lewis, and with the unflagging financial and emotional support of my friend, Linda Johnson,” Breneman says. “When we started the place, we had no idea it would become such a great organization; hosting Nobel prizewinners, helping to launch important careers and thought leaders, mentoring young people, and honoring the stories of everyone who wants to write.”

In 2000, Breneman received the Washington Humanities Award. She’s served on the boards of Hugo House, the UW Foundation, the Henry Art Gallery, Grantmakers in the Arts, and Town Hall. She is a decades-long member of two giving circles, the Washington Women’s Foundation and Social Venture Partners, and an advocate for thoughtful and creative philanthropy. Through her family foundation and the Ludus Project, she has supported the UW Communication Leadership program and the University’s epilepsy research efforts, as well as dozens of nonprofit organizations working in the arts, education, medical research, digital literacy, and environmental fields. She also publishes and writes for a website that reviews video games for families, Pixelkin.org. Breneman says that being a champion of the literary arts and creative philanthropy has convinced her that “all kinds of people have something to say and want to connect with others.” She explains how her experiences have taught her that “listening and asking questions is usually better than talking. You never know where the next great idea is going to come from.”

During every phase of her career, as well as in her personal life, Breneman says that she strives “to be honest, transparent about my beliefs and agendas, aware of my privilege, and open to constructive criticism. I don’t always succeed at these goals, but I do try.” When asked how she measures success, she says that she has reached the point in her life where “it’s not so much what I accomplish on a particular day that’s important to me–it’s that I put in the time on things I care about; giving money and time to causes and projects, meeting new people with interesting ideas, placing my butt in the chair and writing, connecting people who might spark each other–those are all tasks that I believe will pay dividends for me and for the world, if not right now, maybe someday.” Reflecting on the dozens of organizations in which she plays a role, she notes, “I often have meetings that I don’t think are going lead to cool things, but then they do. It’s nice to be surprised.”

As a lifelong writer, Breneman recognizes that the craft, in all its forms, is not without its challenges. “Writing is really difficult,” she says, sympathizing with many an artist who has come before her, and will follow thereafter. “School gives you a mindset and the skills to learn what you don’t know, but it takes time, practice, good teachers and mentors, failures, and experience to really get good at writing. Many people think writing is easy, but those are people who haven’t tried to do it.” However, she reiterates that writing well can be the foundation and the making of a career. “There’s nothing like being able to write a great speech and then delivering it in an inspiring way.” Breneman believes that successful writers are those who know their audience and, to the extent that it is possible, put themselves in their place. Once again, she cautions, “this is not easy.” Harkening back to her journalistic heroes, Breneman also stresses that “communicators have an obligation to speak up about how to check sources and make informed judgments. There are facts and there are lies, and there are practical ways to tell the difference.” She concludes with a gentle reminder, “It is possible to disagree respectfully.”