Ask yourself how you can help. For me, this is really critical because my writing is always about trying to help someone deal with a problem or challenge, usually one that I have dealt with myself. Look for the desire in your heart to tell a story that will help somebody. Ask yourself: can I help or heal through my writing? Then operationalize that desire. The passion will deliver.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Anuja Khemka, a New York City-based author, columnist, philanthropy leader and MSW working in education, and mental health and wellness. In 2020, she launched The Campfire Method (TM) to help parents use storytelling to not only connect with their children, but to build key strengths and mindsets to take on the unique challenges they face, such as bullying, self-doubt, body image issues, peer pressure, anxiety and overwhelm. The Campfire Method (TM) was selected for a weekly column on the preeminent wellness platform, Thrive Global. She has also developed a series of books to help children build a sense of self, a growth mindset, and resilience. In addition to that, Anuja is an active columnist on Forbes, where she shares tips for mom-entrepreneurs tackling work-life balance, anxiety, stress and burnout.
Anuja is currently the Executive Director of Children’s Hope India, an organization dedicated to bringing high-quality education, healthcare, nutrition, and skills attainment to the most vulnerable populations in India and New York. From 2017 to 2020, as Executive Director of national mental health equity nonprofit the Steve Fund, she partnered with universities around the country to rebuild their campuses as culturally-sensitive environments and support 2.5 million young people of color. In 2020, Anuja was selected by Crain’s New York Business as a 2020 Notable Woman in Healthcare for Mental Health. Anuja has spent 15 years in the corporate sector in senior roles, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, and JPMorgan Foundation. Her work has been featured in Parents, the Huffington Post, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and New York Times. You can follow her on Instagram @thecampfiremethod and on Facebook @thecampfiremethod.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I grew up listening to my grandmother tell stories all the time as a child, along with other people in my family. This made learning so much fun — stretching my imagination and transporting me to so many different worlds. Later in life, as I began to work with children and young people on mental health and emotional wellbeing issues, I saw a wonderful opportunity to share insights and techniques through the kinds of stories that fascinated me as a child. That’s how the Campfire Method was born. I created this method based on research that shows how storytelling helps children develop critical capacities such as empathy, generosity, gratitude, compassion and trustworthiness.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Some of my best memories have been working with vulnerable populations in India on creative expression projects: from working with sex workers’ kids to create a mural of underwater sea life in their drab Red Light District home, to doing art therapy in a women’s prison where inmates created beautiful designs that not only helped them express themselves but also gave them a source of income and lifeline outside of the prison. I also worked on a mobile school that went from slum to slum imparting education to underprivileged children. I remember reading stories to all of these populations — sex workers kids, slum kids, incarcerated women. The stories didn’t just provide an escape, but they also introduced role models and touched their souls.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Getting past rejection. I remember sharing the first story I ever wrote with my close friend and I was so sad to learn that it was not loved. I wondered if my skills and my calling were not aligned and decided to stop writing. But after a few months, I picked up the pen again and not only wrote a sing a long children’s book, a 10 part series for kindergarteners, and a magical book for middle schoolers, but I also got two columns on Forbes and Thrive Global — telling even more stories. It taught me that you have to pursue relentlessly what makes you come alive.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Yes! I just finished a children’s book series inspired by my best friend who passed away a few years ago and had some truly exceptional winning traits and attitudes that I wanted to share with other children. The series deals with some of the challenges young people face in their everyday lives and gives them tools to conquer their problems. In writing it, I got to relive my childhood, school days, and share some of the lessons that I wished someone had taught me at a young age — to know my value, to understand and operate from my strengths.
All the stories are based on real-life experiences where Aaka used her strong mindset to overcome everyday challenges. Each book deals with themes like bullying, self-esteem and embracing other cultures — and help share my friend’s special presence with young readers. I am also working on two columns that deal with mental health and emotional wellbeing. On Thrive Global, I am sharing ancient stories and fables that parents can share with their children while building their appreciation for cultural diversity, their sense of self, and their resilience. On Forbes, I write about the mental health and wellness tools today’s entrepreneurs and leaders use to overcome their own challenges.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
We know how important it is to nurture creativity in children. It helps them not only develop out their imaginations but to solve problems they encounter in life. In “What Did Aaka Do When the Party was Spoilt?” Aaka and her friends are celebrating at a birthday party when a storm comes and threatens to ruin the day. While the other kids grumble about the weather and prepare to go home, Aaka offers a fun and creative solution. She invites the gang outside for a raindance and to make paper boats to race in the puddles. Through Aaka’s story, readers are encouraged to focus on solutions, not problems, by maintaining a positive attitude and getting creative.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
One of the most important tools for navigating life’s challenges is knowing who you are and that you are enough. Unfortunately, a lot of messages to children, plus trends like bullying, encourage children to question and doubt themselves. One of the biggest themes in everything I write is how to know your own value. I believe that when you get to know yourself, your qualities and your strengths, you learn that you are worthy and you are enough — something that helps you stand up for yourself as well as others. I hope that readers of all ages come away with this lesson and can use the tools we provide in every story.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Write from your heart; feel what you are writing. A lot of people doubt their own writing and their voices, getting caught up in language choice and so on. The best way to connect with a reader isn’t about the words you use, but the sincerity of your story. ”What Did Aaka Do When Others Laughed at Her?” is based on a time when Aaka was body-shamed on the playground and how much that affected us. Whether it’s about weight, skin color, body type, so many kids deal with these issues and do not feel comfortable speaking with an adult about it. My hope is that the story can help start a conversation for parents and kids to face the issue and overcome it.
- Make sure the reader comes away with something special. A good book should create an engaging, uplifting and meaningful space for the reader. After reading it, they should walk away with something they can use, like an actual resource or tool. With the Aaka series, we really made sure that every story ended with tools and tips for both parents and children.
- Ask yourself how you can help. For me, this is really critical because my writing is always about trying to help someone deal with a problem or challenge, usually one that I have dealt with myself. Look for the desire in your heart to tell a story that will help somebody. Ask yourself: can I help or heal through my writing? Then operationalize that desire. The passion will deliver.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study). Can you share a story or example?
Perseverance has been very important to my career. I am always looking for different avenues and outlets to share my work and trying to think creatively about partnering with other people and platforms. It really comes down to not giving up, trying new things, and again, not giving up. Another good habit has been about sequencing: I have found that looking for one win, one good opportunity will often lead to another. Start small and keep building.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I love reading philosophy, old texts from around the world, fables and myths, and magical stories.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Mental health for children through storytelling. I’ve developed something called the Campfire Method that helps parents leverage the power of storytelling while also encouraging children to explore emotions, develop strong and positive mindsets, and emulate positive role models.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/thecampfiremethod/