Interview with award-winning journalist and artist Natalia Dagenhart

Natalia Dagenhart is an award-winning independent writer and artist from Naperville, Illinois. She writes about cultural and social events happening in the Chicago area and in the world. Natalia received the Journalist of the Year 2018 Award from Congressman Danny K. Davis on October 28, 2018. Her brand, "Articles by Natalia Dagenhart," will celebrate its anniversary on November 11, 2018. We have conducted an interview with Natalia.

What makes you different from other writers and why should such organizations as orchestras, PR agencies, cultural centers and educational institutions hire you?

My writing style. Being an independent journalist and writer, I am my own boss and have freedom to write the way I want. People call the way I write sincere and unique. My slogan is "Combining a personable style of writing and great care to details." I write from my heart, yet I am very detail-oriented. Each story I treat individually and believe that a writer has to be honest, objective and sincere. I love writing and can't imagine my life without it. Writing comes naturally to me. I do a lot of research and take every story personally. I don't rush when I write, so I devote a great amount of time and attention to every article and find things that will help me to introduce the subject and/or person in the best possible way.

I mostly concentrate on writing about classical music events. As a former musician, I understand classical music and know how to describe different nuances of it in a professional, yet simple way that can be understood by various audiences, not only by music professionals. I write for people. I have written stories about events organized by Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago a cappella, New Philharmonic Orchestra, Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church of Naperville, Chicago Sinfonietta, Young Naperville Singers, DuPage Symphony Orchestra, West Suburban Symphony, The 5 Browns, Judson University, Moscow Festival Ballet, and Russian National Ballet Theatre. I am also proud to contribute my articles to Lyric Opera of Chicago and write about numerous opera singers including Lawrence Brownlee and Albina Shagimuratova. I also can write about any topic or subject, such as, for example, bombings at the Boston Marathon, terrorist attacks or a sick child whose mother doesn't give up and fights for her life. I also wrote a number of articles about famous people such as Queen Noor of Jordan, Nick Vujicic, Cameron Diaz, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, and many others. I wrote a few articles about Immortal Regiment, a worldwide action that is dedicated to honoring World War II veterans. Three of us, my friends Anna Troshina, Alena Toropov and I, organized this annual action in Chicago in 2016 and I am happy to write about it.

How did you come to journalism and writing? 

I am originally from Russia where I worked as a television journalist for a few years. I covered social and cultural events happening in our city. When 16 years ago I came to the USA, I had to go back to school and study English. I also had to give up on being a journalist in this country. At least, that was how I first felt. I tried many different jobs, got 2 more degrees (my first degree is in teaching music in elementary and middle school in Russia), but finally I came back to journalism. I love every day of my life now because I do what I like to do. Also, as a former musician, I love writing about classical music events and attending them. I get a lot of energy from these concerts! Classical music is very powerful, I believe it's coming from somewhere in the Universe. We all should use the great energy that classical music provides us. Plus, it has a healing power. Why not use it while enjoying the magnificent sounds of music? Just imagine - someone who lived two, three hundred years ago composed something, the person died, but their music keeps pleasing people, keeps making them happy. Isn't it amazing?

In this country, I started writing 5 years ago when I contributed my first article that was called "A World Premiere Comes to Naperville" to the websites of Chicago Tribune and Patch. I still remember that day. It was an article about the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir that performed at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church here, in Naperville, as part of Concerts at Ss. Peter and Paul. Since then, I have written tons of articles about various cultural events in the Chicago area. I contributed my articles to the website of Chicago Tribune for almost 4 years, and I am still contributing my articles to Patch. Since 2016, I have been contributing my articles to the website of Daily Herald. I also have my own website where I post my articles:

What does it mean to be an immigrant-journalist? Is it hard? After all, English is your second language, and you received the Journalist of the Year Award!

It is hard to be an immigrant. You have to literally get reborn. You have to learn the language, the customs, the manners, and change your mentality, at least partially. You have to fit in. Otherwise, you always will be a stranger. As a former journalist, I understood that language is everything. That's why I went back to school, even though I was already in my thirties. I knew I had to learn how to communicate. I remember, when I first came to this country, I didn't know how to drive or how to express myself properly, and I didn't understand why people reacted this or that way and what made them laugh, for example. When I first came to America, I thought that I knew some English because I studied it at school in Russia. However, we studied British English, which is different, plus it was many years ago. I remember not being able to order a sandwich at Subway and running away in tears in 2002, during my first year in this country. However, it just motivated me to study more. I am very persistent and goal-oriented, and if I decide to achieve something, I do. I was an A student at college here, in America, and was always very determined and always worked hard. I still do. Every day I learn new words and expressions. It is a never-ending process. I believe that as a result of my hard work and perseverance I got the Journalist of the Year 2018 Award from His Honor Congressman Danny K. Davis. I will cherish this award forever. It means a lot to me. When I look at it, I remember my long, sleepless nights writing, writing and writing. Being a full-time mom and a housewife, I have to find time for everything, and I do. In some ways, writing is a way for me to express myself. I always work with my heart and wouldn't write about things that don't touch my soul. I have to get the story that I write about literally through myself, and then I produce the best result. Also, being a Russian-American, I feel that my mission is to bring people of our countries together, show them the beauty of our cultures, our customs, and our history.

So, you said that you contribute your articles. Does it mean that you are getting paid by newspapers?

No. I am not their staff member, so usually I don't get paid by the newspapers. On a few occasions, I have written articles as a freelance writer and have been paid by a newspaper. Sometimes I also get paid by creative individuals who want me to write about them. Oftentimes big, world-renowned companies invite me to their events and want me to write for them. They do that because they like the way I present their events in my writings. It helps me to promote my name and my brand and demonstrate my skills and unique writing style. I think outside of the box. The way I write catches attention, and I know how to do that. Each article is a puzzle for me; I just have to put all the parts together in the right way. I love to use quotes in my articles because I believe that nothing can beat the wisdom of great people. I love studying the circumstances in which composers wrote their music, for example, because I want to feel what they felt and want to know what they went through when they composed this or that piece. At the moment, I enjoy being my own boss, having my own schedule and writing without any instructions from anyone. However, if someday there would be an organization that would love the way I write and would let me work for them while still preserving my individual style of writing and give me freedom to do that, I would gladly accept their offer. Meanwhile, I enjoy writing and am looking for more ways to make my work more profitable. I keep my eyes and ears open to any new opportunities and possibilities.

What else do you do? We found out you are also an award-winning artist and a songwriter. Also, is it true that you participated in the Mrs. Illinois pageant a few years ago?

Yes, I am a self-taught artist. I started painting in December 2012. I paint with acrylics. I started with abstract, and that is what I did for the first couple of years. However, I am very interested in painting faces. I love to observe people, their emotions, character and personality. It attracts me as an artist. Every little move, muscle of the face, wrinkle - you name it! – tells the whole life story of the person, and I love showing it with paints. I forget to eat when I paint. Thank God, I always have a bottle of water next to me and at least drink. I turn on classical music when I paint; it gives me energy. I choose music depending on what I am painting; each piece carries different energy - sometimes it is sad, sometimes victorious, sometimes thoughtful.

Painting is just another way to express my feelings and emotions. Since 2013, I am a member of the Naperville Art League where I recently received three awards: Best of Show for the “Portrait of Unknown Woman” in February 2017, Merit Award for the “Portrait of Liza Minnelli” in February 2018 (both are part of the annual Fabulous Fakes art show), and Merit Award for painting "Euterpe" in October 2018. Euterpe was one of the nine Muses, the goddesses of music, song and dance. She is presiding over lyric poetry and music. I painted her because I feel deeply connected to her. She gives me positive energy, and she helped me to get that award!

I also wrote a lot of music and songs in Russian when I still lived in Russia. I published a book of my poetry in Russian in 2016 and a shorter version of it in 2017. I also translated a book "Three Simple Rules" by Rueben P. Job from English into Russian in 2014. One of my songs called "Snyeg Letit" (Snow is falling) was performed here, in Naperville, in December 2014 by Young Naperville Singers as part of their annual Christmas concert. It was one of the best days in my life! Hundreds of people in the audience heard it, plus the concert was recorded and distributed in the form of CD and DVD. The year of 2014 was in general very interesting and productive for me. In April I participated in the Mrs. Illinois/America Pageant. It was fun! I didn't win anything, but the fact that I was brave enough to come on stage in my middle forties and represent Naperville - being a Russian-American - it is by itself worth a lot! And, of course, I wrote an article about myself and my experience and posted it on the websites of Chicago Tribune and Patch.

Now I am working on promoting my song "Bird" that I wrote about 20 years ago in Russia. It was originally written in Russian, but recently I translated it into English. I raise money now for the professional arrangement of this song and would love to share it with everyone! It is a powerful song about reviving after going through difficult times. You can listen to it on YouTube. Also, recently I finished translating from Russian into English a song called "Live" (Zhit) which is part of a big social project in Russia that was started by Russian composer Igor Matvienko. I made an a cappella arrangement of this song and soon will start looking for vocal ensembles that would agree to perform it in front of American audiences. This song carries very wise and kind thoughts about the value of life and its meaning. I believe it will help our nations understand each other better. We have good people everywhere; let’s build bridges between all the people using the means of music.

I will always try to make this world more beautiful; whether through my writings, my poetry, my music or my art. However, first of all I am a writer. It is my destiny. I will keep writing as long as I can and will always do it from my heart.

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