By Carlin Flora, published on September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
A single-minded dancer throughout her childhood and adolescence, Leah Dieterich hung up her toe shoes for good at 18, but still applies the prima ballerina's work ethic and delicate aesthetic to all her pursuits. Now 30, she's a creative director at a Los Angeles advertising firm who is best known for her website, thxthxthx.com, which offers longhand shows of appreciation for situations one normally doesn't note, never mind address directly. Cases in point: Dear Times When I See Someone I Kind of Know and Actually Go Up to Them and Say Hi, Instead of Pretending I Don't See Them Because I'm Shy/ Thanks for making me proud of myself; Dear Sore Muscles/ Thanks for being a physical manifestation of a sense of accomplishment; Dear Printed Reading Material/ Thanks for having an end. The Internet doesn't have one, so I never know when to stop.
The theme of your website and book is gratitude, but it seems you're particularly keyed into the notion that there is no joy without pain, no light without dark, etc.
That's really true. The impetus of the project was that my husband and I moved apart a few years ago, because he had an opportunity to do an artist's residency in New York. I had never lived alone at that point, because we've been together since I was 18. My life was in flux, so I started looking for the positive in negative situations—that's where the notes came from. I would think, "This sucks, but if everything were always going well, how would I know things were going well?" Contrasts allow you to see the good things.
Once you started putting your thank-you notes online, did it become different, knowing that others would read them?
I don't want to let readers down, so I'm motivated to keep going. And it's certainly reframed the way I look at the world, knowing that every day I have to put something out there that I'm grateful for. That makes me more subconsciously open to whatever that thing is going to be, and that's made my life better than before.
Do you see the website and your short films as very separate from your ad work?
They are separate, but one is essential to the other. I really don't think I would have done the website if I didn't work in advertising. When you're using writing skills to sell things you're not interested in at all, like violent video games, it takes a toll on you and makes you want to put something good into the world.
Also, being able to tell a story quickly, to cut away everything until it's a kernel of an idea, is something I've learned through advertising. The notes are very much like miniature stories or poems.
In the intro to your book, you quote David Foster Wallace as having said that sincerity would be the next literary rebellion. Could it be that it's now eccentric to be sincere?
I think so. When I first thought of doing this project, there seemed to be a general reaction of "Oh really? Is that like Chicken Soup for the Soul?" I myself had gotten sucked into the way people write online in general, which is so snarky. I was heartened by the fact that someone as smart as David Foster Wallace championed the idea of being really sincere. That meant I should not be embarrassed by this desire to be grateful and vulnerable to the world.
Why did you give up ballet?
It's such a hard world. You can dance professionally only until you're about 30. So I always knew that I would have to have another career anyway. All of my friends who kept dancing have had major surgeries by now.
I haven't danced ballet at all for 10 or 11 years. I just couldn't do it halfway. When you do something seriously and you're really great at it—to then do it in an amateur way, for me at least, was really not fun.
Was it a traumatic life transition, since ballet was your whole world?
I felt really sure of it, so it wasn't traumatic. Also, that's right when I met my husband. It made it not as hard to give up this huge part of my identity because I had this new situation that was going to consume parts of my identity.
Has all of this forced gratitude been therapeutic for you?
Yes, it's like cognitive-behavioral treatment. I wasn't seeing a therapist while I worked on the book, so maybe it was a replacement. Now I'm seeing one who is more psychoanalytic. We're digging deeper, which I think is good, because now that I've learned to see the world with sunny eyes, I'm ready to explore my past and some of the darker parts of myself.
Each therapy session is like writing a story out loud. That's given me so much inspiration for future projects. I'm thinking more about character motivation, which is a counterpoint to putting a happy spin on events.
The fact that you're still living apart from your husband after a few years—is that a choice that draws judgments?
Yes. I get a lot of push-back from my friends and family about it. They say, "That's great. But you're going to move back in together eventually, right?" Everyone is always trying to finish the story, but I'm not thinking that far ahead.