Writing a Woman’s Life class/group

Once upon a time, I taught a writing class on Wednesday nights for the local arts center. Or maybe it was Tuesdays. I remember it was winter. I remember my divorce attorney attended, as a show of support. We met in person, for three hours at a time, armed with coffee, notebooks, and pens. Nobody ever brought a cellphone.

“Writing a Woman’s Life,” we called it. We would write in reaction to a prompt for an hour or two at a time and share what we had written, voices tremulous. Sometimes we were angry or sad. Sometimes we were funny. Sometime we started off funny and got angry as we went.

We were trying to uncover the truths of our lives, to grapple with and make sense of the things that had happened to us, to try to find our voices in a world that wanted us to shut the hell up.

The world still wants us to shut the hell up.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided to bring back that class. Then I realized that I didn’t, not that class; that was a class I taught when I was a different person. I wanted to bring a new “Writing a Woman’s Life” out into the world, but I realized it would need some changes.

•  It would need to be online so that people from anywhere could join in.
•  It would need to allow for ongoing enrollment so that people who found out about it a month from now could still benefit from it.
•  It would need to have options for people to share their work with no one else, or only with me, or with everyone in the class, or with the world.
•  It would need to provide instruction in the elements of craft so that writers could produce a piece of writing—art—whether that is a poem or an essay or a short story or a full-length memoir. In other words, we wouldn’t all just be keeping journal entries.
•  It would show how the process of revision helps writers discover what they are trying to say.
•  It would provide feedback so writers would know how to most effectively convey their message (but only if this feedback is desired).
•  And it would need to provide adequate compensation for my time and energy.

That’s quite a lot to ask from one class. But, here is the solution I came up with:

Writing a Woman’s Life is an ongoing class for exploring your life experiences through writing. You can enroll in it at any time. The cost is $49 per month (30 days). Each week, I will provide writing prompts, suggestions for working on craft, and examples of my own process—you’ll see me writing and revising my own work.

Students who are interested in sharing their work with others and in offering mutual support will be able to do so in a Facebook group. However, this is not required.

Each month (every 30 days), I will personally critique a piece of your work, of up to 2,000 words (for longer pieces we can work something out). If you don’t have anything to share that month, that’s fine—but the critiques can’t be rolled over from month to month without an explicit agreement (otherwise my schedule would quickly become impossible).

You will not be automatically enrolled in a subscription. After you enroll in your first month, I will send a reminder out when your month is coming to an end and you can decide if you want to re-enroll. (I may send out a few follow-up emails as reminders, but I will stop after three.) You can stop for a while and then jump in again. The idea is for this to be flexible for all of us.

If I decide, owing to lack of enrollment or for other reasons, to discontinue the class, I will give everyone at least a month’s notice that we’ll be wrapping things up. I don’t know how this will go, so I may have to change some elements, but I am committed to keeping the cost reasonable and to providing direct feedback to each student who wants it.

The first week will begin October 15, 2018. Anyone who enrolls before then will be considered to start on October 15, so your first month will end November 14.

A Paypal button is below, or you can just Paypal me the $49 to jennifer@jenniferlawler.com. If you would prefer to pay by check or another way, let me know (use the above email address) and we’ll work something out.




About me:

Jennifer Lawler is the author or coauthor of more than forty nonfiction books and novels, including her popular and award-winning Dojo Wisdom series (Penguin). Her personal essays have appeared in publications such as Family Circle, Neurology Now, Minnesota Monthly, and the Chicken Soup book series. Her blog post, “For Jessica,” went viral some years ago and and became a Nieman Notable Narrative. She recently published a humorous memoir, The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman.

She has taught writing and editing classes for many membership organizations, colleges, and universities.

She has worked for many years as a freelance book development editor on a wide range of editorial projects for traditional book publishers as well as independent authors.

She earned her Ph.D in medieval English literature from the University of Kansas and a black belt in Taekwondo at approximately the same time. She hasn’t quite decided which has been more helpful in her career.

Growing Your Freelance Career

When you first begin freelancing, it’s like being parachuted, blindfolded, into a ten-acre field you’ve never seen before and your job is to grow a crop. You have no idea where you are or what the soil is like or what the seasons will bring or what grows here. You’ve got a plow, or maybe a shovel, depending on your skill level, and you don’t even know where to get seeds to plant.

At this point, some people give up and go work on someone else’s farm.

But if you stick with it, you start to get a better idea of where you are: Minnesota or Arizona. And you have a clearer idea of what grows here: cactus or corn. But other people around you seem to be doing better planting soybeans or apple trees and maybe you should, too. And still other people are selling up and trying again in Oklahoma, where the soil is better for wheat. Or so everyone says.

Now you have alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or you could change your crop, or you could move. Or you could stick with what you’re doing.

Later, you get to the point where you’re growing cucumbers, amazing cucumbers, you’re good at cucumbers but now no one is buying cucumbers. Should you keep growing them? Maybe the cucumber market will bounce back and you just need to be patient. Who doesn’t like cucumbers? Surely there will be buyers again soon. Maybe you just need to remind everyone of how delicious Greek salad is, with all those tasty cucumbers. Maybe you should partner with someone who produces feta cheese!

Now you have many more alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or change your crop, or move, or change your marketing plan, or form a strategic partnership, or just stick with what you’re doing.

In other words, you thought you had challenges when you started? The one thing you can count on in freelancing is change. There is never a point where you have it all figured out. If you think you do, you don’t.

Which, conveniently, brings me to my main point: Be firm in purpose but flexible in your means.

As the market has changed, as I have changed, my career has gone through countless iterations and corrections. Through it all, I have maintained my core purpose in freelancing: to be able to raise my daughter, with all of her challenges, in the least restrictive and most supportive way. This has always meant earning a reasonable income and having almost total control over my schedule.

Secondarily, I wanted to grow my craft as a writer and an editor. So I try to choose projects and approaches that keep me challenged. It’s why I’m not doing the same work I was doing ten years ago.

Through the years, I’ve been a nonfiction book author, a magazine writer (then a magazine editor), a book development editor, a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, a novelist, and a teacher. These are all related but they are by no means the same thing. At each turn, I had to find ways to learn new skills and to “empty the cup” of what I knew so that I could find out news ways of doing things.

Change makes it easy to doubt yourself. It can make it difficult for you to find clarity about next steps. At those times, I go back to my core principle. Is it still meaningful to me, the most important priority? If it’s not, then I reflect on what my new principle is, and see how that affects my next steps. For example, as my daughter has gotten older, my need for total control over my schedule has lessened. That makes it possible for me to consider new paths that weren’t available before.

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On Aging Well

Whenever I look in the mirror, I’m always surprised to see all the silver in my hair. How did that happen? Last I checked, I was nineteen. Of course, with a twenty-year-old daughter, I can’t still be nineteen but I can pretend.

A few weeks ago, I started re-reading the Travis McGee mystery/suspense series by John D. MacDonald and realized I loved them as much as always. Some of the attitudes are a bit outdated but McGee was surprisingly ahead of his times. In contrast, a suspense novel written by Helen MacInnes (who was very popular around the time of WWII) didn’t hold up as well. I’d enjoyed it when I was younger but couldn’t even finish it now.

Have you ever re-read a beloved story only to find it hasn’t weathered the years well? Do tell!

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Don’t forget to join the club – my online book club (on Facebook) for lovers of mystery and suspense. Join here!

Spatial Relations

An excerpt from The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman (now available!)

The cab driver has intense crazy eyes. I see this right away as he stands by his cab, waiting for a fare. The crazy eyes make him my kind of guy so I hand over the bags and tell him where we’re headed.

We’re in Munich. Since I was bred on war movies and spy thrillers, the word Munich sends a little shiver down my spine.

It turns out that Munich is charming, and that somehow makes it worse, because it’s not melodrama that way, with leering villains twirling their mustaches, it’s ordinary people, people who smile and hold open a door, who do the nightmare things. People like you and me. You and me. I think I speak for all of us when I say I would much prefer it to be monsters, the kind you can see coming from a mile off.

Eventually I integrate this new knowledge with the old, that this place can have contained horrifying acts while brilliant red begonias spill out of window boxes and everyone has a friendly smile (“That’s because they know you’re leaving,” a cynical acquaintance tells me later.)

The cab driver turns onto a narrow cobblestone path that cannot correctly be called a street but he drives down it anyway in order to deliver us to our pension in Marienplatz.

Here there is another blonde Ukrainian but also behold: a lift, the first lift in all Europe. It is too small for more than one person at a time, so I put Jessica aboard with a bag, then tromp up the stairs with everything else to meet her on the third floor, the duffel bag hitting my butt with each step.

We get inside the room and I collapse on one of the beds for a minute and she says, “Good thing there’s an elevator.”

When I am capable of ambulation, which doesn’t take as long as Jessica thinks, we go out into the plaza. Our travel rule is that we must first explore the area around our hotel so that we can always figure out how to get back.

Just down the alley from our pension I spot a clock tower.

“Look,” I say. “That’s perfect. The clock tower marks the spot where we’re staying.”

It turns out that this would work better if there weren’t clock towers on every street corner in Munich.

“Okay,” I revise. “The clock tower by the tourist shop that sells gingerbread.”

Then: “Okay, the clock tower by the gingerbread shop that is triangular in shape, not square like that one—”

In this higgledy-piggledy collection of buildings in the city center, you could conceivably trudge aimlessly for a week without ever finding your way back to wherever you are staying.

“On the prairie, they lay everything out in a nice grid,” I say to Jessica. “The numbered streets run east-west and the named streets run north-south, or vice versa, and either way you always know where you are in relation to where you want to be.”

“Uh huh,” says Jessica. She doesn’t tune me out a lot but when she does, it’s fairly decisive.

We wander the streets and I marvel at the buildings. They look so German! Just what they are supposed to be. In the square is the famous glockenspiel, and it is exactly right, too. I find that I am standing behind a man playing accordion in front of said glockenspiel, which means I am in a million summer vacation pictures. I step aside as a woman in a bright red hat pedals her bike past.

A boy is chasing pigeons while another is feeding them. Both are about the same age. I think this is the world writ small: half the people think it’s okay to do whatever you want no matter how terrifying it is to the pigeon, and the other half is trying to save the world from the first half.

Then I realize there is a third role, mine: the one who is watching.

We stop for ice cream at a stand run by a tall blond young man with icy blue eyes, exactly the kind of guy you see playing the part of a skinhead in a movie. Every time we stop by, he remembers that it’s still, not sparkling, water for me and vanilla ice cream for her. He flirts with both of us impartially the entire time we’re in Munich. He is adorable and scary.

“Okay, so we’re staying at the pension near the corner that has a triangle-shaped gingerbread shop by the clock tower with the ice cream stand at a diagonal to it.”

“Or you could write down the names of the streets,” Jessica says.

“That would be a map.”

“What’s wrong with a map?”

“Maps are two dimensional. The world is three dimensional. What I have to do is somehow get the three dimensional world my body inhabits to mesh with the two dimensional map I can read on a piece of paper, but my brain does not like this task. However, if I wander around and look at things, eventually my brain makes its own map.”

“Uh huh,” Jessica says.

In this we are opposite. Jessica can look at things but she won’t remember them. Unlike me, she can look at a map and use it to get from here to there.

I pluck one from the stand at the square-shaped gingerbread shop and hand over a few euros.

“Here.” I give it to Jessica. “Between the two of us, we’ll always find our way back.”

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The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman is now available in print and ebook formats.

If you’re looking for a lovely Mother’s Day gift, check out Jessica’s glass at www.jessicalawlerkay.com. Order by May 8 to ensure delivery in time for Mother’s Day!

(excerpt from) The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman

Adventures POD cover needs spine width

Let me state for the record that all of the things I have done in life made sense at the time. I have never once thought, “Well, this will be an expensive, foolish, and ultimately useless endeavor. Where do I sign up?” No, I always think it is absolutely the right course of action under the circumstances.

Graduate school: Where else do you go when you keep getting fired from jobs?
Martial arts: Obviously I was trying to quit smoking.
Marriage: A transparent ploy to get my parents off my back.

When my daughter was born with oh let’s call it special needs, it was not unlike a nuclear bomb going off in the middle of my life. At that point in time my idea of a challenge was a hotel without room service.

When the neurology resident said, “Your daughter’s brain is massively deformed,” I wasn’t thinking serious thoughts like, What is the prognosis? and What are the best treatment options? I was thinking WTF? WTF? not unlike a squirrel running up and down an oak tree.

Now an adult, Jessica moves slowly and carefully but loves to dance. She has a serious cognitive impairment but enjoys philosophical debates about abstract concepts like truth and justice. She has a significant visual impairment and needs help navigating unfamiliar terrain but is an inspired glass artist.

Over the years, I learned how to be the kind of woman who could raise this child. But that is not today’s story. Today’s story is about what happened after that, when all the dramatic action paused for a moment and I took a breath, and thought about me. At first it went like this: me me me me me glorious me! Then I began having deeper thoughts, which is a course of action I cannot in good conscience recommend to other people. Introspection is a dangerous activity when not handled correctly. Proceed at your own risk.

from The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman