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 New Year’s revolutions

Every year, my daughter Jessica asks me if we are going to write down our revolutions, which is what she calls them. I have stopped correcting her because she is right, they are revolutions, not resolutions. They are the same each year:

  • Be happy
  • Do good work
  • Love each other
  • Be strong

We put the list on the refrigerator so we can see it all the time and remember who we are supposed to be.

Last year she asked if we could add “be patient” because one of us who shall remain nameless responds passionately to instances of injustice, or, in certain people’s words, “has a quick temper.”

Interestingly enough, “be patient” did not just help me remember to be patient with clients, small neighborhood children, and beloved daughters but it reminded me to be patient with myself. I started saying Take your time to me as well as everyone else, and although I have not transformed into an example of Zen tranquility and never will, I have learned that if you slow down a little you make fewer mistakes of all kinds.

This year, Jessica wanted to add “no arguing” but I said I was only human, plus she takes after me in the “bullheaded and stubborn” category. I pointed out that there were times when she herself started arguments, and occasionally she has won them. In conclusion, I argued (ha!), “no arguing” was unrealistic.  She amended it to “arguing only when it is very important, such as when it involves badly needed princess dolls.”

In the end, we boiled it down to Find a Way, which we agree will help us focus on finding solutions and not on deciding who is right/has the loudest voice.

This turned out to be important. I had originally planned to write a series of blog posts about our travels this past fall. And several people have asked about the very obvious midlife crisis I have been suffering and I wanted to provide some updates but the blog just hasn’t felt like the right place to do all of this.

I couldn’t figure out how to make sense of everything until I sat down and started writing.

And it turned into a book. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone but me but the travels, the writing, and the midlife whatsis are all part of the same inner work I’ve been doing, which I like to call The Way of WTF?

The beauty of the Way of WTF? is you do not need to meditate or cloister yourself away from the world, you just have to be willing to say WTF? on a regular basis and not have to have an answer.

So my personal goal for 2017 is to finish this book even through all the doubt and questioning I know it will bring. I have a sense that I will need the Find a Way revolution a lot.

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Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available on Amazon in print and ebook.

Catch a Falling Star  and Lessons in Magic (both by my alter ego Jessica Starre) are still two of my favorite novels.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter on my home page! You never know when I’m going to give away random good stuff.

 

On shedding illusions

Trust your cape, the guy with the guitar sings. Life is a leap of faith.

He is a middle-aged smiling man, busking at the plaza in historic Santa Fe on a warm summer afternoon. I’m here with Jessica, a few months after her high school graduation.

Our trip to Europe will begin later in the month, and I have a lot to do: sort through everything we own, donate what we no longer need, stuff everything else into a storage unit, pack for six weeks on the road in Europe and an indefinite amount of time after that, finish three editorial projects I’m working on, write a newsletter. If I had any shred of sense left, which apparently I do not, I would be at home doing those things. Or at least making lists about them.

But I am not. My face is lifted to the sun approximately eight hundred miles away from the packing that needs to be done and there is neither a pen nor a pad of paper within reach. I am here because I’m tired of being there.

Across the way, a man says to his companion, “What is that called? When you save for retirement?”

And I laugh. I don’t know what that’s called either. If I had any shred of sense left, which apparently I do not, I would be stuffing my money in an IRA instead of spending it on plane tickets and traveling shoes. Or at least not laughing about my recklessness.

I am a Woman Without a Plan.

It wasn’t always this way. For a long time I was the most goal-oriented person you have ever met, your traditional Type A control freak, and I was good at it. I loved piling up accomplishments, even the weird ones like breaking concrete blocks with my hands, until one day I didn’t. What I have accomplished by doing, doing, doing turns out to have been a deception.

I have deceived myself.

I have deceived myself into thinking that somehow there is happiness at the end of a goal, no different from leprechauns, rainbows, and pots of gold. That success will somehow give my life meaning. That doing just one more thing will make me what I am not, that this time scratching the last item off my list will be enough.

I am restless, I am always on a journey, I am always looking for something. The goals, the accomplishments—they have all been intended to cure that, to make me into what I am not. All this time scrabbling and clawing and for what? To turn myself into someone I cannot be?

At first I am bitter and disillusioned. I had believed from the time I was very young that if only I could be a writer, I would be healed. But I’m not healed and can never be healed, and the knowing is like a wound from a brightly colored scorpion. Then I try to fix myself in another way. I meditate, I live in the present, I do yoga. It works for a little while, until I finally understand enough of what I am experiencing to realize the truth.

I am restless, I am always on a journey, I am always looking for something. And that is how I will always be.

I have spent a great deal of my life trying to unmake myself. Now, for the first time, I am embracing my restlessness. I am shedding the accretions from my life.

I am shaking out my cape.

Like the man says. Life is a leap of faith.

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Jess and I are actually back from our European travels but it takes a while for the words to catch up with us, so stay tuned because you will almost certainly want to hear about how I found myself plummeting to my death on the coast of Ireland.  Right now I am currently working on a project, The Writer’s Grimoire, and if you would like to be a beta reader, drop me a line at jennifer@jenniferlawler.com. Also, don’t forget that Travels with Jessicaa recounting of our earlier adventures, is available everywhere online.

On how to see

I am doing an in-person interview because the editor who has hired me to write the piece I’m working on prefers her writers to do in-person interviews. This is important only because while I understand the point—it helps build rapport with someone you are about to ask a bunch of very personal questions—I am thinking of time, and how I don’t have time for this, for shoes and combing my hair and driving into town and hunting for a parking spot.

The magazine is paying me a lot of money so I am making the time. But I don’t have it. I am working on a developmental edit with a tight deadline and teaching a feedback-intensive class and trying to deal with Jessica transitioning from pediatric to adult medical services, which for a lot of people amounts to making a new patient appointment with an internist but not for Jessica. For one thing, I have to deal with a bunch of people who refuse to talk to me, despite my being her legal guardian, because she is eighteen. Apparently Jessica is the only young adult in the world who isn’t fully capable of taking care of herself. Anyway, don’t get me started.

She is living with me full-time now. For a few years she split her time more or less equally between her father and me but now she is living with me. In her idea of the world, she is a grown up and we are roommates.

In my idea of the world, I love her dearly and I would never consider her a burden but she takes so much time.

I have a novel I am trying to finish and I hate the novel but I would like to finish it but I am doing all the paying work because it is available and I like to stack up money in the bank for when the work slows down, which it will, inevitably.

Right now there is no time so I am cramming together the interview with buying some lentils at the grocery store and picking up some of Jessica’s glass from the ceramicist who fires it.

I arrive at the studio and she begins packing the pieces in bubble wrap and placing them in a box. There are a few candleholders that turned out very well and then some trays, and we both frown down at the trays, our hands on our hips.

The glass has bubbled. It looks as if the bubbles you get in a pot of boiling water have hardened, as if this were the glass version of the bubble wrap Melissa is using. I have never seen this happen before and I don’t know why it has. I do know that glass is hideously expensive. All I can see is a hundred and thirty five dollars I might as well have set on fire.

“I wonder if it’s the glue,” Melissa ventures but I shake my head.

“It’s the same glue as always. And she only put a little on the corners to hold the pieces in place, not where the bubbling is.”

I frown. Jessica is trying a new approach, fusing big slabs of glass together, then slumping them into shapes, but something is going wrong in the process. It’s always something. Like with my writing. Just when I think I know what I’m doing, it turns out I don’t have the slightest clue. This is why I hate the novel I’m working on; it has bubbles like this and I don’t know how to fix it.

Jessica doesn’t have the technical knowledge to understand what’s happening; kilns and cones and firing cycles are too complex for her to understand. It is one more thing for me to figure out and I don’t have time. It is an especially difficult challenge when someone else is doing the firing. If I had my own kiln, I would test until I found out but to have my own kiln I would need my own house or at least my own studio; the small rental I live in with Jess has no room for a kiln. Plus imagine trying to explain to the landlord.

So I have to buy a house with a shed out back and hire an electrician to install the commercial 220 volt power I need and so far I haven’t been able to scrounge together a down payment. I don’t know why she couldn’t have found something simpler to love, like horses. Her grandmother has a barn and a pasture. Horses would have been simpler.

But glass is her thing and I respect that and I understand that this is all part of the process; it is like the one million words I’ve written that will never see the light of day because they were the wrong words in the wrong order. But it is an expensive process, costing more time and money than I have.

“I suppose it could be air getting in between the layers,” Melissa says. “These big slabs . . . air might be getting under.”

I nod. “Right, and to secure the pieces so no air gets in, you’d have to use a lot of glue and that much glue will burn.” We’ve had that happen before. Two hundred and fifty dollars of glass with burns on it.

I sigh. I will have to see what I can find out about the problem and how to fix it. Maybe the people who run the glass society I joined a few months ago will know or could recommend a book.

“Thanks,” I say, and carry the box to the car and wonder how I am supposed to keep doing it all, forever, keeping my daughter’s dreams alive and my own, too, while making sure we have a roof over our heads and food on the table. I am fifty-one years old and it should be easier by now; I should know how to do this but somehow I never do.

I am just in time to pick up Jess from school. When we get home, we unpack the glass. I lift one of the candleholders to the light.

“Look at that,” I say. “Gorgeous.”

But she is not looking at the candleholder. She has taken out the trays. She has removed the wrappings and set the pieces on the table. She is running her fingers over them, studying the bubbles with her fingertips. She leans down to look at each tray in turn. The bubbles have formed in different patterns.

“I wonder how that happened,” she says.

“Not sure. I talked to Melissa—”

She looks up at me. “I love the texture. It is like the glass is breathing. It is like it is alive. If you look hard enough you can see it move. I want to do more just like this next time. I will try to get more bubbles in. Mom, aren’t these beautiful?”

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Week 9. On practicing perfectly

One of the things I love about writing is getting into that mental state where the words come effortlessly, without my having to think too hard about it. That moment where I’m lost in the work, and have no awareness of the ticking clock or the buzzing fly. Just me and the work. Beautiful. Zen.

Unfortunately, flow is also a state where you, or at least I, can produce an endless amount of crap. Flow, by its nature, circumvents the editor on your shoulder who hates every other word you write. Now, often the editor on your shoulder will keep you from writing if you let her, so you have to find a way to shut her up. One way is to just get into flow, where she can’t follow you. EOTS hates flow.

On the other hand, the editor on your shoulder is often right. You’re writing crap, and you need to do better.

Here’s the thing: practice does not make perfect (this is something we learn in martial arts). Perfect practice makes perfect. That is to say, if you practice a sloppy kick ten thousand times, all you’ve learned how to do is kick in a sloppy way. That is not mastery. It’s not even competence.

So the problem with flow is that it can be sloppy, and not in an organic, generative way where you can make something of it. It can be a form of masturbation. And while you may enjoy that, no one else really wants to see it.

When you’re doing the work, you need to be able to do the work even without flow. Even with the editor on your shoulder criticizing every third word. Even when it’s just no fun at all.