In this summer edition audio interview, we hear from Amelia (age 8), the author and illustrator of "Love Never Comes Without War", which was published as part of her third grade curriculum. (Not available for sale.) Amelia reads an excerpt from her new work, gives her advice on writing and more.
I can't remember in which of the tens of Madeleine L'Engle books I read in my twenties she wrote about her work as a writer and mother as serving two vocations, but the phrase has been seldom from my mind these last weeks and months. When the religious speak of vocation, they are pointing to something distinctive from occupation, something with an element of calling to it, something with a layer of devotion that goes beyond punching a clock.
For instance, no parent I know thinks of that role as an occupation. It's a role so constant that it blurs the line betweeen a state of being and a state of doing. A parent does not cease to be a parent after the children go to bed--one sleeps lightly and snaps awake at the sound of children in the night. Nor does one cease to be a parent after the children are grown with separate residences of their own. Just ask my mother how often I still call to say, "Do you think this meat is still good?" or "I think I'm getting sick."
So it is, too, with being artists, writers, creatives of all kinds. One doesn't cease to see the world with a certain studious eye, even after leaving the studio for the day. I can't even slip out for an afternoon "off" at the cinema without noticing and admiring the edits, the acting performances that are so true I feel something in my gut, the lines of dialogue that change the way I see the world forever, or the cinematography that takes my breath away. I also think many creatives have a sense of being chosen by, rather than solely choosing their work. If it were just about occupation, I'd be a barista, or maybe punch in for some company with sweet benefits. There's a way I feel pursued by this work, like I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I left it undone.
When I walk down the street and there is a small hand inside each of my own, it's like I drop down into a deep well. I can get lost in being with the girls, in our quiet rhythm, in the simple joys of steaming morning milk and washing dishes with the record player spinning and the twinkle lights all aglow. It's like a country I could live in forever.
The same is true when I lose myself in my work. Time stretches or races or simply ceases to be. I feel like there's nowhere else I'd rather be, nothing else I'd rather be doing. When I'm serving one vocation or the other, I sink down deep into the well and I am the rope, I am the bucket, and then I am the water. It feels like bliss. It feels like joy.
But here's the catch--it's not easy to serve two vocations at once. I can't go so deep down that I can no longer see the sky. I have to remember to look at the clock at least once before it is three o'clock and my little ones are waiting for my face to appear in the crowd, for my embrace and our conversations about the day on the walk home. And I can't get so comfortable with my cozy little family that I don't get out to shows or back on stage, or back to the studio projects that have been waiting to be finished.
I am still a beginner in this dance of two vocations. Maybe it's like my friends who are from one country but now live in another--both places hold a piece of their hearts, and they are always longing, even while they are always home.
My closest friends know that silence is something that can really mess with my mind. My default inner dialogue goes something like this:
I blew it. Something happened and now they've decided we're not friends anymore. Or they just can't take it (me) any longer. But actually saying so is too awkward or uncomfortable, so they are just going to ignore my email and hope I'm not too dull to get the point.
Or with people to whom I submit some work:
I'm probably such a colossal disappointment to them that I've left them speechless with dismay. They thought I could deliver something that I clearly cannot and they cannot find a graceful way out.
There's enough dysfunction here that we could spend the whole day untangling it, but all one really needs to know is that I come by this honestly. More and more I'm bringing my awareness to this unhelpful pattern and I'm learning to talk myself through other possibilities for silence, like this:
Maybe their phones died and they are still sleeping and they haven't had a chance to check email yet. Maybe they are sick, or had an accident. Maybe one of them got hit by a bus on the way home from work yesterday and they both spent the night in the hospital where everyone knows cell phone reception sucks.
Maybe she had a death in the family or she was suddenly sacked from her job and doesn't have access to that email address anymore. Maybe she's having a personal crisis or transition and a few months from now when she finally comes up for air and the dust settles she will remember me and drop me a line again.
I am not making this up--I have literally said these things out loud to my husband in all seriousness. And I have to report, this is tremendous progress for me.
This is what is on my mind this morning when I think of my quietness in this space. For someone who's so sensitive to silence, I think, you sure throw your share around without much regard.
But silence can mean many things, I am learning. Silence can come when something is being born, when something is mending, when the timing hasn't quite lined up. Sometimes there is nothing to say, or the words are on strike until that timing thing is resolved. It is with words as with everything--there is a time to give and a time to receive, a time to make things and a time to rest. A time for the words to go one place and a time to go to another.
I am quiet these days because I am working so steadily on good things to share with you. I am receiving final deliveries and setting up web pages, celebrating with friends, and making a short behind-the-scenes film that is perhaps the most fun of all. I am waiting, which is so hard for me, for the timing to line up, waiting for the time to give.
But know in the meantime that all is well. All is quite well.
I'd scan this if my handwriting were in any way legible today. Anyway, here's an excerpt from my journal:
I wonder why it's so hard to write these days. Is it the permanence of the way it commits you to a certain or particular expression of your reality?
Maybe it's the way it forces me to line up my thoughts as if with Captain von Trapp's whistle, when they would rather frolic by the water in clothes made of curtains.
At any rate, I keep trying to write insomuch as it feels good for me, just like the walk in today's heat was keeping my joints moving this morning. I have to keep a certain amount of flow.
Maybe I'm just writing to fill up this damn journal once and for all.
David Whyte says all there is to do is to explore the nature of our exile.
Well, these days I am still and quiet, even though I feel like my soul is carrying great weights over long miles. Everything begins with our own soul work, our own transformation, and mine is taking a lot of juice these days. It takes untold patience and trust and discipline to hold myself still, as I feel I must do right now.
It's so tempting to stay skimming the surface, looking busy and maybe even flashy. But too much surface-skimming leads to thin work and thin living. Doing a lot of work counts for little if we're not doing the right work--the work that is centered and grounded in our core.
And my core is easy to disregard.
I'm watching the trees for guidance about being still. Their roots plunge deep, they flower and fruit and add another ring to their girth, so quietly and slowly that they appear to be doing nothing at all.
And yet, they have grown so tall. So strong. Rooted firmly so they can stand through wind and storms.
In today's podcast, I spill the beans about a new project and share how I sustain myself and my creativity during writing bursts. Crank up your rest, and crank up your play. The work will still get done anyway.
The more I work with my own stories, the slower it seems I go. The first expedition is, What is the story?, and the second is, What does it mean? I tell it again, and again, to one friend after another. And then I listen to every word they say when I'm finished.
The reason this story's so hard to tell is that you're still living it.
This is an important story for you--one of your life stories. It will look very different a few years from now.
It's okay to tell it with your current understanding, even though it won't be your last, and to create it anew with each new listener, with every telling.
We churn over a single story for days, or weeks, coming back to it later to let it teach us something new. Then I realize why this work is slow and consuming: there's a way you write the story, and there's a way the story writes you. The way it frames your past and informs your present, always changing and growing along with you as if it is a living thing. And, indeed it is: a story is a companion, not a history book gathering dust.
There's a way in which a story can change everything, casting a new light on all we see. Just as it shows us how far we've come, it reveals a distance still to be traveled, or lessons that keep cycling back, beckoning our mastery. After taking a turn in the chair, I lay down on the table and surrender to its hands. And sometimes I don't get up again for a very long time.
It's back! The podcast is back, and I am as happy as anyone. Now I'm off to sip my fancy peppermint tea (it really does taste better) and catch these thoughts before they drift away. Click on the link below to listen:
Our stories are like our fingerprints. Distinct. Like no one else's. Completely unique and completely human. It's why giving people a voice is so important. We NEED everyone's stories. We NEED your story. --Rowena Murillo
I wanted to make sure no one missed this comment that Rowena left on yesterday's post. It had me saying a loud "Amen!" just before pulling the covers over my head. I don't understand this dynamic in myself--it seems that knowing you have something the world needs might inspire a person, or spur her to action, but in my case it often feels like the opposite occurs.
I'm so happy to tell other people how important their work is, or how the world needs it. How they must not give up. And these things are all true. But often, I'm trying to shirk something off on them--if I can get them to tell stories that change the world, I'll be off the hook from having to do the same myself. Or I try auditioning for the role of their sidekick, so I can come along for their ride. If you are wondering how annoying this must be, just ask my friends. I'm sure they'll be happy to tell you.
This is a mystery to me: why part of me knows exactly who I am and another part tries relentlessly to forget. There's a possibility that I'm not willing to claim, and a fear that I haven't yet been able to name, and they are skittering through the shadows in my internal attic.
But I'm onto them now, and the hunt is on.
How about you? Over the weekend, use your TMWY pages to hunt for unclaimed possibilities and unnamed fears. We can share our wounds and triumphs next week.
(Pre-recorded with love.)
After an 18-hour travel day, my body is home and my soul is doing its best to catch up. We're going to be easing ourselves gently into the day over here.
I was moving my pen across the paper at 50,000 feet last night after many days of not doing so. If you haven't been moving your pen across your paper or if you have moved it along your way, we are still together.
And there is nothing wrong.
So this is me, just as I am, welcoming you, just as you are, back to this place where we meet--back to the knowledge that there are always hands to hold us, wherever we are. Back to the remembrance that we are never alone beyond reach or lost beyond finding.
There is always the journey. And being together is the only way to go.
My store is back on-line, for those of you who have waited so patiently for my return.
Today we're starting our journey together through the Take Me with You journal. Check in and let us know if you're playing along in the comments section. You can still order a journal for yourself and a friend here, and if you want to check in about your progress on Twitter (breakthroughs, page counts, and more), just tag your tweet with #TMWY so we can celebrate with you and cheer you on.
I'm filling up my own copy, too--stay tuned for a few glimpses here in the coming days, along with a new series called Photo Lines.
So glad we're on this journey together.
If you'd like a badge for your site, copy and paste this code: <a href="http://www.jenlee.net/home/part-one-the-journey-together.html"><img src="http://www.jenlee.net/storage/01-TMWYbadge.jpg" alt="Take It With You: The Journey Together | JenLee.net"></a>
"Most writers, like most children, need to tell. The only problem is that much of what they need to tell will provoke the ire of parent-critics, who are determined to tell writer-children what they can and cannot say. Unless you have sufficient ego and feel entitled to tell your story, you will be stymied in your effort to create. You think you can't write, but the truth is you can't tell. Writing is nothing if not breaking the silence."
--Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers
It doesn't take much as a creative person to fall into strange conversations about what kind of creative work is worth doing or making, beginning or finishing. One comment from a well-meaning person pointing out the statistical improbabilities of our current project making its way into blockbuster-level production usually does the trick. We start comparing different mediums and strategies, wondering if we have the right one, suddenly trying to beat some hypothetical odds.
What's worth it? we ask, and if we're lucky we ask one who knows.
Many career artists would say that their best work was never published, produced or displayed. We create in a cloud of not seeing where the work will travel to in the end. Will it live out its days in a drawer or a closet, or will it be welcomed, embraced, celebrated? If you need to see how it all ends to justify the work of creating, you're not likely to begin and even less likely to finish.
The only remedy I know for this mental gridlock is trust. Trust that every piece of work has a purpose to serve, and that every piece of work fulfills its purpose. Sometimes that purpose is accomplished in the creator, in the act of its creation. Other times that purpose is for an audience of five people, or the readers of fifty languages. It may mean something big to a small number of people, or it might mean something small to many. We don't know, and it's not our responsibility to know.
Our job is to tell the stories that are ours to tell, to make the work that is ours to make, and to let our creations have their way with us and the world. To trust that our work will find its way into the hands that need it most. To listen, to begin, and to finish, knowing that the work that emerges will be more pure and honest when it doesn't have to prove its worth to us.
Momasphere events, like this one I performed at a couple weeks ago, are gaining a reputation for being don't-miss occasions. My upcoming Momasphere workshop, Make Room for Mom's Voice (December 6th), is going to be no exception. Some are making arrangements to come into NYC the night before and spend the night here before the Sunday morning workshop, which I think is a great idea. But the spots left for this are really limited, so if you're interested in coming consider registering first and working out the details afterwards.
And finally, here's a podcast to close out our week together.
"A lot of things can't really nourish us until they're complete."
Here are some thoughts on running in bad weather, and one of my writing tricks for stormy days.
My friends tell me that because I sound so calm and mellow, people don't realize how "Type A" I am. So I'm just telling you that now.
Click the link below to listen in your web browser, or right click it to download onto your computer.
Words are like windows.
They tell us what's going on inside,
and how the outside world looks from here.
One of the best parts of being at Squam was getting to share in more detail about my journey. In one class, a hand went up as a student tried to pull the timeline together. "How long ago was this?"
"Let's see," I counted. "Two and a half years ago."
Two and a half years ago, I completed a home-based business I'd been doing for eight years. I had a three-year-old and a three-month-old. I thought I wanted to write, though I had no idea really what I would write. Maybe I'd finish my practice novel.
Two and a half years ago, we said yes to the part of us that wanted to live in New York City. Even though we'd never been here in person. I watched You've Got Mail so many times back then, internalizing the conversation about how closing the store is brave, and how it takes a lot of courage to imagine a new life for yourself.
And that's just what we did. If I told you about our life, just four years ago, you would not even recognize huge swaths of it. Some things are the same, like our love and the friendships that remain. But it is a new life, and all the people I've met and places I've gone since then, were only wild, unlikely dreams.
And it only took saying yes to one wild dream to set us on this course. I didn't know what was going to happen back then, and I still don't know what's going to happen today. But I'm slowing learning to trust my dreams and those intuitive ways of knowing, and more and more I'm practicing being brave.
I'm so thankful for Stacy, who heard my story at Squam, and then sent me this song yesterday. I'm posting it here, for everyone who has even one wild dream calling her right now, for anyone hoping that following her intuition really will lead her someplace good in the end:
Some stories you hold too close to your heart. You believe that they are dear or precious, and you don't know what to do about those white knuckles gripping them.
The best thing, you suspect, is to let go. To release them with open hands and trust they find their way to those who need them.
I have one such story. I am giving it to you now.
Here is how it begins:
Some stories are too difficult to carry around. Some taste like ash in your mouth, others feel like they might rend you in two. That’s why we have a Story Catcher in our village.
The Story Catcher takes your stories as you tell them truly—things that make your bones tremble and your muscles shiver, things you might only be able to whisper in the dark. She receives them as happily as a person making a ripe purchase at market.
She gathers all of them from the old ones to those wee ones just learning to give thoughts shape with their lips, and she holds them in her memory, tends them with her heart.
Then, when we’re ready, the Story Catcher gives us back our tales, on a day when we need to be reminded that we once were brave or that we once were rescued. That we might be so again.
--from The Story Catcher, by Jen Lee
To download The Story Catcher in a beautiful, full-color pdf, simply enter the following information:
Production mode continues here in the studio, because I'm always one to try to squeeze out one more thing. My friendship with Tilky, my designer, is changing my life--we're like Fred and Ginger over here, tapping out and spinning our moves and loving the dance. I'm so pleased to tell you that one of the publications we're working on will be FREE. (I'm setting up a little email system to help me distribute it and keep you posted about future projects and events.) It is a story that I've been holding tight to my chest like gold, but I think you might need it, too, so the time is coming to share.
But for today, let me give you a sneak peak of the new journal that I'll be debuting at the Squam Art Fair next week. What do you get when you have me, writing in my own hand, unedited and homespun, just for you? A writing guide/fill-in journal that begins like this:
If I heard you were coming to see me, and if you said casually, "Do you think we could talk about writing while I'm there?" I would say, "Of course." Then I would go out and buy you a blank book. While I waited for you to arrive, I would jot some of my thoughts and ideas on writing through its pages, so you would have something to take with you we we said our good-byes.
This is that book.
Available at the Squam Art Fair, Saturday, September 19th. Coming to my online store soon after.
I couldn't resist the feeling this morning that summer is some alternate reality and that I'm missing my "regular life" just a little bit. We're having one adventure after another, and my feet don't even feel themselves landing home any more. I've surrendered to leaving the suitcases packed, and I feel like some part of my soul is now doing the same.
This most recent visitation home has been spent with my head down, cranking out a new project in the minutes when I'm not applying sunscreen at the park and herding preschoolers through lunch at local diners. This is the crazy five-week project, and I think it's all pulling together.
The reason for the urgency is that I want my students at Squam to have something more they can away with them when we part, and I want everyone who wanted to join us to have something in its place. Part fill-in journal and part writing guide: this book will be your companion as you find your courage and your voice. It's coming in September, and I promise it will be worth all the quiet it's taken on the blog to get it done.