The Treasure Hunter

The Treasure Hunter, Lake MichiganNot many of us are at the lake this early. I am proud of myself for finding it, with only the view from my 18th floor window to guide me in the right direction through city streets that are still drowsy, hours away from the morning rush. 

There is the runner, who sheds her shoes and stretches facing the lake as if bowing in devotion.  And there is the treasure hunter, who scans the sand with his metal detector, pausing for examination every time it squeals.  He pokes a hole with his toe, and if further beckoned, he kneels.  And digs.

Back and forth, one row and then the next. Now here's a man with stories to tell, of possessions lost and found, and surprises just below the surface. 

I lose myself in this picture.

I feel a kinship with him, every morning when I rise before the rush and my hand walks from left to right across the page.  Back and forth, one row and then the next.  We both listen for things that want to be found.  He is catching metal; I am catching words.  A whole story, if I'm lucky.  If I listen, and then bend low to really dig.

There is a new comfort in my Brooklyn mornings since we greeted the day on that shore. I imagine him there, and the two of us treasure hunt together.

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My voice is not for me alone

There are many writers who have influenced me over the years, for sure.  I could talk about Barbara Kingsolver, or Sue Monk Kidd, or others, but they would be more recent companions.  Madeleine L'Engle was who I read in the years in which I was becoming my adult self, a process which probably took the bulk of my twenties. 

I often thought about writing her, to tell her the difference her work made to me (especially her journals), but it just felt too cheezy--as if there was no way I could do it justice with my words.  I would sound too sincere, like maybe I was a little crazy or a budding stalker.  It felt like the only way for that conversation to work would be if we were face-to-face and she could look in my eyes and see that I was not exaggerating a bit, and that I looked to be perfectly sane at the same time.  I was trying not to be a crazy fan, because being a "fan" at all is so cliche.  I didn't feel like a "fan".  I felt mentored by her work, and that is a very different thing.  Living in Colorado, the face-to-face, read-the-God-honest-truth-in-my-eyes meeting with her was not going to happen.

Then shortly after I moved to Brooklyn, Madeleine L'Engle passed away.  There was an event to celebrate L'Engle and her work at Books of Wonder, the oldest independent children's book store in the city, and a shop to which she gave her loyal support.  I went, not at all intending to speak.  I would sit quietly in the back with my sorrow, and we would acknowledge the loss which was all of ours, together.

One of her granddaughters, Lena, was there, and she walked to the front to speak first.  I had read about Lena and her sister, Charlotte, in L'Engle's journals.  I had read about all kinds of things--the way L'Engle woke in the middle of the night to write when her children were young, the summer her mother died, the story of her marriage and her husband's death.  I had read about where she slipped away to, when her house was full and she needed to clear her mind.

Lena began to describe a memory.  She talked about her grandmother's bedroom at Crosswicks, and how they called it the portrait room because of the large family portraits hanging on all the walls, and she listed each of the relatives represented there.  She told about the way she and her sister would sit on the large poster bead with their grandmother and drink hot cocoa while they read together, and how when they were seven years old, she decided they were ready for Shakespeare.  Lena spoke about what it meant to her, during a time in which her parents were busy with their own lives, to have the presence and attention her grandmother gave them.

I sat in my chair and listened, and I could hardly breathe.  You see, as Lena spoke, I realized that I already knew this story.  Everything about it--from the portraits to the cocoa, to the reading in the covers.  I had read it in L'Engle's journals.  That moment I was completely present to the profound generosity it is--to take a piece of one's life, even one so intimate that it would be your loved one's fondest memory of you--and put it in a book, and share it with a stranger.  That you would invite a young girl half a country away, whom you would never meet, to see your world and know your thoughts, that it would change her to the core in ways in which you would never even hear of--that is generosity.  And not just to me, but to the vast ocean of readers that have found her work, or will find it in the endless years to come.

That moment transformed me.

There, in that chair, Madeleine gave me my last lesson.  She showed me what's possible when we're willing to do the work that wants to be done through us diligently, what's possible when we're willing to be vulnerable and to be seen, what's possible when we commit words to the page and then share them. We can give comfort and companionship.  We can offer the guidance of our own experiences and convictions.  We can participate in the growth of each another.

The sharing went a little downhill after Lena.  Earnest people told stories that were more about themselves than about L'Engle, and I started feeling like it was a disaster.  I could hear the words that were missing so loudly in my ears.  But I wasn't going to speak, I reminded myself.  Who am I to say anything?  We never even met.  But in the light of her generosity to me, it suddenly seemed like so little to ask in return--saying what wasn't being said--that I walked to the front.

I don't mind speaking in public, but I very much mind crying while I'm trying to speak in public.  There was no way I was getting to say these things without the tears, without having to hold my voice tightly as if I were gripping the reins on a runaway horse.  That part was painful for me.  But I got to look into Lena's eyes and tell her the difference her grandmother made to me, an unknown girl across the country.  The things she taught me, long before I needed to know them, about being a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a writer and a friend.  How she wrote about faith in a way that made me think there could be a seat at that table for me.

That day I learned that my voice is not for me alone, and that if I don't stand up and say the missing things, perhaps no one will, and something will be lost forever.

My favorite authors whisper to me through their words, "You are not alone."  Writers like L'Engle have mentored me as profoundly as the women I have known in real life.  I am who I am, in part, because of them.  On occasion I am tempted to look away from the page by one of those reasons why I almost don't do what I do.  But it is with terror that I consider the possibility that someone else--someone like Madeleine, who changed me forever--might have been stopped by one of her "reasons why not".  So I turn back to the page, as an act of gratitude for all I have been given, and I keep writing.  When the work is passing from my hands, I remember that I have been changed by generosity, and that it has become who I am.  Madeleine L'Engle taught me that we all serve the work, whether our offerings are a humble stream or a great river, all feeding into the same pool.  And so I do as I have been taught.


You can't hide

All of the comments on yesterday's post were so good.  I didn't need to add to my list, since you all were doing it for me.  I couldn't find a single thought in that long list that I haven't had myself.  So, we all have the list.  Those of us who aren't 'doing it', those of us who are, and I promise that those who are doing it with fame and recognition have it, too.  I've fought my battle with mine, and made my peace, for now.  As can you.  I brought it up because I don't want you to think that this work doesn't cost me something.

Next, I'm going to do my best to tell you the story of how I went from having a list of good reasons not to be a writer, to being a writer.

What finally got my attention was joy.  Specifically, the way in which it goes missing when we're trying to run and hide from our true vocations.  I could do other lines of work, and even experience a moderate amount of success, but when I really took on the question of why I wasn't succeeding in a big way when I felt perfectly capable, I saw finally that I didn't love that work.  While I was in this inquiry, I also started getting flashbacks from my younger years (and I wrote more extensively of this on my About page).  I remembered that as a child, I always wanted to be a writer.  I remembered the moment I changed my course.  And I decided that I could trust the work that was calling me, back when I believed anything was possible.  That's when I started to write.

First, I was just writing things in a journal, and then when I told my friend, Phyllis, she said, "You should write a blog."  I, of course, replied, "What's a blog?"  And so this space was born, a couple homes ago, in 2005.

I think it's impossible to look back and not see with hindsight all the nudgings that were working on you along the way.  I loved the writing of Madeleine L'Engle, and I devoured everything she wrote about creativity and the writing life, even in those years in which I was submerged.  It all felt so kindred to me, and when my husband bought me Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I was finally convinced:  I don't hate writing--this is actually how most writers feel all the time.

So then there was the question of what to write.  (I can't believe I'm telling you all of this.)  I had no idea what I was good at, so I decided to try it all and see what turned out.  So, I started with a practice novel.  I know. Way to ease in slowly, right?

I finished the novel, and sent it around to a few friends.  It's about many things, but it follows a woman who is was a poet and faces the question, what result will make that work worth recovering, worth doing?  Is it worth writing if you're only known locally?  If you make a difference to a few people and never end up in a literature textbook? 

If you're really wired to be a writer, I think the answer is, Yes.  I think, as Phyllis has so aptly observed about me, that I take comfort in the narrative I weave about my life.  I would write no matter what else came of it, simply to sort out, to make sense of, and bear witness to my own story.  I don't think I could stop writing (privately, at least) now if I tried.  I must make sense of my story.  I must bear witness to this life, make some kind of account.

The most common feedback I had about that novel was about how much my readers liked the poetry.  I've been writing more poetry ever since.  I think I've done a little of everything by now.

This is just a quick, rough brush at why I write.  It didn't come out pretty, but it's some necessary information before I tell you the story of why I share my work--why I risk and work to put it 'out there'. That's coming next time.

Why am I doing this?

It always happens. Without fail. At some point in the process, whether I'm finding errors in the proof or dropping my most honest work yet into paper envelopes and metal slots, I ask myself the question.

Why am I doing this again? Why, when I could just be a mom and watch the legs grow long and the days shorten? Why, when I could just be a reader, and let someone else do the hard work of telling the truth and spreading the word?

These are good questions, especially now that I see them spelled out in plain print. They're important ones, too, because the reason why we make the things we do, well it's like the soil they grow in. If it's something organic or something toxic, it affects the fruit. The fruit of toxic motives may look good, waxed and shiny and bug-nibble-free, but when you really take a big bite, something tastes "off". On the other hand, creative work that comes from authenticity and courage just tastes like the real thing, and the audience knows it even if the critics refuse to be swayed.

I'll answer these questions in two posts (or maybe three). I'll probably answer them again down the road, if my answers change. I think it's good to begin by naming the reasons why I almost don't do it. (Don't you have your own list like this?) If I didn't do this work, it would be because of one or more of these things. These then are the things I do this in spite of. It is guaranteed to not be an exhaustive list.

  • I could make more money doing practically anything else.
  • Some members of my family don't share my experiences or point-of-view on family-related matters, and they have a concern that negative conclusions will be drawn about them if I tell my stories. If I didn't write, my family life wouldn't feel like such a mine field.
  • Don't throw your pearls before swine. That's from the Bible, from my old days, and I could infer that the world won't appreciate the good things I give it--or, that it's my job to litmus test everyone first and only share my jewels with those who prove themselves worthy.
  • Does the world really need more voices? Aren't there already more clamoring than we have the attention to hear?
  • If I tell the truth (that is, write authentically), people may decide collectively, once and for all, that I am unlikeable. And have the evidence in their hands to prove it.
  • Who do I think I am, to put my thoughts out there? Who certified my talent? What on earth makes me special enough to warrant this priviledge?

How are those for a start?  So in case you were wondering, Yes, I have all those thoughts, too.  I just don't give them much (or mostly, any) airtime.  When I get caught in one, I have to pull it apart until I can see the failed reasoning underneath it.  Like the last one.  Of course I'm not special--none of us are in that being a human being is a very ordinary experience.  Millions of people are doing it all over the globe right now, and have for a long time.  Are we unique? Absolutely. Special? Nah. I don't think specialness is a criteria for having a platform. Doing good work?  Now we're talking.

So there they are--the top reasons why I almost don't do what I do.  If I think of more, I'll add them in the comments section.  Of course, I'd love to hear yours.  If something were to stop you, or hold you back, what would it be?  Is something holding you back right now?  I was brave and went first, now it's your turn--'fess up.

Notes from the Studio

My head is swimming today with all these little pieces. First of all, the books are in, and pre-ordered copies are shipping today. Hooray! I am bringing these to BlogHer next week so you can buy yours in person if you're there, and I would love to inscribe a copy for you while we chat. I am happy to sign copies purchased online as well, so please let me know if you would like them signed or inscribed, for yourself or as a gift. (I don't know if you can add a message when you're ordering, or if you just need to shoot me an email--let me know how that goes.)

Some friends last night at The Moth got the first peek at Fortunes (and Karen saw a proof last week when she was in town), and the response so far has been really positive. In case you didn't notice in the description, this 5x5 format is about the size of a CD, designed to fit easily in a purse or large pocket for easy gift-giving or reading on the go, and it would be so nice on a nightstand, offering you one little sip before sleep. The full-color images give it a gallery-on-the-go feel.

Now about the words. I guess they're a bit like me--intense and a little raw. I'm holding nothing back here--I'm giving you the gold. But I'm not thinking about this too much, because I'm trying not to feel self-conscious about dropping such intimate things into a faceless mailbox. It's much easier just to think of them in the hands of already- or not-yet-friends. I think you will know what I mean when you read it, and I think it will make you feel . . . trusted. As you are.

When you receive your precious copy, you will first be so glad, then you will read it, and then you will have thoughts about it. I invite you to send those thoughts my way, either on the contact form I just added to the top navigation bar, or directly to jen (at) jenlee (dot) net. If you love it, would you consider leaving a comment on the Fortunes page, or even spreading the word by sporting this lovely button on your site?


To embed, copy and paste: <a href=""><img src="http://www.jenlee.net" alt="" /></a>

In other button news, the website move broke all the Portfolio Project links. I'm terribly sorry about this, and about the fact I can't seem to get the new PP archive organized in anything but reverse chronological order. Ah, well. I'm calling it, Close enough for jazz, for now. Maybe I'll come up with something better by the new year. If I broke your Portfolio Project button, here's the updated code for its quick repair:

To embed, copy and paste: <a href=""><img src="http://www.jenlee.net" alt="" /></a>

Most of the work in this new collection came out of my Portfolio Project earlier this year, and because so many of us were creating side-by-side, hand-in-hand (in a virtual kind of way) during that time, I really feel like this community has held the space and infused every step of this project with belief and magic. Not a word of this was written from a solitary place. This is every bit the expression of a girl who got to be as brave as she dreamed of only because she was first loved in an extraordinary way by dear souls near and far. The actual nuts-and-bolts work of publishing such a project is grueling and largely outside my areas of strength. But I've been passionate about doing this, finishing this, if only as a way of thanking you for who I've gotten to be in this community. Loved. Known. True.

Thank you.


Introducing: Fortunes

Fortunes: Front Cover

Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood:

We have a saying in my practice, "Not knowing is most intimate." Here, Jen reveals the chill shimmer of bone-deep recognition, the eyewitness to incandescence. Without knowing when or how, we pass an inconceivable divide– then and now, daughter to mother, home and away, shadow and light – across halves that no longer exist. And the treasury opens by itself.

For many months I tucked my little journals into my bag whenever I was going to see my friends. Inside their pages were poems I'd written about my own experiences, but when I talked to people I would think of one that they could use and read it to them. Then I watched them soften, as they released something or embraced something. Time and again I wished that I had a duplicate of those little books, so I could just send them along for the journey, and that's how the idea for the Fortunes collection began to unfold.

The words were working some kind of transformation on me, and they made my little journals feel sacred, like prayer books, and my poems like prayers that ran again and again through my mind and my heart. I pulled together the best of them, paired them with powerful images from my collection of vintage-style photography and put them all into a book that's the perfect size to give to you. The perfect size for you to carry in your bag, so they can travel with you on your way. The perfect size for you to give to your friend, when you're talking together and you hear how she could really use it.

There's a way that our creative work often communicates more than we know. We set out to tell the story we're in, and the part of our mind that already knows how the story ends slips in a few clues when we're not looking. Fortunes pays homage to this phenomenon. What is the story you are living in? How does it end? The clarity to see is good fortune, indeed.

Find your fortune here.

While supplies last, Fortunes will ship with a set of three limited-edition decorative magnets.

To order in the United States:

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For international shipping:

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our most honest work yet

Photo: My new blue journal, with the first poem inside on the first morning of the year.

The good news in my Portfolio Project game these last few days has been the opportunity to read some of my new work--in person--to some dear friends.  The bad news came this morning, when a little one beat me awake and unrolled my latest roll of film all over the floor.  Mourning all those shots I'll never get again.

Literary merit completely aside, I know I'm doing my soul work over here, and the writing I've done ever since I wrote all the way to the fence has been deeply satisfying.  I'm traveling around with the little journal I started on New Year's Day at Jen's house, and completed just last week.  I was laughing with friends yesterday about the truly deep things that will be found someday in its pages like, "I'm ready for some toast now, or maybe an omelette." (More on my journal-writing philosophy here.)  But it also feels sacred to me, and when I read to my dear ones it becomes my prayer book, and we stand witness together as the mysteries of human wounds and human healing break through the plain-jane words and touch us with unknowable fingers. 

This is my most honest work yet.

Maybe this is the next round of the Portfolio Project game--to relinquish concern and consideration for the perceived quality of our work and to dig deep until we excavate a truer version of ourselves than we've known until now.  To abandon ourselves to our most honest work yet, and to let our dear ones bear witness to our path. (Keep sending me your gems for the Midpoint Gallery Show--jen at jenlee dot net.)

magic wands and pipe dreams

The last few weeks have had some emotional highs and lows, and I'm surprised at the difference it's made for me to stay on top of things like dishes and laundry in the meantime. I think usually when life gets intense, I can handle the situation and the stress it brings just fine, but then I come home and see dishes and piles of laundry and go right over the edge. I'm telling you, those two things send me over every time. But no more. At night, even if I'm going to bed with tax documents still sprawled over the coffee table, even if my husband is leaving town again, even if it feels as though the very ground beneath my feet is quaking, I say to myself, at least the dishes and the laundry are done. It's like waving a magic wand. Suddenly all is well. That corner of peace holds everything else together. And it seems so silly and trite that I can hardly stand it, but there you go.I was writing some this morning for The Artist's Way about payoffs for staying blocked creatively, and I couldn't stop thinking about the American Idol auditions we've been watching. Every contestant (apparently) is convinced he or she has what it takes to go all the way. They get their shot to walk in the room and throw their hearts over the line. And then they wait for the judgement. Are they truly talented, possessing undiscovered genius? Or have they been deceived by themselves, their friends, their very mothers into believing a starlit future lies ahead of them when actually they are tone deaf? If they are very good or very bad they will be so in front of a national audience. For me, the payoff for staying blocked is like having the dream of being the next American Idol but never showing up for the audition. You get to hold the pipe dream in your hand, watch from home each season thinking every time, I could at least make it to the Hollywood round. But you never have to risk being bad. Or being notoriously bad. On national television. I'm terrified of being a bad artist and it seems tempting to just hold the pipe dream in my hand, to never have to throw my heart over the line and face the judgement of my talent and skill. But sadly, the next American Idol will never be anyone who won't show up and audition. And I'll never get to be a writer if I don't write and risk writing very badly (and possibly publicly). I already do so here several times a week, so at least I'm not without practice.