New Online Courses at Brave Girl University

I'm so excited that Brave Girl University, a Netflix-style platform for soulful and creative online courses, opens its doors tomorrow. It's an honor to be a part of the more than 80 teachers gathering for this new work. You can have access to all kinds of learning--from step by step projects to deep wisdom for living--all for $24.95 a month. 

While one of my classes shares its name with a live class and handbook I've previously made available, all these videos are from the NEW wisdom I've been gathering around this topic in recent years: The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls. The title umbrella it falls under is the same but the content here is all new.

The second class I've created is an unedited guide for vulnerability: How to Be True (and Live to Tell). It addresses the challenges we bump up against when we create close-to-the-heart work or when we are making room for our more tender places to be seen and heard. Both courses are right at the forefront and edge of where I'm working and living--filmed in real time from the road on our Summer Tour.

If you enroll before classes start tomorrow, there's a special discount on the Brave Box optional add-on that brings exquisite supplies to your post box every month to inspire and support your learning.

There aren't many organizations I would be this proud to partner with--my friend Melody Ross and her team at Brave Girls' Club works with so much heart and integrity that I've been dreaming of working together for awhile now. I'm so happy that time has come and I invite you to join us there, knowing that it will be all you hope for AND MORE.

Learn more and enroll here.

Show Your Work

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My aunt and uncle's home in New Hampshire is a place of refuge for me. It's a place to spread out and rest, to cozy in under blankets and warm socks by the fire.

So much of what is said there sticks firmly in my memory and travels with me on the way, including a conversation I had with my aunt once about a book she had recently read. It was by someone like Thomas Moore, and her complaint was that it was heavy on conclusions but light on narrative. She said, "I wanted him to show his work--I wanted to know how he got there, what he was reading, who he was talking to, what was happening in his life."

And I knew it wasn't just the science teacher in her talking.

The journey doesn't only matter, but it in itself is instructive, even though it is still common practice to separate wisdom from the stories that landed us on its shore.

Showing your work isn't easy--it's hard to sometimes understand the way different parts or pieces synthesize together inside of us. It's hard to acknowledge the influence of people we'd rather forget, to talk about the breaking and losing in equal measure as the building and finding.  And no matter how we try, the closest we can get is an approximation of the whole, which is more richly textured and multi-dimensional than our screens and pages can hold.

And yet. Showing Your Work doesn't leave me, it keeps beckoning me to try. To tell the stories behind the thoughts, to acknowledge the people and conversations and moments that bring me there. To let the journey itself teach us all.

Websites and Wallflower Moves

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Today I want to give you a little behind-the-scenes glimpse into my relationship with my website, which is perhaps more prickly and precarious than you might imagine--partly to capture this aspect of my journey at this moment in time, and partly because I can't be the only one feeling totally crazy about her site and design. 

My site has felt all wrong to me for more than a year, I'd say. I know many people just hire designers to do this side of their work, but that hasn't been a good solution for me for a couple reasons. First, I'm a DIY-kind of girl, and I actually enjoy doing the work and knowing how to tweak it whenever I want.

People who hire out site designs have these big public unveilings: Come look at my new site! This doesn't happen much around here because the site redesigning is constant and continuous. Even now, there are some new banners, but there are pages to come and  graphics yet to be made. Phyllis pointed out at one point that it's a tall order for the site to keep up with the fast-paced evolution my work. "First you were a blogger, then a writer, then an instructor. Then you were a stage storyteller, then a photographer, a publisher, a producer and now a filmmaker." Okay, so when she said it like that, I could see that was one force I was up against--rapid growth as a multi-media artist.

From a pragmatic angle, this means creating a navigation structure that allows people to find all the things I'm offering in one place--and the more offerings I have, the more thoughtful I've had to be in this organization.

The other element of my struggle was a vision issue. Even if you want to hire someone to fulfill your vision through a website, you need some clarity in that vision. Going into the site restructuring I did this summer (primarily to clean up the organization and navigation), I had this strong desire to really showcase and feature the work.

Visually, our offerings are growing more diverse all the time--not just because we have so many projects but the projects are designed to reflect the personal style of the authors and artists behind them. A Jolie Guillebeau book looks and feels like Jolie's paintings and her website, and the offerings by author LIz Lamoreux are infused with her style and sensibility. Add a growing collection of short videos and trailers to our library of book cover thumbnails, and visually there is very quickly a lot going on.

I did my typical wallflower move--I thought, I don't want this to look like the Jen Lee Show. I want a quiet canvas that allows the resources and the artists who made them to be the focus. And that's why the banners went away.

Yes, the site was quiet on the eyes to look at, but it was missing some essential pieces. It took me a few angsty months to realize once again, for the two hundredth time, that my wallflower move never goes well. That I have to keep bringing myself to the table and letting myself be seen. That it's the kind of being seen that doesn't hide other people in its shadow but that draws them into its light. That bringing back a sense of person and place creates context for all that we create.

Place is really essential for me--there's someone I get to be here on this brownstone block in Brooklyn that I don't get to be just everywhere I go. There is a possibility that life in this city represents to me that is a unique kind of partnership in my creative work. So banners are back, along with many of my photos of this beautiful landscape I call home.

As soon as my photos were back in the mix, I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up. I wanted to shout, I'm Back! because that's how it felt. Like I had been missing and the room had been bare. Do I feel narcissistic with all these photos of myself? Yup. I just try to not think about it too much, and to remember that when we aren't seeing each other face to face every day that we feel a certain hunger for faces and voices. And I'm trying to give you all of me I can.

What Happens When Artists Rule?

There's a school of thought that says when making and then selling something, people don't care about how or why you make it the way you do--they just want you to answer the question, What's in it for me? It's likely true for some people, probably a personality thing, but I am a values-oriented person and I can't imagine I'm alone in this. The how and the why matter immensely to me--it's why I buy organic and free range and free roaming food and support farms with humane practices. I pay more money for these items, and not just for their superior flavor and nutritional content. There is a kind of work in the world I believe in supporting, other values-oriented people I believe in sustaining.

Maybe this is why each time a new release draws near, I'm always compelled to pull the curtain back and let you see a glimpse of how we do things and why we do them that way. The curious among us can read on.

Almost everything we make has official and unofficial titles. For instance, something that might be called, say, The Gift of This Moment may have an unofficial or working title like, How to Feel Less Fucked Up and Alone. Maybe we'd sell more if we just stuck with those unofficial titles, I don't know, but I do know that they help us keep our eye on the ball during the making. To remember what we're up to and why. 

Similarly, the official tagline you'll see on a Jen Lee Productions banner right now reads, Hold the possibilities in your hands. And that is part of what we stand for, for sure. But an unofficial tagline has been keeping things clear behind the scenes in the making: Artists rule.

Like many things we create, I started down this path of independent media production because I was frustrated--frustrated with the ways we have undervalued wisdom and allowed systems to flourish that diminish creators and wisdom-keepers. I dreamed of a way to make things that would pay artists more than mere cents for the culmination of years of living and cultivating and researching and developing. A world where authors would get to name their own books and get to be a part of the process of making and shaping and designing their work, where they don't lose creative control to vetoes from the marketing department or a big-name bookstore that threatens not to carry their work unless they change the title.

We all know that what we really respond to are authentic voices, but I don't believe projects we run through such severe interference emerge with that authenticity intact.

What's the remedy? Letting artists rule. The work is the way the work should be, even if we're hours from going to press and we decide no, those interior photos really don't work in black and white. If they must be in color to retain their power and beauty, then in color they shall be.

Some content is well-suited for book form, and in those cases it becomes a book. But the concern and consideration that most drives me is transformation. I'm not asking, What will people buy? I'm asking, What way of interacting with this content will be the most transformative? The greatest shortcoming of books is that we are passive in our posture towards them. We generally hope that they will do something to us: entertain us, inspire us, give us the magic recipe we've been missing to have the life of our dreams.

But my journey has been more heavily influenced by a deeper kind of work--one in which I am interacting with the material and really reflecting and seeing things that I can no longer not see, things that change everything forever. It was while doing a writing exercise in The Artist's Way--not while reading it--that I had a realization that ultimately culminated in our move to New York City. It changed the direction of my work and our lives. A few months after arriving, someone was visiting me and saw the book near my bed. Oh, I read that book once, she said. I think I'll go back and 'do it' after I retire.

I almost had to sit down. What if I had just read that book, like it was any other? What if I had waited until retirement to take the time to listen to myself and hear what I most want? She had read a book and thought, That's nice. I had really interacted with it in a way that shifted my life's trajectory.

This story is not ever far from my mind when I'm writing home study courses: work that is active and invites you in to play with it, to experiment, to wrestle with the more difficult parts. The same ethos drives the home retreat kits. Yes, being in person, presence-with-presence is the most transformational way to interact with the material. But what if the logistics of that are out of reach? What's the next best thing?

When we began talking about Liz Lamoreux's new project, we quickly learned that the solitary nature of some of her practices for reflective living were not well-suited to the group format of a live retreat. At first I thought we would make a binder and CDs, as we had for Finding Your Voice and Telling Your Story. Our companions for the journey had powerful, rich experiences with them, and we knew how to make them--it would be a breeze.

But we weren't far into our discussions before I could hear that the binder would not be a good fit for this project. What we needed instead was a meditation journal, a separate poetry collection, and a field journal and photo album. We needed an audio CD with Liz's teaching and stories to walk our companions through the practices, and some audio meditations would be helpful, too. And that is how we build a project, piece by piece, form following function and not the other way around.

It's not inexpensive to make exquisite things in small batches, compared to what it costs to manufacture something you see for sale in Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. But in our case you know that your funds support the artists directly, that they receive more than mere cents from your purchase. Much of the work we offer is free, but every now and then we come up with a way that we can give you the best of what we have to offer in a form that allows you to give your support in exchange. We have not produced a resource yet that was not years in the making--years that we would not have had to pioneer these frontiers and then be your guides along the way if our financial circumstances did not and do not continue to allow it.

What happens when artists rule? Dreams come true. Next week (6.13.12) we release our latest project featuring the warmth and wisdom of artist, author and teacher Liz Lamoreux. We're in the dreams coming true business for artists and visionaries, and we hope you'll celebrate this one with us.

Say Something True

Caren and friends at a gathering of kindreds earlier this year

Caren was here this time last week. "Are you taking care of yourself?" she said.

"I'm trying," I said, meaning, Not as well as you would take care of me if you were here. Caren takes care like no one else I've ever known. She's been gone for days now, and I keep finding pieces of her care and keeping that she left behind. Clementines on the baker's rack. Mexican chocolate waiting to be melted into cocoa next to the stove. Big stashes of British tea by the kettle and a jar of organic raw honey we used on last night's biscuits. Organic persimon that made the trip all the way from California to be sliced into a salad. Do you see what I mean?

I told her how the work we're doing is like an ever-present plumb line. We can't come to Berkeley and facillitate a weekend called Steady Burn with any integrity if we haven't been practicing that wisdom through all our times and seasons. So I've been doing my best to believe these things even when it's hard: the care of yourself can come first. It only helps the work. You really can step out for that walk, go buy those salad greens, go to sleep before the children.

One of my newer practices when I feel like the wheels are coming off my wagon is to say something true. It kind of un-hooks any energy that might be tied up in Looking Good and frees it up for other things. I think that's why I woke up with an inexplicable desire to post today--to say something true and find a little more freedom.

So here are a few pieces for you: I'm really operating at my edges these days. It's been awhile since I drove a car, but I remember this needle on the dashboard that measured RPMs and when it hit the red zone, you were going too fast in the given gear. My physical health and wellness is like that RPM gauge, and I keep pushing that red zone and my body pushes back. It's humbling every time, like, Okay I guess I can only edit eight pages right now (even though that makes me feel weak or lame). Okay I guess I have to take off the headphones now and lie down. Okay I guess I can't host weekend guests and have any social reserves left for the week.

There are so many things I wish I had deeper wells for, like being with people. I love it when we are together. I wish I wasn't such a hermit, and that we were having after school playdates and that I was teaching everywhere all the time. I wish I could be interested in work and food at the same time and that I was rocking crazy delicious balanced meals every day of the week instead of forgetting to buy fruits and vegetables for days at a time.

If Peter didn't keep coaxing me into shows, I'd probably be deep underground right now and never leave the six block radius around my apartment. But when you have someone creating the framework for you and holding the safety net while you work out stuff in your soul, it's hard to turn down. Even so, I had to change my story for the upcoming show when my body was tweaking out over the one I originally had planned. I wish some things didn't hurt for as long as they do, but I think it's good for me to wait until that one heals a bit more before I give that story away.

I'm feeling pretty humbled these days by my limits, by my humanity. But the more I welcome my limits, the more I listen to my body and back off when I need to, the more I feel freed up from this idea that I have to do it all or be good at everything. It's a crazy-making, unattainable idea. I'm NOT good at everything. (Quick Top Ten List of Things I'm Not Good At: parties, small talk, acting cool in bars, crowds aka groups of more than four, calendar/clock, rowdy play, rest, daily showers, balanced meals, meeting new people). And I don't do it all. You won't find me at a PTA meeting or very many places at all, really, outside of our six little Brooklyn blocks and the--very--occasional storytelling show.

So try it--say something true today about your limits, your humanity. You'll find it creates space for your tired parts, your hurting parts, your parts that feel ashamed that they're not as (fill in the blank) as everyone else appears to be. In that space, your breaths can come a little deeper and just a little more kindness can make its way in.

Not even Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart

Central Park, last weekend

Did you hear that Martha Stewart's daughter has a new memoir out about her childhood? I heard just enough about it to breathe a deep sigh of relief at the realization that not even Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart.

It's inevitable that there will always be gaps between what you see of people and their work, whether it's being shared on television or in a magazine or online, and what the whole story is. But it's also this very human trait to fill in the gaps with our imagination--and we usually cast it in a very idealistic hue. To find evidence of this, just look back on all the crushes you ever had, how shining and shimmering those people or things appeared until you got a good look behind the curtain.

Some people will be fast to call this "inauthentic", but I don't think that's always the case. Are some people really invested in the Looking Good Game? Yes. Some are. But this phenomenon is unavoidable for all of us, because even the most honest glimpses into our lives cannot hold the whole truth of us. We are all of us far more deep and rich and complex than any public way of being known can hold.

I'm bringing this up now because I have a lot of productions that are releasing in close succession, and I'd prefer to avoid that giving anyone a complex if I can. Already I've received a few dazed comments and questions about how I'm managing it all, so please allow me this attempt to keep it a little real.

One of the first things I wrote in my early days writing in Brooklyn--back when I was trying a bunch of different forms like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see which would really stick for me--were some short essays for an anthology called Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing. That anthology is complete and will release in January 2012. With the galley here for review, I'm looking forward to reading the whole collection. I know as well as anyone how, let's say, delicate writing on family can be. My contribution is a very humble one (and I am not exaggerating when I say this I swear), but I am happy to be included in such fine company.

Many of these other projects have been in the work for not months, but years. I started teaching my voice and story courses at Squam Art Workshops in 2009. In 2010 I taught a lot, and wrote companion texts for my students for four different courses. The first editions were shared with my students in pdf form. At the same time, I started leading Integrate Retreats as a way to develop and share work that was unfolding in the present, at my developmental edge.

By November, I was weary from travel and teaching and a string of personal losses. All I wanted to do was hibernate in my apartment and make good things that I could drop in the mail slot. In December I ventured out to Argot Studios to record the audio portions of Finding Your Voice and Telling Your Story. In January and February I was like a little winter-time hermit, finishing FYV and letting it pull me out of bed every morning.

Sometime in the spring, I connected with designer Liz Kalloch. (A partnership that changed everything forever: more on this next week.) We planned to release Telling Your Story in the fall, and worked on the 3-ring bound curriculum so it would be ready for my SAW students in September. We also put together the idea of doing a new edition of The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls (another course companion I had written in 2009) to also have for September SAW students and then to release for sale online for the holidays. We blazed through the two print projects so they could be done (or very very close to it) before my summer sabbatical.

And then I took off almost twelve weeks to be with my kids, take a trip up through the Pacific Northwest, and to visit my family in Colorado.

Since the September SAW session, I've been editing the Telling Your Story Sound Studio that we recorded last December and putting the last pieces in place. Now I'm working on The Iconic Self, which Phyllis and I recorded in March of this year but really started developing at those Integrate Retreats in 2010. I'm also excited to be producing work by Caren Gazley and Liz Lamoreux in the spring. I put in a quick order for a small batch of a new shirt design a couple days ago, on a complete whim. Look for those December 1st.

It's all going to come out in a burst, and it will look like so much is happening all at once. But I've been hammering away at all of it, a few swings a day, for so long. A little bit every day over time seems to build exponentially. I'm all the time working with an amazing team of collaborators who do so much of the heavy lifting. I call at least one friend a day (or three) and say things like, "Everything's gonna be okay, right?" My apartment still hasn't bounced back from when I was sick. There are about three zones that are clean and operational: the kitchen, the bathroom, and the shipping center in the studio. The rest is all markers and balls of yarn on the floor and empty coffee cups sitting around.

I'm sometimes so rattled by the vulnerability of releasing new work that my appetite drops off. (One side effect of this is a complete failure to plan meals for my family or grocery shop.) I have to keep pulling my shoulders down and away from my ears. I can't stay up late or miss my morning meditation or it goes from mild apprehension to Crazy Town in 60 seconds.

It's important for me to say these things because it's too enticing to turn the small pieces we see online or elsewhere into some imagining of The Whole Story. Try to notice whatever mythology you're building up about me or anyone else you see or know in a public arena, bring your awareness to it and Let It Go. Because I promise you, if not even Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart, you can be sure that not even Jen Lee is Jen Lee.