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.

New Moves and Learning Curves

Photo by Allison Downey

Photo by Allison Downey

Do you ever get this feeling about something, where you just Know You Have That Move?

I tell my friends about the film project, The last time I felt that feeling this strongly was when I started telling stories on stage.

I hadn't done it before, but I knew I had it in me. Before I heard about the stage storytelling scene, I was studying how shows like This American Life were crafting stories for radio. And the very first time I attended a storytelling show, I was ready to put my name the hat. 

Before I'd even seen it done.

It took several weeks of repeating this before my name was finally drawn. We were at The Bitter End, and Dan Kennedy was hosting the annual Valentine's Day-esque show aptly themed "Love Hurts". That year, he'd made Valentines out of black construction paper for each of the storytellers.  (I think I still have mine somewhere.)

The acquaintances I was sitting with kept asking me if I was nervous, knowing my name was in the hat. I wasn't, and I couldn't explain it.

I remember Dan calling my name into the microphone that first time. I remember looking at my red shoes as I stepped up onto the stage and feeling just like Dorothy finally coming home.

It doesn't happen every day or even, in my experience, every year, but from time to time we are blessed with these glimmers or glimpses of being made for a moment. It's as though time suspends for the length of one long breath, and everything that has happened up until right now makes sense.

That's how it felt behind the microphone that first night.

It wasn't all magical ever after--I think sometimes as beginners we are given special graces to ease us into paths we may not have chosen if they had been too bumpy at the start. There was still a lot of craft for me to learn, and the problem posed by live storytelling was that there was no getting better at it privately. I had to be mediocre, over and over again, and publicly--this felt like a slow, tortuous death to my inner perfectionist. It was vulnerable and at times left me feeling shaken up and raw.

I keep thinking of this story in recent days. So many of the other things I've worked at, I've tried making my way up the steep learning curves somewhere away from public view. I've disappeared from this space, for instance, time after time as I taught myself design and layout, as I learned to publish and to produce. I have these long, quiet absences punctuated by these quiet announcements, "It's here!" showing off some final product that often lacks context, as you miss so many of the stories unfolding behind the scenes along the way.

So even though it feels like another slow death to me, I'd like to do as much as I can to bring you the stories unfolding behind the scenes right now as I take on my most ambitious work to date in the short documentary I'm now making. To bring you Notes From The Learning Curve, or something like that.

I'm trusting that you'd rather hear what's happening than not, that you can hold my beginner parts alongside any expertise I may also hold, and that the stories about what we make and why are at least as important as the things we make themselves.

Now, if you want to tell me I'm not alone, I won't stop you. What learning curves are you up against? What are you beginning? Or what move have you not tried yet, but are certain you've got it in you somewhere? (Don't worry--I won't tell.)

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.

In Progress

A lovely home that my friend Ramona and I walked by in Vancouver, BC.I am in the throes of an Apartment Love Obsession. It's been going on for weeks or months now, I'm not sure. My days are punctuated by small bursts to epic projects as I purge unnecessary things, curate and tend all of our spaces. Before my parents came to visit, I actually broke a toothbrush in half while cleaning the bathroom. The spice cupboard and junk drawer testify to no space being too small to escape attention, and the days we spent on the hall closet while my mom and dad were here prove that no project is too daunting.

My soul work these days grapples with a public and private existence, so perhaps my obsession with home is fitting, as sinking into my physical, private world grounds me and counterbalances the work I am doing online and onstage. I am simply along for the ride on both journeys, letting them run parallel and teach me as I go.

There are few things as satisfying as home makeovers, really, the pinacle being the Before and After Pictures. I keep kicking myself for not taking more Before Pictures so that I can have that satisfaction--that proof of progress--at the end when you get to step back and say, "Look: once a mess, then transformation, now beauty." But the Before and After Pictures are not the whole story, because minutes or hours later toys and blankets have made their way from their assigned homes onto stray surfaces or floors. One room sparkles while another is neglected.

This is the whole picture: A Life in Progress. Minor victories and major defeats, and sometimes the other way around.

When we share what we learn, it can have a similar effect--a Before and After Picture of the Soul, if you will. "Look: once a mess, then tranformation, now beauty." And it's not that it's untrue--it is quite true. The mess is real. The transformation is real. The beauty is real.

But this is the whole picture: A Soul in Progress. Minor victories and major defeats, and sometimes the other way around.

We clean what is dirty, we mend what is broken. All that is finished is temporary, and all that is yet undone reaches to the horizon like an ocean before 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.

Close Enough for Jazz

I'm always pressing into my vulnerability edge with The BTK Band. You can catch us Unplugged next Monday night, 9pm at The Lounge at Dixon Place.

For whatever reason, my video editing app is acting up so I can't tweak the video below at all. (And oh how I wish I could.) It's just the latest in an endless string of imperfections and loose playing. The voice of my inner perfectionist is so shrill these days, cringing over every single thing that I do. But there just isn't time to let her have the reins. There is simply too much to finish on the calendar, and if I obsess over any one of the dominoes too long the rest will fall. My taste and standards are always evolving out ahead of my skills, the ever uncatchable carrot. By the time I've finished every project, I already know how to do it better next time (especially the videos). I know every flaw, every off beat. No matter how good my stage stories get, I still have my own storytelling heroes that leave me in awe, that raise the bar to the moon and push me to be more brave. To play it looser, with a little more trust, a little more flow, and a lot less control.

One of my mantras that I say to myself a gazillion times a day comes our music-playing days in college. Like, ten musicians would all be on stage tuning, and at some point our friend John would stop everyone and say, "Close enough for jazz." It was our cue to let the imperfections be and play anyway.

I know this obsession with getting it right, working it until it's flawless, is just a move I use to cope with vulnerability. Like if I just get it right, no one will criticize or find fault with who I am or what I do. That everyone will love me even more than they loved me before. That I will get to be good.

The bad news is, the concern with being good is the enemy of being true. It preoccupies us with ourselves, makes us self-conscious so that our moves become calculated and measured, when what the world really needs is the truth of what comes out when we do the work like we're dancing alone in the dark.

So here's to dancing in the dark and playing it loose. To hitting "record" and shooting straight from the heart and slamming it up unedited and unpolished.

What can you call "close enough for jazz" today?

The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls: A Manual

Paperback, full-color, 24 pages
US $22, ships free worldwide starting 11/25/11.

Don't forget to join us for a two-day Care and Keeping of Creative Souls event in March: Steady Burn: The Art of Creative Wellness