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.)

Looking Forward

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I miss you.

It keeps coming up, and then I think,  I should say something, but sometimes words are a little scarce, you know? And quiet times feel like something there's not so much permission for in these times.

But here's what I do want to tell you. There's greater work swirling about, because as I put together the short film I'm also forming a vision of my work as a whole in the coming season. And because I see my work in a context of partnership with my friends and collaborators, their forming visions of the next season of work is part of that conversation.

It's the kind of perspective that requires some distance--like seeing the earth from the moon. So these past days have been about getting that kind of distance. Stepping away, getting a little quiet, turning my mind to other things--like a new stage story--when my mind needs to work on the problem in an inactive sort of way (think new ideas in the shower). Pulling each part and piece into focus, distinguishing one from the other.

It's also meant taking inventory and a little looking back at how different experiments have played out.

And some of what I've seen back there has made me feel tender, and I've tried to hold myself with as much gentleness as I can muster. To forgive myself for sustaining injuries along the way, for the way those injuries made me want to pull back a little from view, for the string of vulnerabilities created by releasing so many heartfelt offerings in such a short time and the way it's been easier to stay quiet and small than risk being seen on any grand scale.

Some of it has been a self-protection mechanism, I can see that now. But I think there's a certain kind of grief that accompanies any realization about how we've been withholding from the world. So I'm traversing those feelings and gathering myself--along with a new sense of strength and well-being and resilience--and looking FORWARD to all the good and brave things to come.

The best remedy for the quiet is connection, so if there are things *you* are wanting to say, just jot them down in the comments section and I'll be happy to catch them.

And here's the part where I get quiet.

photo by Bella Cirovic,

photo by Bella Cirovic,

This is where I am, right now. At my desk, in front of my laptop. I've wrapped shooting for my short documentary project, Indie Kindred, and now the editing is full-on. In case you're wondering what this looks like, there are a whole lotta media files to catalog, file, convert, rename--all that jazz. A lot of getting all the parts and pieces in place so I don't spend more time looking for them than necessary when it comes time to assemble.

The metaphor I most often think of with wide projects like this one is quilt-making.  My mind loves this kind of puzzle--laying out all the squares and figuring out how they fit together: which ones go in, which ones have some other future, and in what order the ones that go in should be placed.

So I'm neck-deep in quilt-making. There's a physicality to the work, as I transcribe all the audio by hand in a journal with my right hand as my left hand is poised above the pause button. I've gotta have around half a journal of handwritten transcription by now, and if it's been awhile since you did that kind of thing in school (do kids even hand-write their class notes anymore?) I'll tell you--one's hand can be remarkably out of shape. I've woken with sore fingers, and one day the joints in my first finger were a little swollen so I had to take the day off from it.

But hand-writing every word helps really cement in my brain what the verbal squares are, and I can hear as I write what to pull out and I can picture in what part of the story arc it might best fit. (The same happens with the video clips and photos as I go through them one by one, taking notes and filing them.)

Next I'll put together a script (for lack of a better word) of the story, start to finish. This will help me make sure that it all makes sense--that all the smaller stories unfold in a clear manner and that there's an arc overall to the whole.

Then I'll use the script to pull the audio and video clips together and start trimming things, then dropping them in place.

On one hand, it is super tedious work and is taking lots of time and attention. But on the other hand, I have these moments where there's this swelling feeling in my chest and I think, What is this? Is this what it feels like to be the happiest you've ever been?

Maybe. Or maybe it's joy. I keep noticing it, popping up more and more in my body, and there's a way--in this season--I can feel joy remaking me. Like in some program running in the background, all my parts and pieces are being put back together in a new way.

So that's how things are going over here. In the meantime, I'll probably get a little quiet in this space. There will be a new Retrospective interview in February with Caren McLellan Gazley, the author of Ritual & Rhythm: A Guide to Creative Self Care. If you want to read her book before it airs, there's time to do that and you can order it here.


I'll also be residing, starting on Monday (2/4), in the virtual classroom with Phyllis and fellow soul travelers over at The Iconic Self Online Experience. There's still room for you to join us, and we would love to have your presence in the community and your voice in the conversation.

If you want to stay tuned to my shorter online updates, you can follow me on Twitter or on Instagram (@jenleedotnet). Hold me in your thoughts, and I'll be back with words, stories or news when I have them.

Novelist Diana Spechler on Retrospective

I was thrilled to interview Diana Spechler for the Retrospective podcast. Diana is the author of the novels Skinny and Who by Fire, and the truth is: I just plain like her. We met through storytelling here in New York, and last fall had the pleasure of sharing a Moth GrandSLAM stage.

In this episode of Retrospective, Diana talks about:

  • fiction, nonfiction, and where your secrets come out
  • dealing with being seen during a very personal book release
  • "punch and get out" --lessons learned from storytelling
  • keeping ego untangled from the creative process, and
  • wrestling projects into submission.



Listen here, or subscribe to Retrospective in iTunes. You can find previous episodes here.

Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Skinny (Harper Perennial, 2011). She has written for the New York TimesGQ; O, The Oprah MagazineCNN Living; EsquireNew YorkParis ReviewSelf;Details; the Wall Street JournalSalonSlate;NerveSouthern ReviewGlimmer Train Stories; and elsewhere. She is also a four-time Moth StorySLAM winner and has been featured on NPR. She received her MFA degree from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University and the writer-in-residence at Portsmouth Abbey School. A 2012-2013 LABA Fellow, she teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio.

The Sacred Quiet

My favorite windows to gaze out of are train windows.

My favorite windows to gaze out of are train windows.

It's not just the time between Christmas and New Year's Day--I'm noticing this rhythm at the end of most months in which I drift into a sea of quiet. I stop reading non-fiction and sit back gently into story on the page or story on the screen. I hold my children. I take naps. I bake, and spend a lot of time gazing out windows and sipping tea.

Sometimes I peruse Twitter and marvel at how much everyone has to say. When my own words go, it feels like watching other people fluent in a language I am struggling to remember.

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I think about all the people who counsel to write or blog every day and how every time I come across that idea I think, fuck that. I would rather only say something when there is something to say, and the honest truth is that many days are marked here by a sacred quiet. Those expectations are just a shame spiral waiting to happen in my world.

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Of course I have all those thoughts that you might have in such times, too.  Other people's lives and work can seem so remarkable and adventurous when we are laying down for the second nap of the day, when we have neither the impulse or desire to take a picture or to pick up a pen.

When these times come, there are a few postures I can take (I've tried them all).

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I can panic. Tell myself that the words are never coming back, that my magic fairy dust has somehow been squandered or used up. Or worse, thoughts like: Maybe it's cancer. (It's not cancer. At least not yet.)

I can try to power through. Force myself to keep being active, even if it's not really productive. That generally leads to laborious work that doesn't forward the ball, heaps of frustration, and then the kind of exhaustion that throws all my good coping mechanisms out the door.


I can surrender. Remember creative processes like incubation and gestation and the healing power of rest. Tell myself that the words will come back in their own time, probably with such velocity that I can't even catch them all as they blow through.

When I surrender to the sacred quiet, I let memories surface and collect them like quilt patches. I listen to what's really tugging at my heart and try to hold everything else at bay. I make my bed and create space in my environment for whatever weather comes. I hope that in this posture, direction and redirection will find me. I let the people with words have them, and know when mine return, I will be rested. Ready. And listening.

February is a good time for inner journeys, and while I'm editing my new short documentary project, Indie Kindred, I'll also be here, creating a powerful conversation about soul excavation and integration with my long-time friend and collaborator, Phyllis Mathis

I hope you'll join us!

Phil Gazley on anti-human trafficking, art, culture and more

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I confess: sometimes when I'm with my friends, I just want to enjoy being with them. But when I was talking with my friend Phil Gazley over morning tea during his latest visit to New York, he was saying such interesting things that I thought, I really should turn on a microphone. So we did, and now you can listen in on our conversation in the latest episode of the Retrospective podcast.

Phil works as an educator and coordinator of anti-human trafficking efforts. Human trafficking is one of those issues that is so heart-breaking and so global in scope that it can be really overwhelming. Understanding and supporting the approach that Phil and his teams take has been really helpful for us.

Phil also has interesting things to say about art and culture, working grassroots, commercialization and creative integrity and more. It's an important conversation, and I hope you'll listen here or in iTunes.