Building Community, Asking for Help, and Not Burning Out

Asking for help is hard. And that’s what I’m coming here to do. I’m coming to ask for your help so that I can keep building community — without burning out.

This week, I created a Patreon account. I’ve been looking at this membership platform for a while now, as a way of leveling out my monthly income and taking a baby step away from Facebook in terms of where I share my day-to-day writing. As of this moment, I have 11 patrons.

In case you’re unfamiliar — you become a “patron” by choosing a monthly tier, and each tier comes with certain benefits. These include a PDF of 18 essays, weekly prompts, access to new poems before I share elsewhere, a weekly “ask me anything” option, discounts on my writing groups, coaching sessions ranging from 30 minutes to four hours/month, and even just-for-you writers’ care packages! Needless to say, I’m super excited about it and hope you will be, too.

I have it set up right now that my first goals there are financial — and they will allow me to offer scholarships to my groups. This is a core value of mine — making my work accessible to people regardless of how much money they have.

I grew up with things like summer camps and lessons and trips. Many kids grow up not knowing if they will have three meals that day. And while my groups are not for children, they are for adult humans whose early experiences in life shaped a good deal of what we believe we can have, what is for us.

I’ve carried a belief, that because I “chose” to be self-employed, I should suck it up that I don’t have paid time off. I’m certainly not complaining.

And, the real life version is, of course, more complicated than that, more multifaceted and layered. That’s the thing about real life — it always is. It’s also what makes for a) the best stories and b) true connection, where we’re not masking what’s true or molding ourselves to what we think others want to see, hear, and believe.

Mani’s illness thrust me into this work. It was one of those crazy moments where the scariest, hardest stuff was intextricable from the most creative and courageous. I started leading online groups and retreats while working at a full-time job, then after about nine months of that, including 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave three summers ago, it became clear that going back to the office was not an option. She needed me home full-time.

Now, she’s sitting here in the living room working away on her own stuff as I work on mine, with the puppy snoring between us. Her healing journey is hers to share, so I will not write to that here.

What I can tell you is this: I love my work, and all of you, deeply. Sitting here in my living room last night with four women, each of whom wrote and shared, I felt tears in my eyes. Creating these spaces for words, stories, poetry, connection, community, courage, realness — this is why I’m here.

And, I don’t always know how to see what I need in the midst of the work, not to mention being a mom with kids at pivotal moments in their own growing.

What became very clear to me recently was that I need a little break. My vision has been to be able to step away from Facebook in August, for most if not all of the month. To continue my in-person groups and coaching, to anticipate a fall full of online groups and new ideas, but to be able to take some time away, too, from social media.

I see Patreon as a way both of creating a sustainable Community Writers’ Fund, and also as an eventual way to open up more possibility for me to focus on my own writing. I do not have a room of my own; I literally write anywhere and everywhere, throughout the day — the kitchen, the living room, the car. I have dreams of working on new books. I hear the voices in my head that say: Well, that’s nice, you privileged white lady. How about dreams of fair immigration practices? How about dreams of restorative justice for communities of color?

And I know — these are not mutually exclusive. To care deeply about justice doesn’t mean denying my own creativity and humanity. My deepest hope is that the two are connected, all the way at the roots. Also, I know an inner critic when I hear one.

I share all of us with so much gratitude. It is because of you that this work has become a thing. It is because of you I’ve kept going and not, in my frequent moments of fear and doubt, thrown in the towel and dusted off my resume. It is because of your encouragement that I feel safe to share all of this with you.

Asking for help is hard.

I learned that when Mani was sick.

It’s also one of the realest things there is.

So, I’m asking.

Will you help me take a break this August?

My intention is to come back strong in September, to start again, and most important, to keep going. With all of it. Because that’s what we do. We keep starting, again and again, we keep going. And we also acknowledge that we are not machines, but humans.

Join me on Patreon, at whatever monthly tier feels good to you: www.patreon.com/jenaschwartz.

And/or: Send a one-time donation, simply because you appreciate what I share here and this is a tangible way to help one self-employed mama not burn out: www.paypal.me/jenaschwartz.

For reading this far, for being on the other side of the words, for making it safe to be this honest and vulnerable, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Writers, Authors, and People Who Write

Photo: Aliis Sinisalu

It’s not at all uncommon for my father to give me a volume of poetry from time to time, usually when I’m stopping by my parents’ house to say hello. A few weeks ago, he handed me a slim but dense collection called On Balance, by contemporary Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey. I keep coming back to a single poem called My Life According to You. I think it’s one of the best titles of all time.

We spend so much time trying to figure out our lives according to others, negotiating rules we didn’t create, and bumping up against systems that shape our very sense of self-worth, usually according to external, quantifiable factors.

“What do you do?” we ask each other, right after “What’s your name?” and perhaps “Where are you from?” If your name is unfamiliar or your skin color difficult to categorize, you might even get an extra special, “Where are you really from?”

If “writer” is your lucky answer to the question of doing, you might be familiar with subsequent questions, such as: “What do you write?” “Have you written any books?” “Do you make a living doing that?” Depending on how you respond, you might be met with a blank look, something like pity, or just a polite smile.

I hear from so many people who write but hesitate to call themselves a “writer.” Why is this?

Maybe we’ve grown attached to the idea that a real writer rises before dawn and writes until noon, then enjoys a simple lunch and takes a walk around the acres surrounding their 1800s farmhouse. Maybe we think real writers must down half a bottle of whiskey every night, collapsing in a post-cathartic heap in the wee hours.

What if ALL writers are –gasp! – regular people?

People who have to read the laundry instructions and remember to defrost the chicken for dinner. People whose day jobs are demanding and draining, fulfilling and anchoring, or some combination thereof. People who are navigating family dynamics with siblings and spouses and aging parents. People who are raising children or looking around an empty nest wondering how it went by so fast and now what. People with bills to pay and health issues to contend with and a stack of unread books on the night table.

Many of us who are writers simply love writing and cannot imagine life for long without the blank page, without the solitude of the writing process, without the journal or the iPhone notes or the pen and back of the envelope snatched from the glove compartment to grab a fly-by poem at a rest stop on the interstate.

There are as many ways to be a writer as there are ways to be a person.

When it comes to life according to someone else, be that “someone” an authority figure from your past, society at large, or a vicious inner critic, what rules have you come to believe, consciously or not, about being a writer and who gets to claim such an identity? Ironically, the very word “authority” contains “author.” What if you could be the authority about your own writing?

It’s not a new conversation, but it’s evergreen in its relevance to the creative process. Why? Because a rigid definition of what constitutes “real” writing keeps you from exploring what could be possible in your writing if you allowed yourself room to be totally imperfect.

Permission to suck is as close to a magic bullet as I’ve ever encountered — and I don’t really believe in magic bullets. What I do believe in is showing up, day after day or at least some of the time, to play with words. Sometimes this feels awful and cringe-y. It’s tempting to select all and delete without saving, or rip the page out of the notebook and toss it in the recycling bin.

I get it.

When I think of friends and colleagues who are authors – commercially successful, published authors, with advances and publishing contracts and agents and the whole megillah – I know they weren’t born that way. Well, they may have been born to write. But the “success” part of the equation is the part of the iceberg visible to the naked eye. Beneath the books is a mountain of uncelebrated hours, shitty drafts, abandoned ideas, unfinished projects, questions, conversations, doubts, and uncertainties.

There may also be something else at work: Commitment. And not allowing society’s prescription for success to define what gets written, what gets tossed, and what ultimately gets shared with the wider world. Believing in your voice isn’t a one-time thing. It happens gradually, as a result of working alongside whatever tells you to give it up already.

Often, when you hear about that best-selling debut novel, what you don’t hear about are the 15 unpublished novels that came before it. If publishing is a priority for you, you will plug away at it and it will happen. I really believe this. And if it’s not, or if it’s simply lower on the list of things that matter most, that doesn’t make you less of a writer.

Something begins to shift the moment we loosen the reigns and declare, “I am a person who writes. I am a writer.” And this is the crux of the matter: A writer is a person who writes, and not all writers must be authors.

Writing can infuse other fields of work. It can be oriented towards personal growth, political commentary, or a prolific imagination that imagines entirely different realities and brings them to life. It can be a practice that reminds you who you are. It can be a form of communication with yourself and with the people you love most or relate to least. It can be something you work at or something you do for pure pleasure.

Your writing life can change over time. It can ebb and flow. Sometimes, it might feel Sisyphean in its effort. Other times, the words might pour out of you, like rain from the sky through the vessel of you.

What it doesn’t have to be is torture.

And if writing is torture for you, consider what rules you’re agreeing to. Whose are they? Where did they come from? What would be possible without them?

When it comes to creativity, a little permission can go a long way. Once you relax the expectations of what being a writer must look like, what the results should be, and what counts as “real,” you might start to find that it’s actually not so torturous after all. It might even be… fun.

Imagine that.

First Sentence Interview Series with Vanessa Mártir: “You have to make time”

My guest this month is Vanessa Mártir, a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles her journey on her blog. Vanessa’s essays have appeared in The Butter, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Vanessa created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay.

Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010). She’s the founder of the wildly successful #52essays2017 project. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and a two-time Tin House fellow.

When did you first start writing? Do you remember the first time you called yourself “a writer”?

I started telling myself stories when I was just five or six years old. I would climb up the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and there I would imagine a different life.

When I told my mother I was a writer, she told me a story of when I was in kindergarten. The teachers complained that I was distracted during storytime. Instead of sitting on the rug in a circle with all my classmates, I would walk around, dig into the bookshelves, do everything but sit and listen to the story. When she scolded me, I told her: “But mommy, I already know how the story goes. I get bored.” “Oh, really,” she said. “So how does the story go?” She said I got really excited. I stood up and started, “Once upon a time…” I proceeded to tell a story of my own making.

My mother was telling me that I’ve always been a writer. Still, it took me a long time to name myself that. I used to say it out of the side of my mouth when I was in my teens and twenties, but I wasn’t writing the way I wanted to, I wasn’t taking workshops or classes. I wasn’t invested in it as much as I wanted to be. After the elite education I received via boarding school and Columbia University, coupled with the immigrant ideals that were instilled in me by my family, I felt like I couldn’t go into the arts. I had to go into corporate America where I’d get a steady paycheck, have health insurance, and could save for retirement. The arts was too unreliable to go into. I had to keep in mind that my family came from the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. Taking such huge risks like pursuing my writing was in many ways a dishonor to them and the sacrifices they made that in turn made my blessings so possible.

I wrote here and there. Was even published a few times, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter that I assessed my life and realized that I needed to make some big changes. I was miserable in corporate America, and I knew firsthand what misery could do to a family. I didn’t want that for myself, my child or my family. I asked myself: “Where is your heart?” The answer was clear: in my writing. So I followed it. I filled six journals while I was pregnant, and wrote my first novel, Woman’s Cry, while I was nursing my little girl. I left corporate America and never looked back. I was also finally able to call myself a writer and believe it. :)

Who do you write for? Do you have a particular reader or audience in mind when you’re writing?

When I write, I write for Loba Pack. They are a select group of folks with whom I can be my full, vulnerable, soft-but-unfuckwithable self. I can laugh and cry and rage and dance. I imagine we are in my kitchen. We have just eaten a meal I just cooked–pollo al horno, a caldero of arroz con fideo, a salad. We are sipping on bourbon and I am telling them my stories.

Where does fear show up for you — and how do you deal with it?

Fear shows up often for me. I write about trauma, mine and my families. I am revealing secrets that have had my family in a choke hold for generations. I write about my life, who I am, what I’ve learned, how I exist in this world as a queer woman of color. I have spent much of my life being told directly and subliminally that I don’t matter, my people don’t matter, our stories don’t matter, so when I dare to write them, to publish them and get them out into the world, fear leans in hard. I more often than not push back at it.

I think fear is natural. It’s how we react to fear that matters: we can let it catalyze us or paralyze us. I have been both catalyzed and paralyzed. When I’m paralyzed, I read a lot, go to therapy, and I spend time in my body hiking and biking and rollerblading and working out. Trauma exists in the body so moving it helps me work with it to get these stories down. It’s a journey. I’m still working on it. But this is my journey and what works for me may not work for others. It’s important you find what works for you.

What do you tell folks who say they “don’t have time” to write?

The only people who have time to write are in prison. You have to make time. Make time in the morning. Or make time at night. Write in the cracks: on your commute to work, while waiting on line at the market or elsewhere, while waiting for your dinner to be done. Write a page. Write a few sentences. Write for ten minutes or write for an hour. Give your art the time it requires and you want. You can’t want this life and not be willing to put in the time and effort it requires. It just doesn’t work like that.

One essay a week is a lot to show up for. How do you decide what to write? Do you have any “rules” about this process?

I don’t usually know what I’m writing until I actually sit down and write, but I do pay attention to what’s coming up all week. What stories have been circling. What energies are in the air. Then when I sit, I write. I’ve written on the train, in my writing room, in the park while sitting on a bench under a tree. My one rule is: show up and write. Don’t try to control the process. Just write. Get out of your own way.

How long have you been working on “A Dim Capacity for Wings” and when will you know it’s done?

I’ve been working on this book for ten years. When will I know it’s done? I’ll let you know. :)

Do you have any favorite words or expressions?

The only way out is in.

Be relentless.

First Sentence is a series featuring interviews with writers — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each conversation is intended to offer readers and fellow writers a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

More about the First Sentence series, including links to previous author interviews

A First Sentence Interview with Author Sonya Lea: “We have always had the fire and storytellers”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is essayist and memoirist Sonya Lea, who writes on memory and identity. Her memoir, Wondering Who You Are, about what happened after her husband lost the memory of their life, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Wondering has won awards and garnered praise in a number of publications including Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC, who named it a “top ten book.” Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, Cold Mountain Review, The Prentice Hall College Reader, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Book Review, The Rumpus and The Butter.

Lea teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and to women veterans through the Red Badge Project. She speaks at conferences, universities and festivals. Her short film, Every Beautiful Thing, won two awards for direction, and several awards for score. She has also written screenplays.

Originally from Kentucky, Sonya lives in Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. Learn more about her work on her website.

Your memoir, Wondering Who You Are, chronicles a harrowing journey of illness and recovery, not to mention a radical reshaping of identity — both your husband’s, your own, and that of your marriage and family. How long did it take you to write this book?

If I count devoted writing time, about three years. Though I spent time thinking about what happened in our relationship, and writing essays about these events for about ten years before I wrote the memoir.

Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What keeps you going?

Silence & solitude. As anyone who has lived with me knows, I require several hours a day to be by myself, usually in the quiet. This can happen in the wilderness or the writing room. Being with people and in cities is wonderful, and I have to be alone to work. This took me until fifty to understand about myself.

What surprised you in the unfolding of this story, as you looked back and considered what to include and what to leave out? How did you make decisions?

I make choices based on what my body intends. There were pieces in the book I wrote—like my sex story and my money story—that my body was still shedding shame over, and so I wrote them and then decided at the end of the writing whether they belonged in the world.

One thing I found so extraordinary about your memoir is the amount of research behind it and how seamlessly you weave this in with your searingly personal experience. The “notes” section practically stands alone. Did any particular systems help you stay organized?

Thank you. I was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, who wrote Brain On Fire. I keep journals, and folders on the computers. I abhor book writing systems or programs because they inhibit me.

Do you believers writers are born, made, or both?

There’s no natural skill that could be said to benefit a writer. Everything necessary can be cultivated, practiced. It’s not like we need our bodies to be a certain shape. We have always had the fire and storytellers. We don’t even need eyesight or typing skills, because technology has now found a way for stories to be recorded. Though if you look at what Europeans consider literature, there’s a case to be made that being born white/male/able—from the culture of dominance would seem to be an advantage. This time that we’re living in requires us to make and read narratives we haven’t yet seen, haven’t heard.

If you could have lunch with anyone — living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be? What would you want to ask them?

This question fucks me up. You could ask me this question once an hour, and it would change. But here goes: Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Graciela Iturbide, Brandon Teena, Frida Kahlo, Renee Stout, Valie Export, Wilma Mankiller, Emily Carr, Beyoncé, Tanya Tagaq, Hannah Arendt, Themistoclea. Mostly women. No fictional people, because they’re in my body all day as it is. No ancestors, because I also have conversations with them.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a museum curator who hears an Amazon warrior woman speaking to her, and it’s also about identity, and how we aren’t who we think we are. Because I can’t stop writing that story.

Stay tuned for April’s conversation with Nancy Stearns Bercaw, author of Brain In a Jar and the forthcoming Dryland.

On Creativity and the Resistance

“My friends, appreciating beauty in our world and fighting for justice are not mutually exclusive activities.” – Erin Coughlin Hollowell

The world is scary and so much is urgent. I am fending off images that must be epigenetically encoded in my DNA– men at the door kind of thing. Looking for elusive balance between staying informed and awake and getting work done and being present to others and taking care of my body and spirit. My desk is strewn with tax documents, a beautiful photo book I received today as a gift, a guide called “26 ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets,” and unpaid bills. I have a headache despite having taken an Alleve a couple of hours ago.

This morning, the kids had dentist appointments early — we had to leave the house at 7:30am. I thought about how keeping routines can be very grounding when the world is so unstable. Same goes for beauty, laughter, and small moments of ordinary connection. It’s when we lose ourselves to fear and fatigue that we become powerless; there have been some great pieces in the past few days about this, such as this one. Ironically, even reading pieces like this keep your body on high alert, so I think part of the long-haul here may be taking time to unplug.

This is not the same as checking out. After all, if we relinquish our wellbeing, what will fuel the resistance?

Earlier today, amidst mental images from Germany around 1938 that won’t stop flooding my consciousness, I found myself reflecting on the nature of creative work during times of political, national, indeed global crisis on an unprecedented scale. We can learn from history, yes, and at the same time there, there is no roadmap for this moment.

Some artists and writers will turn their gaze in the direction of resistance, and thank God for this. And some will not; there will be poets and essayists and journalers and journalists and novelists who continue their creative work, without an explicit focus on the current state of affairs. Others still may be seriously doubting the importance of continuing at all.

We need all the voices now, and any hierarchy here will only fragment our efforts.

I turn to Pirke Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers for guidance:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

I consider the voices of folks in my current writing groups. So many of us finding it difficult to concentrate at best, and questioning the purpose of our work at worst. There’s the conventional wisdom that none of this is accidental; the current administration is clearly intent on overwhelming us, hitting so many fronts at once, from cabinet appointments to sweeping travel bans to purging the State Department; I’m sure they are depending on us becoming exhausted and uncoordinated. We will prove them wrong.

Our creative work — whatever form that may take for you — is more important now than ever. Do not allow this insanity to overtake your creativity. Let your commitment to sitting down and showing up not shrink, but grow in direct proportion to the madness around us.