50-for-50 interview: Jen Louden, teacher of writers

jen louden, teacher of writers

I can mark the shift of “teacher” from basement to tippy-top of my private writing career hierarchy to the day I heard Jen Louden teach her segment of The World-Changing Writers’ Workshop. The rest of us pulling duty shared good information and did our best to be entertaining; Jen taught. Like a motherf*cker. She taught so well and so generously that not only did I understand the material she covered better than I had before, but I actually began to understand how someday, with enough practice and patience and hard work, I might finally become a writer good enough to teach. That, my friends, is some grandmaster-level teaching. At the core of it all is a lover’s heart: for truth, for the side of right, and for the weirdly goofy. Which makes perfect sense: who doesn’t like their teachers better with a healthy streak of goofy?

When did you decide to become a writer?

When I failed at everything else I thought wanted to do.

I grew up wanting to make stories come alive. I enrolled half my 6th grade class in an epic sci-fi super-8 movie, and then in 7th grade I wrote a rock n’ roll Romeo and Juliet, which was performed at the Burt Reynolds dinner theater (alas without dinner or Burt).

By 19, I had gotten myself into USC film school, where I thought I would soon be making movies with Spielberg. Oh, what heartbreak! The truth was, I was one of the least talented people in that program. I lost my creative confidence in a big way. Except in one area: I was decent at screenwriting. Not great, but it gave me a channel to stay alive creatively. I grabbed onto it like a lifeline.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Mrs. Ray, my 8th grade English teacher. One day, as she was walking to her office, she said, over her shoulder, “You could be a writer.” Teachers: Never underestimate the power of encouragement. Which is why 50-for-50 is a such good idea to give money to. Hint, hint.

What do you love to write about?

I love to write about the interstices of things – the gaps between our understanding.

I dig into topics we assume we understand. Like comfort, the topic of my first book. What the hell is there to say about comfort beyond “Go take a bath?” Turns out, it is a vast subject with roots and tendrils connected to creativity, self-determination, self-love and a whole lot more.

I’ve recently picked up a novel I started working on last year during National Novel-Writing Month. The themes in this fantasy romp include being addicted to busyness, the definition of magic, and how to create meaning in life. It’s all set against a backdrop of flying squirrels and middle-aged witches. So I’ve got that going for me, too.

What has writing taught you?

  • Perseverance, while neither sexy nor slimming, is my super power.
  • A little planning, while neither sexy nor speedy, saves my creative ass and helps me keep going.
  • Comparing myself to others is a waste of energy I could use to persevere.
  • I will always make mistakes. (Here I could compare myself to Grammar Girl but that would be a waste of my energy – see above).
  • Serving can take many forms.
  • Creating, and helping others create, is as necessary for me as water and chocolate.

How has writing made you stronger?

It has helped me fall in love with reality.

When you spend lots of time in the gap between what you want to create and what you actually produce, you either end up hating yourself and eating boxes of glazed donuts until you fall into a sugar coma, or you humbly submit to being imperfectly here, putting one foot in front of the other, one word after the other. It constantly surprises me, but the latter is actually preferable.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Never believe anybody, including yourself, who says you aren’t talented enough to create. Nobody and nothing can take that from you. The creative flow state is yours to claim and you must do so, and often, if you are to enjoy being here on this earth. Please don’t quit just because it’s hard. It just is. It’s not you.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

This sounds pretentious but one of my favorite books is War and Peace – the way Tolstoy captures how life really is, rather than how we think it is, makes me shiver.

I love poetry, including the usual poetic faves like Rumi, Kabir, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, and William Stafford and slightly less yoga-class-faves like Alison Luterman, Ellen Bass, Danna Faulds, Mark Nepo, and Adam Zagajewski. Poetry helps me savor life.

I love your newsletter. I read every single issue, even when I’m not that interested in what you are writing about, because of how you write. You could make the directions for putting on the toilet paper fascinating.

I love GOOD for their excellent journalism, and personal challenges like limiting yourself to making one paper grocery bag of garbage a week.

I also read Salon.com and The Atlantic almost daily because then I feel smart enough to rant with enthusiasm.

Jen Louden is a best-selling author of six books, a novelist-in-training, leads world famous retreats (including a writing retreat outside Boston), and walks around astonished by life most of the time. Visit Jen’s experiment in Savoring & Serving at http://JenniferLouden.com.

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