50-for-50 interview: Jennifer Lehr, fearless revealer

jennifer schlosberg lehr

Jennifer Lehr writes, designs, and parents, but mostly she gives lessons in chutzpah. A fine artist by training, she wrote and published a memoir detailing her own sexual life to illustrate the importance of living a healthy emotional one (with a stop at the legendary Yaddo, to boot). She created a successful personalized-book business, and when technology rendered that industry obsolete, she started a second business in interior design. Most importantly, when she became a mother, she decided she would raise her children with the full consciousness she’d fought so hard to uncover and made a full commitment with her husband John to run a RIE-parented household. Now, armed with the real-life lessons she’s learned, she’s spreading the word about the alternative form of child-rearing via a new book, a blog, and as many outlets as she can muster, haters and doubters be damned. When I grow up, I want to be as fearless as Jennifer.

When did you decide to become a writer?

It wasn’t something I intended to do. It just sort of happened. Usually I tell a really abbreviated version of this story because I know people’s attention spans are getting shorter by the minute, BUT! because this series of interviews is part of Colleen’s project to raise $50K for WriteGirl which helps teens communicate better, I thought I’d go back a little further to when I teen myself. Or actually even a little further than that.

Ever since I was a little I’d always though of myself as an artist—of some kind. Like many kids, in elementary school I was constantly putting on plays with my friends. And I mean constantly. My sister and I had an enormous closet full of dress up clothes that we bought at a church flea market every year and there’s nothing I liked more than to dress up and talk! In high school I started taking ballet, I got into making sculptures and I also created these improvised monologues where I’d pretend to be people who have various made-up handicaps—like my body froze periodically or I had to have my hands above my head all the time in order for my blood to flow properly. They were weird and intriguing and funny. I’m not sure where they came from, but performing them really gave me a charge.

In college I was really inspired by the environmentally-scaled work of Christo so when I was asked to create a piece for my sculpture class that involved at least seven of the same object, I went big. I borrowed seven VW Bugs and parked them on the Lacrosse field in the middle of winter. It looked really cool and caused quite a stir. So much so that I went on to make some bigger pieces with up to 50 cars or so in Durham, Cleveland and Staten Island. The performances certainly made great photo ops and garnered me so good press, but ultimately it wasn’t satisfying because I wasn’t really “saying” anything that was important to me.

In my early twenties I started to create projects that more directly looked at communication itself. First  I created The Party as Performance, where I essentially gave a party for 250 people but deconstructed it at the same time. There were cordoned off spaces with prescribed topics and only certain sexes could talk at various times. I was interested in questions like: How did men and women talk about the same subject differently? If both sexes could speak, who usually would dominate a conversation? Etc. How long and how in depth can you go into one topic? What would it be like to talk to total strangers about something very specific? Would it create intimacy more quickly?

A couple of years later I created Boxes, a self-portraits of sorts where I catalogued all of the letters and notes and cards I’d saved. (This was pre-email so the number was very finite.) I was interested in looking at how different people perceived me: friends, boyfriends, parents, teachers, bosses etc. Then I created this wall installation called Endings, another self-portrait, in which I catalogued every relationship I’d ever had and if the relationship was over (former friends, boyfriends etc) on what terms did they end? Looking back I can see I was always hinting at ideas but not coming right out and saying them directly. But they were strong enough to get me into UCLA’s super competitive MFA Program in the New Genres department. Because really how else could one categorize the variety of stuff I was making?

I found that art school was like high school but on steroids. Cool kids. Punks. Hipsters. Heroin users. Geeks. And I didn’t know where I fit in. But I knew enough to let my insecurities inspire my next project. This is the project where I started out as an artist making conceptually based performance/installation stuff and emerged a full-fledged writer.

At first I called the project Face Drawings. I invited all of the students and faculty (a total of 78 people) to come to my studio to draw my face and to let me draw theirs. As a thank you for their participation, I was going to give each person a book of all the drawings. I did warn in my invite, however, that if they didn’t come there would be a blank page in the book, with their name on it. This pissed some people off. Immediately, the rumors started swirling around the project. Why was I doing it? Some thought it was because I was a loser with no friends and was using my art to meet people. Others thought it was a highly calculated way to get drawings from the many famous faculty members.

It was a very tense time for me. The drawing sessions were fun but every time I passed someone there was this unspoken tension. Were they offended by my invite? Were they going to do it? If not, why not? Did they not like me? My project? Was I uncool?

In the end, exactly half came and half didn’t. And when it was over, as promised, I made a book of all of the drawings. I had a meeting with my professor, the very gentle, brilliant John Baldessari and he wanted to know all about the project.  Who came? Who didn’t? What the drawing sessions were like? It was a full-on gossip session. I told him that I’d actually been thinking about writing some of these thoughts down in the book. He LOVED the idea. I don’t remember how he said it, or what he said exactly but I was inspired. I went right home and sat down at my computer and started writing a chapter on each person, my uncensored thoughts on why I thought they did or didn’t come draw me. I immediately felt a very intense sense of relief to be able to say exactly what I truly thought, without caring what anyone else thought of it or me.

Soon word got out about the project and many a person didn’t like that I was writing my thoughts about why I thought they did or didn’t come draw me. Even though they didn’t know what I was writing, just the idea that I was writing about them made them very uncomfortable. So much so that many stopped talking to me. One professor even asked me to drop his class, via voicemail! Some called my book, which I was now calling 78 Drawings of my Face, unethical. Or amoral. Two other professors, gave me the silent treatment. For a year. But then they basically begged me not to publish my book. No, they hadn’t read it, but they didn’t know if I’d written anything incriminating about them. And I had no idea what kind of thing they were nervous about me publishing. Had they slept with a student? Done drugs with them? Here were two of the most well-known avant garde artists of their time, basically begging me to change my art project.

In the end I self-published five copies and put it in the school library where anyone could take a gander. I also gave a performance with selections of the text.

While my book was more of a journal, albeit one with a highly conceptual format, it wasn’t something I “wrote” so much as something I poured onto the page. I was trying to expose myself. This is me. These are my real thoughts. If you don’t like them, fine. But this is who I am. The project actually became so controversial that it made its way into the pages of  The New York Times Magazine and even attracted the interest of the great Pat Morrison who wrote a feature about it for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. I had definitely, as they say, “found my voice”. And I knew exactly what the name of my next book would be: Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex.

That is the story of how I became a writer.

Who was your favorite teacher?

John Baldessari because he gave me permission to really be myself.

What do you love to write about?

I write about things that get me worked up.

Right now I’m writing about the depressing ways our culture (in general) treats children

What has writing taught you?

That you can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t try to.

That you can change someone’s mind.

How has writing made you stronger?

I know many people will hate what I have to say and how I say it. But that’s okay. I don’t write to be loved. I write to share thoughts and ideas that I think are important.

Writng really enables me to refine my thoughts. Sometimes it’s hard to know what I truly think about something without taking the time to write it, rewrite it and then rewrite it again. Knowing what I really think instead of what I vaguely think enables me to live life with more conviction.

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

Two things:

Don’t spend so much money on clothes.

Sex isn’t anything like what you’re seeing in the movies.

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

Right now I’m not so much into reading stuff that is “my favorite” per se, but rather work that inspires me to think in different ways. Here’s my list:

1. I love the work of Alain deBotton, particularly How Proust Can Change Your Life.

2. Your Self-confident Baby was life altering.

3. Let Kids be Free is a college thesis by Elana Davidson that articulates really important ideas.

4. Alfie Kohn is brilliant and thorough. Read his essays, his books and go hear him talk!

5. And communicatrix.com always is full of suggestions that help my life!

Jennifer Lehr is the author of the memoir Ill-Equipped-for a Life of Sex (2004, HarperCollins), an Elle magazine Must Read. She blogs at Good Job! and Other Things You Shouldn’t Say or Do (Unless You Want to Ruin Your Kid’s Life). Also an interior designer (J/B Design Projects), Jennifer lives in her native Los Angeles with her husband John and their two children.

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