A Conversation with Tristine Rainer

This month I had the opportunity to interview someone I've long admired. Tristine Rainer is a trailblazer and well-known expert in the field of memoir, having written two classic books on the subject: The New Diary and Your Life as Story —both of which have provided enormous inspiration to me as well as a wealth of practical tools on the craft of writing memoir. I am forever grateful to Tristine for pouring all of her heart and knowledge into these master works. For anyone serious about the art of journaling and memoir, put them on your reading list!

Tristine and I enjoyed an extensive conversation on everything from the ethics of being a memoir coach and her approach to working with writers, to the unique structure and process behind writing her novoir Apprenticed to Venus, which is about her relationship with mentor Anaïs Nin and is being released in paperback this summer!

Tristine Rainer is a recognized expert on diary and memoir writing and the author of two renowned classics on autobiographic writing continuously in print.

Her mentor Anaïs Nin wrote the preface to Tristine’s first book The New Diary, calling it revolutionary. Published the year of Nin’s death, 1977, The New Diary popularized contemporary journal writing and created its lexicon. According to Amazon, after hundreds of offshoot books on journaling, thirty-eight years later it is still the bestselling book on journal writing.

In the 1970’s Rainer taught literature and writing in the English departments at UCLA and Indiana University, co-founded the Women’s Studies Program at UCLA, and created that university’s first Women’s Lit courses.


In 1997 she published Your Life as Story: Discovering the New Autobiography and Writing Memoir as Literature (Tarcher/Penguin-Random.) The book anticipated the rise of contemporary memoir writing, and Tristine returned to lecturing and university teaching, at University of Hawaii and for eleven years as a faculty member in the Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC. Privately, Tristine has coached many authors to publication.

As founder and Director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies, a nonprofit since 1997, Rainer promotes the creation and preservation of autobiographic works, teaches, lectures and consults.


In her novoir Apprenticed to Venus, eighteen-year-old Tristine Rainer was sent on an errand to Anaïs Nin’s West Village apartment in 1962. The chance meeting would change the course of her life and begin her years as Anaïs’s accomplice, keeping her mentor’s confidences—including that of her bigamy—even after Anaïs Nin’s death and the passing of her husbands, until now.

She “blends memoir and imagination in this engaging examination of her relationship with author Anaïs Nin,” an intimate look at both the blessings and risks of the female mentor-protégé relationship and “a fascinating personal journey” (Publishers Weekly).

The paperback will be released July 16th!


Karin Gutman: How did you become a memoir coach?

Tristine Rainer: I think I invented the job. The first time I used the term "memoir coach," was in Your Life as Story and I added, "Say what?" because it was such a novel idea then. Certainly, there were editors who had worked with, usually, well-known people in publishing memoirs. But the whole field was being increasingly democratized. And we began to see the beginning of people who simply had a good story, or something important to say, who didn't have any name, begin to get published and to write literary memoirs.

The first time I worked as a memoir coach, I had been teaching autobiographic writing—memoir writing—at UCLA Extension. I think it was the first time they ever had a class on it.

Karin: What year was that?

Tristine: Probably 1988. There was a woman who was a well-known Brentwood psychic in the class, and she was writing about her life and how she became a psychic. She came up to me, and said, “Would you work with me individually on this?” And I said, “Well, I don't know. I've never done that. And I wouldn't know what to charge you.” So she said, “Well, how about $100 an hour?” I said, “Okay, let's try it.” That was the first time I did it, and she had sensitive material.

Karin: We’ve talked about the importance of ethics in being a memoir coach. How did that evolve for you?

Tristine: I don't think I was aware then. I think at that time, it was instinctual for me that if people were confiding in me, and they were within the protection of just writing, at that point, for themselves, that I would have to create some standards for myself. But I don't think they were conscious at the time. I think that I am a person who keeps confidences. It's just my nature.

Karin: We know that from your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus. 

Tristine: Yeah, I kept Anaïs Nin's confidences for more than 30 years before writing about that material. It has always been true that people feel comfortable confiding in me. And I've always taken it as, you know, somebody says, “This is between us,” and I say, “Yes,” I consider that a contract.

But I actually made a mistake once. And that's when I became conscious that I needed, at least for me, to formalize my ideas about what the ethics and procedures of being a memoir coach should be. I had a newsletter for the Center for Autobiographic Studies. This was way back; I mean, we didn't have the internet for sending out newsletters. We actually folded and sent them out with stamps. 

Karin: That's awesome. 

Tristine: People loved getting them that way. It was somehow very intimate. So each time, I would write on a theme related to autobiographic writing, and for one, the theme was about ethnic identity. I used an example of a woman who had consulted with me. I didn't think that I'd revealed anything intimate, but I had revealed that this was a theme of her work. And she came back to me, and she said, “I trusted you. You've now given away my theme.” And I said, “Oh gosh.” I immediately realized, oh, I really had done something wrong. And I refunded her money. And I then, at that point said, “Okay, I speak about autobiographic writing, and I like to include examples, but I'm going to have to have permission anytime I do that.”

So in terms of confidentiality, I thought that the best thing to adopt is the same standards and ethics that psychotherapists adopt. Because the work is so very similar, though, I think, for me, far easier. I would not want the responsibility for somebody's mental health without having the tools of writing to direct them to. That's just me. Because I think that it is a, you know, “Don't give me a fish. Teach me how to fish.” Somebody then can use those tools and take them forward with their own writing.

For each of us our story is precious to them, and there's an energy in keeping it within the creative cauldron when you're working on it. I'm of the belief that neither they nor I should talk about it much. But they're free to talk about it as much as they want, and some of them do.  

I think the best example was Elyn Saks, who wrote The Center Cannot Hold. I was teaching memoir writing at USC then and she was on the faculty. She came to me and said, “Would you work with me privately? I have a memoir. But I don't know whether I want to write it.”

So she told me her secret, which I now can tell because she's published it herself, and also gave me permission to talk about having been her coach, which not everybody does. Not everybody wants anybody to know that they even were coached. In her case, she was a highly functioning law professor, psychoanalyst herself, and has schizophrenia. And she felt the need to write the book because it really was not known that somebody who has schizophrenia could be very high functioning. She, even though she had tenure, was terribly afraid of how the knowledge that she had schizophrenia would affect her colleagues, her job, and her life, and she wasn't ready to come out with it.

So we worked provisionally, that she might never publish it, share it at all. She was going to see what it would look like if she wrote it. We went through a draft and she decided at the end of that draft that she didn't want to do anything with it. So she went her way, and years went by. Eventually she got to a point that she had an agent, and she decided it was time. And really, I was so delighted. The book that we did is pretty different; it's gone through evolutions since that first draft we did together. I, all that time, felt this was such an important book, but that it wasn't for me to make that decision to publish or not.

When she did, it was so liberating for her. She ended up getting the MacArthur Genius Award as a result of publishing the book. It was on The New York Times Bestseller List and turned out to be a wonderful thing for her life. She's helping so many people now, people who have schizophrenic children will write to her, and she always writes back. It fulfilled herself and her purpose in life.

Karin: Do you think it’s more helpful to write for yourself or with an audience in mind?

Tristine: I feel that anticipating audience in a first draft can create blocks, writing blocks. And so I suggest, even if somebody has to write on every page, “This is for my eyes only.” They don’t have to show me everything they write. This goes back to the question of privacy, which has been flipped around on the internet, where people write the most intimate things, share the most intimate things online, and they don't care about it. But I feel that for reaching the myth, which is what I'm going for, the healing myth inside each story, that there has to be a safe place for that. 

Karin: What do you mean by myth? 

Tristine: I guess I mean the story, and the story in its simplest terms, that leads to a realization. That realization is either for oneself, to change oneself, or to expand oneself to grow in new ways, and to be a different person, or it's to be shared and given to the community. So in Elyn Saks's case, it was to share and be given to the community, and I do think that that's very appropriate at the level of a second or third draft.

Karin: How do you coach people about writing sensitive, often deeply painful, material?

Tristine: Emotional flooding?

Karin: Yes, when you’re concerned someone may head down a rabbit hole. I believe you use a tool called ‘containment’. Can you talk about that?

Tristine: It's related to what Kathleen Adams has done with journal writing, with working with people who may have psychological problems, where the idea of just free and unlimited journal writing is not a good idea for them. She has them set a timer and only write for 10 minutes. So I suggest they deal with it in the same way. Time it. Maybe do it in the morning, write for 25 minutes. And then it's important to stop writing.

My daughter and I are working on a memoir now that's going to have a lot of dark and difficult material in it …

Karin: That’s so exciting.

It really is exciting. I mean, she is just such a wonderful writer. It's such a gift to me. We haven't gotten to the really tough stuff yet, but we've already talked about containment. And the very way we're doing it has containment built into it because it's just one scene at a time. We also talked about looking for the light, the moments of beauty, of love, even in the darkest times.

I watched the film Beautiful Boy. I had read the memoir and I think that the memoir worked for me because the author's intelligence as a journalist, and his personality, kept me safe. But the movie really did not. It was so hard to watch. It's an important movie about an important subject, and brave, but just not enough light in it to allow the audience to stay. And that's hard when you're dealing with a subject like addiction, which doesn't have a lot of light in it. 

So my daughter has a good way of writing that may help her. And by the way, in terms of confidentiality, she's given me permission to say anything. She is so brave. She really wants her life to have purpose, and she is doing so well. But she does not stay in the present moment. She writes very free association style and she will move through time so she can bring in almost anything she wants. I mean, you can move through time very easily in memoir writing if you have the right voice. And therefore, even if it was an extremely dark time, you can bring some light to the reader while they're going through it.

Do you mean by invoking other moments from her life in the darkness?

Well, it can be from another time, but it can also be from that time itself. I mean, even in the darkest times of her addiction and her homelessness, there were moments when she and I got together, and our love was still there. The desire to connect with love was still there, and it's a thread. In my case, we are writing a spiritual memoir, so we're looking… You know, God isn't absent even in those times.

The way I see it… if someone is writing about a difficult time or memory, they are writing about it from the perspective of having arrived here. So there must be a light force in them, even in darkest hour, that got them through.

Yes, completely. If there isn't that, then people are dehumanized. But nevertheless, they need the right circumstances to heal and finally be able to get that.

What is your approach when working with people, particularly someone who knows she has a story to tell, but is unclear how to tell it?

I work differently with everybody. But I do like to use Your Life as Story. I like them to have the book and be able to direct them to certain exercises to do, or chapters to read, so that I don't have to repeat all that material, and say, “Okay, this would be a good time for you to read the chapter on writing dialogue because you need some dialogue in here.” I like them to do the story structure exercises and refer back to it.

Frequently, it seems that they'll have already written several chapters but they got stuck because they don't know where they're going. So I like to read what they have before we start working together. And maybe correct in those chapters, where they haven't found the voice yet, to lead them to find the voice. I find that once they have a structure and the voice, and they can identify it, they then can run through a whole first draft and I don't need to look again until the first draft is finished. 

I kind of tell them when they've gotten enough from me. Once their momentum is going, I like to let them loose and say, “Don't contact me until you have a problem.” Because, boy, once that motor gets going, I am amazed how quickly they can write.

Somehow structure is the thing that eludes people the most. Do you find that?

Oh, yeah. And for some reason, my gift is to tell them their story. I will tell it back to them. “Here's what I hear, I think your story is…” I think that comes from all the years that I worked in television movies, and pitching stories. I mean, I was dealing with five stories a week that I would go and pitch. I was constantly taking material, true material, and trying to figure out how to shape it into an entertaining story, and looking, “Is there a genre that this fits?” In working with clients I get excited about the story, then they pick up my excitement and then they take it and run in ways that I never could have imagined. 

Do you talk in structural terms, using the three-act structure?

Yes, and most of all, it seems to be giving them an ending; for them to understand what a crisis, a climax, and the realization is. Understanding that they think they know what it is, but they don't. Really understanding what the climax of their story is, which doesn't always happen exactly the way it needs to be expressed in a story. So I think I add my imagination as a storyteller for them and then we find a way to make it real.

I carry their story with me once I get their material. I carry it with me when I'm taking a shower, when I'm going for a walk. It's working its way through my imagination. And so by the time I talk to them and tell it to them, I've got an excitement about the story that they pick up. That seems to be what works. People get themselves so tangled up in their story, because they don’t realize what they can leave out. We figure out, "This is the story. All this other stuff doesn't need to be in it. That character doesn't need to be in there, who's still alive, who's going to give you trouble."

The structure of your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus, is so unique and eye-opening—the two voices, weaving your story with Anaïs Nin’s.

Oh, it was so hard. For me, emotion comes last. It’s like an Asperger's thing almost. I see structure and I wanted to do something very difficult in the structure of my book. I had to play more fast and loose with memoir, in terms of chronology and freedom to imagine where something could be placed, more than really anything I've ever worked on with somebody else.

But I had said for myself, “I want to see how the myth, the story inside one person's life, can change the trajectory of another person's life,” and that’s what Anaïs and I did for each other. I wanted to tell her story not as biography, but as it influenced my story. And so, to interweave them, boy, I just had to leave so much out, and jump through time, and pick out those moments where one of her turning points would influence me, even if it influenced me in a way where it was a misinformation that influenced me, or carefully revealed information that would make me go in the wrong direction.

Your memoir really pushes the genre forward. Do you feel like that’s happening elsewhere, in terms of the evolution of memoir?

Well, it's happening in France. It's happening as autofiction. That's their term for it. It's the most popular genre in France. They're frequently ahead of us, in terms of experimentation, and having a readership for experimentation.

Do you think this new territory makes memoir more interesting? Or do you think traditional memoir, being as true as you can be to your story, is just as valuable?

Well, with Anaïs, people have written straight stories about knowing her. People have written biographies about her that were carefully researched. So if I was going to write about Anaïs, everything has been kind of used up. So I wrote the book for myself, to see what I could do with this genre, which was taking it as far as possible, and to have fun with it for myself, and for the reader. And now I'm working on a book that's going to be strictly non-fiction. I'm not going to make up anything. I don't need to.

Sometimes what is a great idea, or inspired by a true story, doesn't fulfill what you need, in terms of story structure. But if you go deep enough, I often find that it does. Certainly, I'm not encouraging my writers to fictionalize. I'm encouraging them to look within the emotional story, what could be brought out in terms of making a true story more powerful. Sometimes those may be things in one's imagination. One's imagination is true too. “I dreamt that this would happen.” “I wanted this to happen.” Those are real. And they allow you a great freedom without lying to the reader.

The perfect example is Mary Karr's Liar's Club. She's in the car with her mother and she writes “I didn’t think this particularly beautiful or noteworthy at the time, but only so so now. The sunset we drove into that day was luminous, glowing; we weren’t.

“Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both…” You forget that she's saying it should have happened that way because you get the emotional relief of it happening that way. What's important is the emotional release for the writer and the reader. But that is the power of fiction. The power of fiction is, “What if?” And I don't see any reason why a memoir writer can't use, “What if?” as long as the reader knows that's what they're doing.

Speaking of Mary Karr… In her book The Art of Memoir, she shares a quote by Philip Gourevitch who says that his works of memoir are just as great as his works of fiction. Still, the publishing world seems to hold fiction in higher regard. Do you think memoir has gained more respect in recent years?

I think that's it gotten better in quality because it has incorporated the techniques of fiction—scenes, dialogue, story structure, thematic unity, character development, character arc. That's what the new autobiography is, and that's what interests me.

One of my favorite writers is Pat Conroy, who was writing autobiographic novels long before there was such a thing as autofiction, or what I call novoir. He admitted that he was writing autobiographical novels. He was so committed to language and craft that, for me, it's tremendous that it's coming out of this man's experience who experienced of all macho sides and damage of being a man, and that he has the ability to write emotionally about it, and artistically, and with the craft that really makes it into a satisfying story with multiple characters.

And what about the evolution of publishing? Do you recommend following a traditional publishing path or self-publishing?

Most people that I work with, and that I like to work with, have a sense that this story has been given to them, and they have a life purpose in sharing it, realizing it, for themselves, and for others even if that might be a limited audience of family or self-published. I probably have a lot more people who are writing for publication, and I like to recommend them to a commercial publisher. Because I just think, for a writer, that getting somebody else to do all the things that are involved with publishing a book, it's just really nice to have somebody else do that for you. Self-publishing, well you just have a huge learning curve, but I greatly admire those who self-publish.

What advice would you give to someone who knows they have a personal story to tell, but might not be sure where to begin?

Well, I still think I have the best book on memoir writing, in terms of giving concrete advice on craft and covering the subject. So I'd tell them to get Your Life as Story. I think it untangles a lot of knots for people and gives them a roadmap and encouragement.

In terms of Apprenticed to Venus, which I hope people will buy in softcover, now that it's more affordable, I would say read it in terms of the freedom of how far you can go in experimentation. It's got two different voices in it, and it’s sort of funny. When I ask people, “You want me to tell you what I made up? Where I changed things?” People will say, “No, don't tell me.” They want to keep for themselves the story as I told it.

To learn more about Tristine Rainer, visit her website.

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A Conversation with Karen Kinney

One of my favorite things to do is talk to writers and artists about their creative process. What are their daily rituals? How do they go about developing their seedling ideas? While there is no single way, I believe these conversations can offer us insight, give us comfort and encouragement as we discover and learn to trust our own creative process - and come to own what we have to say as creative beings in this world.

My dear friend, Karen Kinney, is a fine artist who just released her book THE RELUCTANT ARTIST which is all about navigating and sustaining a creative path. In our discussion below, we dialogue about art and commerce, how to think about creative blocks, the importance (or not) of talent, and accepting the natural ebb and flow of the creative process. I hope you glean some new ways to think about how and what you are creating. I certainly did!

Karen Kinney is a professional artist whose work has been in numerous exhibitions, both nationally and internationally. Her art was purchased for the Lionsgate film “The Lincoln Lawyer” and resides in private collections across the country, including those of actor Bob Odenkirk and NPR’s Guy Raz. Her work often begins with a paint stroke, a shred of paper, or some ink scratches on pages taken from old books. The use of vibrant colors is important to her, as it contributes to the feeling of something new emerging from what has been discarded. 


In addition to small-scale collages, she also creates large installations and is currently building a temporary installation for the Los Angeles International Airport. She has a Masters degree from the University of Chicago and lives in Los Angeles with her husband. 

In her debut book The Reluctant Artist, Karen compiles helpful insights to release greater creative freedom. She offers guidance and wisdom to navigate a winding creative path and stay motivated over the long haul. Both for those firmly established in a career and those just starting out, she reminds us of the value of creative expression and provides important keys to aid in its development.

To learn more, visit


Karin: Let’s talk about art and commerce. You write a whole chapter devoted to it. How do you perceive the relationship between the two?

Karen Kinney: I make money through art, whether that’s through private commissions, selling existing work or public art projects. I also make money through odd jobs. My husband works at a 9-to-5 job. I am of the belief that fine art is best supported to reach its fullest creative potential when the pressure for it to consistently make money is removed, and it is allowed to be more organic and free. There are many other jobs that are more conducive to a regular, consistent paycheck. If I were the sole breadwinner, income would primarily come through other work, before putting pressure on my art to fill the role of a weekly paycheck.

Do you distinguish creativity as ‘pure’ and unrelated to commerce?

Creativity intersects with commerce all the time, and what this looks like varies greatly depending on what creative field you work in. I focus on the relationship between commerce and fine art in my book, which can look different than say, commerce and writing, or commerce and dance, etc. Because creativity is organic, meaning it does not usually take a linear path, generating money through it is more often than not a winding path. Developing a product with one’s art is one way to earn money more consistently. Some creative pursuits lend themselves much more easily to product than others, like offering a class for example. That is very much a product that can be sold and marketed fairly easily. But a product is different than creating for creating’s sake. And I find that in our capitalistic culture, money too easily becomes the lens through which we see all of life, including creativity and art, and I think this can often be to the detriment of creative expression.

I’m a believer in full freedom in terms of artists pursuing the path they want with money, but I think we need to have a conscious relationship with money and look honestly at its effects on art making and examine what happens to your art practice when it becomes solely a commodity. Because I think things do happen to it when it does. And those aren’t necessarily bad things for all people, but they can be. I find commerce can be a box at times that can limit what expression happens because certain kinds of expression just lend themselves better to being a product than others.

And I think we also need to be liberated from the belief that the value of the work we offer the world is only defined by monetary compensation - just because we live in such a capitalist society. I think it's the only lens we ever look at, in terms of valuing what we do in life. If everyone lived according to this belief, much important work in the world would never be done. So I mostly want to advocate that people look at how commerce impacts what they make and feel free to shift accordingly if they feel themselves burning out.

What if, say, you needed to return to social work to support yourself? Do you think that kind of work would suck you dry?

That’s a good question. If that were my situation, I wonder if I would then look at art not so much from a career point of view, which is how I’m looking at it now, but might see it more as a therapeutic thing that I need to do, just like I need to exercise. I wonder if my focus on it would shift so that it would really be purely something life-giving, to balance the reality of a 9-to-5 job. I mean, this is just theoretical, but maybe that's how I'd look at it.

So regardless of where money comes from, I still wouldn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on my art to make a living from it because of what I know it does to my own particular creative soul.

Would you say that it's important to find another consistent means of income to support yourself so that your art can be free to be what it needs to be?

Yes, I do think creativity operates best when it’s least restrictive. So even if some portion of your creativity is what you rely on for bread and butter -- whether that is a certain product that you made with it or something that sells well -- I think it's important as a creative person to have a space in your life with creativity that is unbounded and unassociated with money only because it fosters exploration. If your entire creative pursuit is dictated by making money, I don’t think you’re going to end up being very happy as a creative person, because where do you get to play? Or make a mistake? Or do something that nobody wants but you actually like it?

Perhaps it's best, then, to make money in something entirely unrelated to your art?

I think it leads to more joy. And I should qualify... this isn't true for everybody. Like some people who are more entrepreneurial in nature might find it really satisfying to make a work of art and have it sell regularly in demand; that might really fire them up. I think it's important to ask yourself, “What brings life to my soul?” That should be guiding the process. But in my experience I’ve met many artists who have gone the route of pure commercialism, believing that to be a successful artist they must make as much money as possible from their art, which I don't personally think is true. I think being a “successful” artist doesn’t have to be related to how much you get compensated. But anyway, I’ve known many artists who’ve gone the direction of needing their art to either produce a livelihood or at least a partial livelihood, and often burn out because it does require having a commodity, a product. 

So if someone likes a rectangle you made on a wall – and now they want it blue and now they want it in red – you churn out the same thing over and over again; for a lot of creative people that can get exhausting. It’s like, “Well, this might be selling and people want this, but I’d really like to make a triangle and not a rectangle, but no one wants to buy the triangle.” So I don't make it, and then I shut myself down. You know what I mean?

Or some people spend all their creative energy making a rectangle, so they don’t even have the energy for the triangle.

Right. Forget about even clueing into the fact that they want to make a triangle!

What would you say to the person whose income-producing job leaves very little time or energy to pursue their art at all?

That’s a very real problem too. Definitely, I feel like that’s really hard to balance, especially when you have a family and child, and you know, that all complicates life choices. I would say for people who feel like they don't see any space for anything. I would just try to encourage them to carve out 15 minutes on a regular basis to do something creative that makes them happy. That could be worth doing just for their own psychological wellbeing, whether or not it goes anywhere. And I feel like that's always doable when we think about just tiny, tiny steps. So that sometimes helps to break it down as opposed to getting overwhelmed by the enormity of, “Oh now I want to become a composer or filmmaker,” or whatever. These big, large ideas overwhelm us and we don't take action, all because daily life is just enough to handle. So sometimes just even small, tiny movement over time can open up something in us that grows potentially.

I'm a big believer that our stories are meant to be shared. So how do you balance valuing the creative process versus the discipline required to complete something so it can be shared?

Yeah, I am also very much an advocate of sharing your creative work with the world. That's probably what drives me the most with creating; I want it to impact people and impact the larger culture. So I almost always create with an end goal in mind. I actually am a very disciplined person by nature, which helps obviously. Especially because a lot of what I do is self-driven, and then once I create it, I go find a place in the world for it. That requires being fairly self-driven and structured. But I try to balance between moving intuitively with my creative work and then bringing in a structure to complete it.

So I'm not regimented when it comes to the actual creative process or thinking up ideas or having the birth of some new thing in my spirit. I kind of let that be very free-flow. But once something's been established in my mind like, “Okay I’m seeing this idea and getting thoughts around it,” then I’d say that's where my structured mind kicks in, and I’m like, “OK let’s start working on this and showing up for this every day to do it.” And then when it’s finished find the right place for it to go. For me that would be a gallery exhibit - or if I wanted to sell work in a store - or find another public art opportunity, or whatever. It takes different forms.

At what point do you step in and start to structure it?

In the beginning, I give things space to just kind of form - start writing whatever it is, or start drawing on the paper, or whatever it is you're doing. But I really take an observer role and I watch it and I don't just let myself go on forever. It's more like I'm working with it. I talk about this concept a bit in my chapter on listening. So as I'm writing, or as I'm painting the thing, I watch what's forming so I can get in sync with what it wants to be. Because I think usually creations have something they want to be if we're willing to partner with them; it doesn't just have to be us imposing our structure on something. I think we can have this reciprocal relationship that we're creating. So as I listen to it and observe it, that actually helps me with the structure. I'm like, “Oh here are clues for what I think this wants to be. Now what structure can I bring in to support what's already forming?”

I love that idea of partnering with our creative projects. So what about writer's block? Do you believe in it?

A writer's block or a creative block... Yes, I think there are always times when we get stuck or don't know how to move forward and I think that happens for different reasons. There are times when we are feeling resistance and we maybe know what's on our plate or we know the project we're trying to birth - and it's just like we're being resistant to showing up for it. And so that would be one category of resistance. In those cases it's helpful to either trick ourselves into creating or jumpstart ourselves - taking a walk or doing an experimentation or whatever mind trick we need to do to jumpstart our creativity again - if we feel like we're just not showing up because we are not feeling it.

But then I think there are other times--and you can look at my chapter “The Ebb and Flow”-- where the creative process seems to shut off completely. Those periods where it's like, “OK I've tried all my little tricks to get myself to create. I've done all these things and there's absolutely nothing, zero. I feel nothing. I have no ideas, like a blank.” I think those seasons also happen on the creative path. And I've learned over time to be much more OK when they come and more able to ride them out. Whereas I think when I first experienced times like that, I freaked out as I go, “Oh my god, what's happening? Am I not going to create ever again? What's wrong with me?” But I think over time I've realized that there is a natural ebb and flow to creating - sometimes there are longer periods where we just aren't creating. I call them dormant seasons and I think it's in those seasons when deeper things are allowed to process and kind of go underground that will surface in our future seasons of renewed activity. Basically there's value in having space in life. We live in a culture that basically says you have to be “on” all the time and I would question that because that doesn't allow for renewal, it doesn't allow for rest; it doesn't allow for new ideas to foster and incubate and then come out later. I think there are periods of what seems like stillness, and I think they are actually necessary and a valuable part of the creative path. But you're not going to get that affirmed in the larger culture; the larger culture doesn't understand. If you're not constantly producing, constantly active, you're told, “What's wrong with you?” But we're not machines.

If something completely new is going to be birthed... I can use pregnancy as an example. When a woman is pregnant, everything that's happening is happening inside. But it’s certainly super valuable - you don't have the option of skipping that stage! If you’re going to produce something really different or not the status quo, it would need time to come out. But the time before it comes out might not look like much is happening.

Do you think much about talent? Whether you or someone else is talented?

It’s not actually something I think about very often. I think people do have an innate talent, but I don’t think that means people can't be creative. I think everyone has something creative to express, a piece of their soul to express to the world. And so I like to encourage people to see the possibilities in their life. I think people too often get fixated on seeing themselves as deficient. And I think, “Well, that doesn't help get us anywhere.” I can do the same in my own life, like “Where am I not measuring up?” Or “I'm not good enough” you know. That's not a helpful message to perpetuate. I feel like we need to be affirming people's potential and everyone has creative potential. So whether they have a more natural inclination for something or not, I feel like they can still express who they are to the world and leave the world better for it. Really people should just do what brings them joy. Look for what lights you up inside or what's life-giving for you, because you're going to be happier.

Of course, the peaks and valleys are par for the course when creating. So when do you know if it's truly time to shelve a project?

I actually end up finishing most things, which is, from what I understand from other artists, a bit atypical. I have a very strong left brain, in addition to the right brain, so I think that makes me a bit of an anomaly, or less common at least, in the artist world.

I think one gauge is what I referenced before. “Is this project life-giving?” Because I think if a project is feeding us in addition to us feeding it, then it has greater potential to be finished or is easier to see through in the midst of the peaks and valleys or the times we're frustrated or want to end it. I think it helps increase the odds that it will be finished. So that's why for me, if it's just totally life-sucking for me, it makes more sense for me to shelve those kind of things and resume with something that has more of an energetic spark. There has to be life coming back.

Also, I think having a strong sense of self really helps a lot, because if you're clear about who you are and what your own creative voice looks and sounds like, you have a better sense of when a project really aligns with your dharma and it's bursting to the finish line, versus when it might be something that's more in the camp of experimentation and it's not necessarily meant to go all way. So I think having a strong sense of your creative voice can help to make those kinds of decisions.

I've noticed in my writing workshops some people feel compelled to underline that they are NOT a writer. And yet, there they are writing! Why do you think  people are reluctant to call themselves a writer or an artist?

It's a good question, because the whole journey to be able to call myself an artist took time. And I envision the same will be true of calling myself a writer. And why is that? I think people maybe just need to have enough lived experience to feel like they can really own that, whether that's psychologically or confidence-wise or to feel emotionally connected. Who knows how people relate to those titles? But I feel like for me in terms of “art” I needed to be at a certain level of confidence, whether in having completed enough art projects and shown them to the world or done the things which, in my mind, felt like, “This is what artists do and I'm doing these things before I can call myself an artist.” People have definitions around what all these things mean. But whatever those definitions are, I think people need time to journey down their path and own it. And it's not an overnight process. Ownership of identity means different things to different people. It's a very personal journey.

Was there any one thing that helped push you over the edge?

There were several markers that did matter. When people did first buy my art, that was a big deal, it did mean something to me. Or when I was in my first gallery show, that really did mean something to me. So the traditional markers people use did impact me and it did have significance for me in my journey. And even though in my own evolution I've evolved to a place of self-value that isn't reliant on those markers, it doesn't mean they didn't play a role. And so I think when people first purchased my art and the gallery exhibition in particular - when those first began - that was really exciting and it helped me feel like, “Oh, I am an artist.” These signposts for the things that the world defines, that mean you are one, they do still affect me even though I do ascribe to gain value from some kind of higher plane, but it doesn't mean they don't have meaning and value. The only problem for me with those markers is when they become the only things that people identify themselves by and then they start to be controlled by them; then I think that's a problem. But they serve a purpose for sure.

If there is one takeaway from your book, what would it be?

That there's value in your creative expression. I really want people to be -- not just encouraged in a general sense, but hopefully come away with a deeper belief in the value of what they have to offer the world, because that can drive all kinds of good things. And I feel like the other things will get figured out, like where the money comes from and how this works and what the journey looks like; those are all challenges everyone has to figure out for themselves. But if you're driven by a deep belief in the value of what you're doing, that's what's going to propel you over the long haul.


To learn more about Karen, visit

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A Conversation with Lisa Manterfield

I had the lovely opportunity to chat with Lisa Manterfield this week, author of the memoir I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home, about her journey through infertility. She is a big proponent of self-publishing and offers some helpful insights that may shorten the learning curve if you're considering going that route. She is also doing a unique experiment with her fiction (a serial novel!) so read on below to find out more.

LISA MANTERIELD is the creator of an online forum that gives a voice to women without children. Her writing has been featured in Los Angeles Times, Bicycle Times, and Romantic Homes. In her gritty, award-winning memoir, I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to MotherhoodLisa traces her spiraling route from rational 21st century woman to desperate mama-wannabe.

She examines the siren song of motherhood, the insidious lure of the fertility industry, and the repercussions of being childless in a mom-centric society. But this isn't just another infertility story with another miracle baby ending, nor is it a sad introspective of a childless woman; this is a story about love, desire, and choices and ultimately about hope. It is the story of a woman who escapes her addiction, not with a baby, but with her sanity, her marriage, and her sense-of-self intact. I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home is a 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards winner.

Lisa lives with her husband and cat, and divides her time between Los Angeles and Santa Rosa, California.


Karin: Where did your memoir begin?

Lisa: I had signed up for The Writer's Studio at UCLA with Barbara Abercrombie, and her husband was sick suddenly. This was a few years ago. And Amy Friedman was the replacement teacher. I just connected with her immediately. She did this exercise in class where she had us go home and write on a piece of paper, “What is the one thing that you don't want to write about?” So I went home and thought about it, and I said, “I don't want to write about infertility. I don't want to write about this... I'm living it. Not interested in writing about it.” I went in the next day to see what she was going to do with it and she didn't do anything with it. She never mentioned it again.

So that topic sort of wormed its way into my mind until I ended up writing about it. I always sort of laughed that that was one of her devious moves to get us to write about things that we “thought” we didn't want to write about, the hard stuff.

I really started writing about it as a way to deal with what I was going through. And then I kept writing and kept writing, and finally I thought, you know, there's nothing out there on this topic. There were very few books out there, but they were a lot of “how to” books or “miracle baby” endings. So I started writing more and more about it, and I realized that I had a book. I put together these funny essays and had some people read them; and I just realized I was just skimming the surface of my own story.

So I took a step back and started from the beginning again, thinking, “What's the story that I want to tell?” And I still wasn't sure what the ending was going to be, so it's kind of interesting that the process of writing the story helped me to understand what my own ending needed to be. Not just the book, but the ending for my own story.

For you, what does it mean to realize that you 'have a book'?

Some people go through a life experience and go, “I want to write about this, I want to share this story” and that wasn't the way it happened for me. I have always wanted to write fiction and have been working towards how to write fiction; and at the same time writing personal essays, which is what I did at Spark, writing short narrative nonfiction. So I never really set out to write a memoir, but was gathering this material and realizing that I was probably looking for a book myself that didn't exist. There really were not resources out there. I wasn't hearing this story... “What happens when it doesn't work out for you?” Does that happen to anybody? I just felt that somebody needed to talk about it. For me, it needed to be written, and I'm really glad that I did.

Did you publish traditionally or independently?

I did it independently. I did pitch it traditionally, and that topic - even now - is pretty taboo. There are very few traditionally published books around that topic. But I knew I just needed to get it out there; so yeah, I did publish it independently. And ultimately, I think that was the best move for it.


Because it is a niche audience. I think it's a much bigger audience than people realize, but it is very niche. Part of publishing the book was starting a blog, which has actually really grown into this pretty active online community. So that's something that came out of the publishing process. That in turn led to the follow-on book which is more of a “how to” book. Sometimes you make plans of which direction your career or life is going to go, and then things just kind of evolve.

But I like the self-publishing process. I like having that control. It's a lot of work, but you have a lot of control over it. It's a lot of work, but it's kind of fun to know that you've basically produced the whole product, not just the writing aspect of it, but the whole package.

I think so much is changing in the traditional publishing world now, I think it's really hard to get a book noticed, especially for a debut author. It happens, of course it happens. But it feels like that whole world is in flux right now and there are so many people publishing independently and really doing it well. It is a lot of work and the big downside, I think, is not having that kind of support system and team behind you that can look at your book and say, “I see exactly where this fits in the market and this is how we're going to reach that audience.” So when you publish yourself, you've got to figure all that out.

But the flip side of it is, you can get your book out there. And if you're willing to the do the work, do the marketing - which you're going to have to do anyway - there's no reason for somebody not to get their work out into the world and find the readers that want it. It's kind of exciting actually.

When you went through the process, whom did you hire along the way?

I hired Jennie Nash originally as a book coach to look at the overall book and the structure of it and the flow.

After you'd written a draft?

Yes. And then once I got it to where I was happy, I hired an editor. I have a friend who is a freelance editor and she was the one who actually edited for me. And then I hired a proofreader as well. The number one thing that I wanted going the self-publishing route was to make sure that it didn't look like a self-published book. That it wasn't full of typos, that it was well laid out, that the cover looked professional. So I hired all that stuff out, which was a pretty steep learning curve for me. And there are definitely things I would have done differently, but I'm still really proud of how the book came out.

What would you have done differently in retrospect?

As far as the package, nothing. But the distribution... I decided that I would print a large quantity of books and have them delivered to my house. It wasn't a huge number, I think it was maybe 250 or 300 books on the first printing, but when that shows up on your doorstep, there's a lot of boxes. And then I ended up shipping those boxes to Amazon, so double shipping costs there. The second book I used Create Space and Ingram's Lightning Source. Through those two channels I'm able to distribute to all the major online bookstores.

The thing you don't get with self-publishing is access to major brick and mortar bookstores. So that's definitely a downside. Just being able to do bookstore events, for example. Like my local Barnes & Noble said, “Oh we'd love to have you, but your book is not in our catalogue so we can't sell your book here.” But that's changing; I think they're now including self-published authors in their catalogue. And then I did a couple of events at independent bookstores where they took books on consignment, so there's a way around that stuff.

What exactly is Create Space?

So Create Space is Amazon's print-on-demand service. You basically load the book into it and they only sell through Amazon. But they print as needed rather than doing a bulk order and then shipping it. So that's great, that takes that double shipping out of the loop. And then Lightning Source is a similar thing - they are also print on demand - so I can get print books into the online stores like Barnes & Noble but their online version. And then bookstores can order from Ingram, too.

I'm curious to hear more about what you're doing now... It sounds like you're circling back to fiction in an interesting way?

Yeah, I have circled back and am publishing a serial novel online, A Strange Companion. I'm doing it on my website and I'm also doing it on Wattpad which is a bit of an experiment; I'm not sure how that's going yet. I'm posting a chapter a week of my novel.

What have you learned so far?

I have learned to listen to my wise friends who told me to make sure I have six fully completed chapters before I start posting, because I'm finding myself at the moment running headfirst against my deadline. But I haven't missed a deadline yet!

So the flip side is that having that deadline is making sure that I get to my desk and I get my writing done. I really just wanted to get my fiction out there, and this is a novel that I've written and rewritten and pitched and rewritten... many, many, many times. And then said, “You know what, this book is going nowhere. I'm going to put it under my bed and forget about it and move on to the next one.” So when I finished a second book, which I'm now currently pitching to agents, I have this book under the bed and say, “I really love this story, I want to get it out there.” And looking if there's a way to start building a readership for fiction and decided, you know, I'm just going to start putting this out there and do it as a serial novel. I know the story. I'm going to make a really clean outline so I know where I'm going, and then write, edit and publish a chapter every week. It's definitely gotten me working on this book again which I probably would have just abandoned. There's an instant gratification factor of putting chapters out there and having people respond to them. It's a little bit nerve-wracking; as you know, even as you get to later drafts of a book, things change and sometimes you need to go backward before you can move forward. But once something's been published that's much harder to do. I would say overall it's been a really good experience. It's been really fun, which sometimes writing can stop being fun when you're trying to get towards a finished product and you're going through, particularly, that revision process. For me the fun part is the new, shiny first draft; you get to your fifth or sixth revision and at some point it stops being fun.

Do you intend to go back and revisit any of it, or is it just going to be whatever has been posted?

At some point I will put it together and publish it as a complete book, but whether I will just put the chapters together and clean it up and publish it, or put it together and take another bigger look and make more significant revisions, I'm not sure yet. But at some point I will put it together and make it available in another format.

Some people really like the serial format where they look forward to a new chapter coming every week. But a couple people said, you know, I like the story but I'm going to wait until it's done because I don't like having to wait a week. I want to binge read the story.

Where did you get this idea from? Do you read other serial novels?

I do not actually. Again, talking about the changes in publishing and that there are so many ways to get your work out there in the world; I'd come across Wattpad, which is a writing and publishing app. It's this whole community of writers and it's more teen writers and young adult stories for the most part, where people really are publishing first drafts online and then getting feedback. It's a really active community... just seeing other writers putting their first few chapters of their novels up there, or publishing novellas or short stories that are spin offs from their published novels. So I've been snooping around, and thought, you know, this is a really good way to get this book out there without me having to commit to doing a complete revision before I do anything with it.

How did you go about building an audience for yourself?

Well, that's partly the reason that I did it actually, is to start building that audience for my fiction. Because it's really hard to build an audience when you don't have anything for them to read as far as fiction. Even though there's some crossover between the fiction and nonfiction, it's still largely a different audience. You know, we get hammered all the way that “you must build a platform, you must build a platform.” And I think it's really hard to do that when you don't have anything to tell people about. So that was one of the reasons that I decided to do this as well, to actually use it to start building a readership so that when the next book comes out, I'll already have a built-in readership.

I'm still on the fence on whether Wattpad is the right place for this, but I'm continuing to publish. What I've done is reach out to people that I already know - so friends, social media, using Facebook, and also then telling my nonfiction, “Hey, if any of you enjoy fiction this is what I'm doing.” It's definitely a slow growth, but it's an ongoing slow growth. It's an experiment. I'm not sure yet if it's going to be a successful experiment; I think it is. But it's serving several purposes and one of those is to start growing an audience and let people know that, “Hey, I write fiction as well.”

How do you access it and what chapter are you on now?

So this week was chapter 15 and that's about the midpoint of the novel; so yeah, the 15 chapters are all posted on my website. And then if you want to subscribe to the newsletter, you get a notification every week when the new chapter comes out.

So you don't have to sign up to Wattpad necessarily?

No. That's part of my experiment to see what kind of readership that generates. But my main focus is publishing it on my website.

In terms of process, what have you found serves you well in doing your work?

As far as having a process, mornings are my writing time and I'm very protective of it. They do get nibbled into of course, because that's life; but I really try to be protective of the morning. What I've discovered about the way I work is that I need to play first. I need to take my idea and play with it, whether that's writing exercises or writing nonsense or writing a lot of stuff that might never make it into a book. For me I need an outline, structure is really crucial before you go into that fully formed first draft. But I need to play around and figure out what it is that I want to write about first. And then put a stake in the ground and say, “Okay, this is the story, this is what I'm going to write.”

I know some writers who are up and at their desk at 7, and 7 to 10 is their writing time. But I need a little bit more flexibility in there. But I do try to get there every day and do something, at least touch the work, even if words don't end up on the page.


To learn more about Lisa Manterfield, visit

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