I started teaching when I was 26. It was English 101 at the University of Kansas, a gig I figured would help me get through graduate school so I could cozy up with my real calling: writing. A funny thing happened on the way through the classroom: I was instantly smitten and soon discovered that teaching was just as much my real work. I regularly told my students, struggling with essay-writing on demand, what I told myself as a writer: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going. It served us all well.
This fall (starting July 1), after 64 consecutive semesters, I’ll take a one-semester leave from teaching . I’ve taught through pregnancies and childbirths (although my children had the good sense to arrive either at the very end of spring semesters or in the summer). I’ve graded papers while balancing a nursing baby. I’ve lecture-paced across classrooms with a baby in a backpack. I’ve fit classes into kids’ school schedules, and later keep teaching because they were in college, and their part-time jobs, loans, and scholarships didn’t cover tuition. As the years unrolled, I taught through chemo, surgeries, my father dying, and later — right in the middle of a residency — Ken’s father dying. Teaching was the backbeat of my adulting and middle-aging tap-dancing and couch-surfing moves and collapses.
Because Goddard is a horse of a different color, I’ve been able to teach at this Vermont college while living in Kansas and sometimes in my PJs. I’ve flown and back forth for 11-day residencies to Burlington Airport, my heart always warmed by the sign on the hanger proclaiming “Green Mountain Boys 1776,” and my gut occasionally trembling when I read “flight delayed.” I’ve adventured in the high seas of travel, once even taking three days to get the right combo of flights after being overnight-paused in Manchester, NH and Laguardia. But the flying is a small part of it: I’ve attended 45 residencies that start with two days of faculty meetings, then lift up when the students arrive. While there are ample wonders, the pace is often exhausting, and only once did I arrive home without instantly getting sick.
Most of my Goddard work entails packets — reading long (like sometimes hundreds of pages for thesis projects) — packets of students’ exploration, research write-ups, creative work, studies, and other bells and whistles. My life has been doled out each semester in three-week intervals when packets land, and I’m off to reading them and writing each student a long-individualized letter, often on my front porch or in the living room, and across many a coffee shop, airport, doctor’s office, or other places I’m paused long enough to pull out the laptop and work.
Mostly, I loved it, even when I didn’t. Starting a conversation with a group of students when I’m sleep-deprived (oh, wicked residency insomnia!) often turned into a revelation for all of us. Beginning a packet when I was mildly annoyed by a student using “it’s” and “its” wrong always morphed in my heart melting and mind expanding at what they were unearthing in their lives and the world. Then there’s all the administrative work I’ve done over the years, which I didn’t love as much but brought me so much satisfaction in seeing what good could come from attention to detail, hard-won collaboration, and taking institutional leaps of faith (such as launching the Transformative Language Arts concentration in 2000, and very soon launching the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, which I’ve chaired the committee of for three years).
Why not have taken a sabbatical, you ask. If only! The places I love to teach aren’t the sabbatical types unfortunately, so it’s been either show up and teach, or take an unpaid leave. This time, to my great surprise, when I was in the tub on Memorial Day, I suddenly realized, “I’m going to take a leave!” To my greater shock, when I sat down to see if finances would allow that, I caught up with myself: my subconscious has obviously been planning for me to take a leave because I’ve arranged all this extra work, some connected to the Miriams’ Well tour, and a lot more involving community writing workshops and the like. So I pulled myself together (truly), and started announcing, with great glee, that I was taking a break.
The world continues to give me green lights, but not “green-as-in-go,” more like “green-world-beckons-you-to-pause-and-just-be-with-it” lights. I stare into the magnificent Osage orange and cedar trees all around me, or up through this sycamore yesterday and exhale slowly. In three or so weeks, I’ll be caught up with the end of this semester (our semester officially ends mid-June), and I’ll lean back into the spaciousness of not teaching for a while. Then come winter, I’ll pack up my bags and happily march back into this work I love. I’ll tell myself: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going.
What does Right Livelihood mean in the context of TLA? How does it relate to finding and staying in conversation with our life’s work while keeping the cupboards and gas tank full as well as caring for our health, art, soul, and community?
Laura Packer and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, between them, have decades of experience. Laura has been supporting herself as a storyteller, writer, consultant and coach for more than ten years. They have teamed up to develop the Right Livelihood Professional Training, launching in June of this year. This 100-hour training kicks off with a long weekend at the beautiful Unity Village retreat center in Kansas City, followed by a 12-week online class, and weekly video conferencing with the likes of Harriet Lerner, Charles Eisenstein, Gregory Levoy, Patti Digh and other luminaries in the field. More about this comprehensive training to help you make a living doing what you love here.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: When I was growing up, I had no idea how a poet would make a living, and although people pushed me toward journalism and advertising, it didn’t stick. I was made to make things, especially out of words.
Now I make a living in ways that didn’t even exist when I was a teenage poet: I teach in a low-residency master’s program at Goddard College, traveling from Kansas to Vermont twice each year to work with students intensively in designing and implementing their individualized studies and facilitate community writing workshops for many populations, particularly for people living with serious illness. I love what happens when mortality is at the table, and we speak, listen and write from our souls. I give talks, workshops and readings through the Kansas Humanities Council and University of Kansas Osher Institute, and mostly on my own, conversing deeply with audiences on everything from poetry and wild weather to oral histories of people who survived the Holocaust. My work is a kaleidoscope of gigs and teaching, mentoring and consulting, driving across the plains in the bright light of early spring and occasionally flying over the green wonder of the mountains surrounding Lake Champlain to land again in Vermont.
What is your work, Laura, and how did you find your way to it?
Laura Packer: While I was pursuing my degree in Folklore and Mythology I had a lot of people tell me to practice saying, “Would you like fries with that?” I ignored them and persevered. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the degree, I just knew that I loved stories and that my work lay in that direction.
I met the man who would become my mentor when I was 19. He was telling stories and, as I listened, I knew that this was my path. It took me awhile to realize I would have to build the path myself. I worked part time for many years while I pursued my craft, but now I support myself doing a wide range of things that all fall under the umbrella of storytelling. I perform around the world to a wide range of audiences. I’ve told stories in pre-school, at festivals, universities, homes and so on. I teach, running workshops and coaching people ranging from storytellers to CEOs to parents to marketers to non-profit professionals and more. I work with organizations, both for- and non-profit, helping them understand and refine the stories they tell. I give keynotes and lead workshops at conferences. And I write, blogging about storytelling and taking on freelance assignments from a wide variety of clients.
It’s never boring. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of. I am always learning, hearing new stories and remembering that the work I do matters. Everything I do, as diverse as it is, touches upon story and the ways that our stories matter. I know that the work I do supports me both financially and spiritually. I also know that the work I do helps others. It is the right path and one it’s been fascinating to create.
Caryn, I’m wondering about the work you do with TLA and what that has to do with right livelihood. For that matter, could you explain what right livelihood means to you?
CMG: When I first heard about the term “right livelihood”—at Goddard College during a session on making a living true to ourselves—it chimed in me as something I had been seeking for myself and my community for a long time. After being thrown out of journalism school (the extremes we will go to so we can land in the right place!), I earned my BA in labor history, drawing on my concern since I was a teen about how our work lives infuse the whole of our lives. What we “do” colors not just our workaday life but how perceive ourselves, our communities, our world, and our potential to change. If your work entails saying, “Would you like fries with that?” on regular basis, it’s likely that being a fast-food worker shapes your identity, sense of self and what’s possible for you, and even your belief about what kind of work you’re entailed to do in your life.
Right livelihood is a Buddhist term, part of Buddha’s eightfold path (which also includes right speech, another TLA concept in my mind), and it connotes work that does no harm. Stretched out, the term points toward work (both vocation and avocation, for pay and just because it feels like our work) that serves, including conversing with our own callings as well as our community’s calling.
I didn’t realize when I was studying labor history, and later working as a labor organizer and reporter—all the time writing and reading and breathing poetry—that all would converge into my own right livelihood. As a transformative language artist, I draw on the power of our words aloud and on the page, solo and choral, to herd us toward greater health, vibrancy, liberation, and connection with the living world. My work—both at Goddard as a faculty member and coordinator of TLA, and as a working artist facilitating brave spaces for others to find more of their own voices and visions—is how I practice my right livelihood. All of this aligns me with the continual conversation with a calling, but it’s also work that, at best, helps others articulate more of their own truest work in the world. In the Brave Voice writing and singing retreats I co-lead with singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt, we fly on the assumption that opening your voice in one way cannot help but strengthen your voice in your whole life, and I’ve witnessed many people making courageous leaps into who they already were and what they now need to do.
Laura, is that how it is for you too as a performer, teacher, mentor, and writer as well as someone I would call a fellow transformative language artist?
LP: Caryn, you hit the nail right on the head. Right livelihood means work that enlivens and enriches us thoroughly, from fiscal health to spiritual health and beyond. It’s work that nourishes our spirits as well as our bodies and allows us to function as contributing members of a larger community, which is what artists are.
When I remember the value of my work in that larger picture, as someone who brings something powerful to a community as well as enriching my own life, it’s easier for me to be able to charge appropriately, advocate for myself and remember that what I do, as well as all other artists, matters.
CMG: Absolutely! I think part of this work, to really put the “right” into “right livelihood,” entails making paths for and sometimes with other artists. Little makes me as happy as seeing someone I helped mentor come out with a first book or start giving writing workshops in their communities.
Laura, you’ve talked with me before about the importance of charging what we’re worth as a way to honor those who come after us. The whole issue of what to charge, and how to ask for what our work is worth, is challenging and variable for me. I’ll do some things for hardly anything or for free, and other things for a livable stipend, yet negotiations can encompass lots of gray areas. I find our system of working this out to be awkward: an organization will often not say what it can afford until I suggest an amount. I often present what I charge as a range from the lowest I’m willing to accept to the highest I believe I should be paid, and if it’s something I really feel is mine to do, I try to convey that I’m open to negotiation.
Of course, all these issues speak to our cultural tendency to soil our money relationship with shame, privilege, hurt, defensiveness and other difficult guests to host. I’ve had a lot of help along the way to ask for what my work is worth, even and especially as a poet. Once a representation of an organization I was working with told me, a few hours before my gig there, that they didn’t have enough in the budget to pay me what we agreed on, so would I take a cut in pay? The musician I was collaborating with wasn’t asked to take a cut, so we talked this over, and together told the organization, “no,” but it was eye-opening for me, re-affirming my bias against myself that poets don’t get paid or paid much. Having someone stand tall with me helped me to challenge my self- and poet-destructive thinking, and hopefully, as time goes on, may have some effect for others too.
How do you navigate all this?
LP: Oh, this is a hard one! I feel like I don’t navigate it well much of the time, but I do the best I can, which is all any of us can do. Money is such a taboo subject, I try to understand my own prejudices and fears as well as talk about it, so it becomes less taboo. I use several tools to help me think and talk about money.
First, I talk with my colleagues about what they charge. If we remove some of the secrecy, we can all charge a living wage AND put a dent in the cultural idea that transformative language art should be cheap and that those who hire us should pay us less than they would their caterer, organizer, musician or others. It’s related to your experience with being asked to take a pay cut when your musician friend was not; if we charge a reasonable amount and know that we aren’t pricing ourselves out of range of our colleagues but in alliance with them, it can be easier to ask for. Additionally, by talking about it with my colleagues we get to remind ourselves that we are charging for far more than the 30 or 60 minute event, but for all of the time and experience that lies behind it.
Second, I do what you do. I often give the representative a range of cost and then remind them that this is how I make their living. I also tell them that I am open to negotiation (if I am).
Third, if I give work away for free or at a greatly reduced cost, I always give an invoice that reflects what I would have wanted to be paid. This helps lay groundwork that what I, and other TLA artists do, is valuable and worth paying for.
Fourth and last, I remember what a wise friend said to me, when I asked him money questions. He told me, “You can always negotiate down, you can’t negotiate up. Think about what you want and then ask for double.” I don’t do it quite this way (asking for double feels too bold for me) but I do ask for what I want and a little more. I can lower my rate, shorten the event, barter for other services but once I’ve set a price I can’t really come back and ask for more unless they ask for more service first.
When I remember to financially value my own work I am not only telling myself that what I do is worthwhile, I am also telling the rest of the world that art matters.
CMG: That’s very wise advice, and I love the idea of the invoice for what this is worth. There’s something magical about saying on paper “this is what my work is worth” when it comes to inviting in more lucrative work to balance out what we feel drawn to give away.
I’ve been thinking of what I do for free lately because in the last few months. I have one project that I’m grappling with because it’s sort of a “closure” project with a group of people, a way to share some social capital after working with this group for many years in the past. In the long run, I know this project is what I should be doing, but it’s sometimes difficult to balance the volunteer work with the paid work and still have time (not!) to write.
I’ve also been editing a book for a wonderful poet in his dying days, and that’s a sweetheart labor of love through and through. It’s an immersion in grace to be able to do this for someone I love and whose poetry is so important to share with others who can find a lot of sustenance in what he has to say about death, dying and life.
Often though, it’s hard for me to know the impact of my work and if I’m making the best decisions about where to put my time. My husband, also a writer and grassroots organizer, and I often joke as we’re falling asleep that we won’t know the impact of our work until after we’re dead, and I think that’s true. We don’t know, and this makes think of a stanza in one of my favorite Rumi poems:
If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you’re causing terrible damage.
If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
you’re helping people you don’t know
and have never seen.
So maybe all we can do is to try to be faithful in being here with our people, which also means being faithful to ourselves, and through our work and being, open our hearts (whether we use phrase like “God’s love” or not in describing this) to dropping our pebble in the pond and hoping for the best for what ripples we make and receive.
TLA involves bringing together people to make greater meaning and unearth greater vitality in how we live. It helps us find—through our words, images, rhythms—our work in this life. Mary Oliver said in one of her poems, “My work is loving the world,” and I feel the same. What I actually do for a living and beyond is just a form of that ritual: practicing how to love the world.
As part of a ceremony for a dear friend who’s about to become a mother, all the participants were asked how becoming a mother changed us. For me, answering that in is fullness would take several books or more, but for now, here’s what’s come to me about what motherhood has so far taught me. But first, a caveat: Being a parent as just one of many paths. I believe I would have learned other lessons and swam through other experiences, just as vital and valuable, so I offer these as just one summary of gems found on one of many paths.
I had no idea how how much unconditional love I was capable, and before becoming a mother, I only had a glance of this light I’ve now experienced panoramically. Yes, the intoxicating bliss-love of new babies, and to my great surprise, sleeping in bed with us for years because we had to be together. Yes, the sweetness of toddler-talk and sing-songy operas about going to buy shoes. Yes, the camping trips with a daughter in tutus and swirly dresses, and the middle-of-the-night whispering a son back to sleep when we were too sleep-deprived to put our clothes on right-side-out the next day. But so much more, especially when watching young adults driving their own lives.
I had no idea of how much their hurt would be my hurts when she or he was pushed out of the elementary-school-age or tween or teen hives, stung and bruised. I had no idea how hard it was to not be able to protect them from the pain of the world, or how much an illusion it is that parents can keep their children (and themselves) safe from cultural fucked-upness or peers’ cruelty or other parents’ judgments.
I had no idea what perseverance and love in action really meant, or how time and the life force are the greatest healers. I didn’t know what it was align ourselves with the power of the body and the mystery of spirit while pouring blue light, real or imagined, over a child to get him or her back to sleep after a nightmare.
I had no idea that the sweetest sound would be the youngest son laughing in his sleep, or the daughter alone in her room singing a song she wrote while strumming her guitar, or the oldest son narrating a vision of women on another planet raising their hands while singing. I didn’t know how much I could bear listening to the same question thousands of times, or arguments for no good reason I could discern (except fear and hormones), or The Wizard of Oz book on tape a dozen times over a 14-hour drive. Or how I could bear my own pain as I drove away from him in front of his first college dorm, or from her in Minnesota, but then I didn’t know how distance makes no difference yet at those moments.
I had no idea how much I would love all of it, even the moments I hated and the times I fucked things up beyond what I thought forgiveable – the times I lost it and screamed at them, or tried to fix was clearly not mine to fix, or spoke when I should have stayed quiet, or didn’t step up when I should have, or made my love too thick or too thin – and then how we found our way to beginning again, holding each other and saying, “let’s start over,” and then starting over.
I had no idea how much we’d laugh ourselves into crying at movies that serve as family bibles – especially Almost Famous – or after extended family gatherings that show us how much we’re flourishing even out of dysfunctional roots, or while in the middle of the worst-tasting dinners during the longest road trips, or simply while watching Youtube videos about how Honey Badger Don’t Care or inventions that go awry. Or how we’re find pizza, cuddling under blankets, and even some laughter when the white’s tree frogs or rabbit or cat or dog or so many manner of reptiles died.
I had no idea what grace was until these three, and also how it doesn’t really matter how imperfect and human we all are because being a parent is just another way of being alive, just another path toward light and the sweet darkness, but also made of light and darkness. It’s a continual process of catch and release, welcome and say goodbye to, embrace and let go.
I spend a lot of time on my calendar, trying to ensure that I’m not putting myself out there too much at the expense of taking care of myself in here (this body, this home, this balance). Yet this year, somehow the convergence of all I scheduled for April eluded me. From February on, once I saw the totality of my over-commitment — 17 gigs — readings, talks, workshops, a keynote involving four flights, 1,400 miles of driving, and 7 states — I felt scared. How would I keep from getting sick and exhausted? Answer: I wouldn’t, and on April 29, I can say, that’s okay. Then again, for a poet and former poet laureate, plus someone who wrote a Holocaust book, April is kind of the bread-and-butter month of freelancing, thanks to the blessed and cursed poetry month designation, and Holocaust remembrance events. I’ve been telling friends that it’s a kind of obstacle course: run fast through the hoop, shimmy down and crawl under the rope, hoist myself up the pole, and go face-first down the water slide into the pool to swim 18 laps. I think running up and down small mountains while balancing an egg on a spoon is also involved. Each time I return from another journey, I high-five everyone I know, then begin re-packing my books, clothes, and notes for the next gig.
Some of us are hard-wired to leap over the cliff without remembering that’s a long way down, and it would have been wise to have packed wings. I’ve long realized that berating myself up for over-committing is a silly endeavor. I suck at beating myself into submission, and I wouldn’t want to give up these confluences of such meaningful work, beautiful stretches of mountains in the fog, loud music to sing to while driving across farmland, or people I get to meet and love in faraway places. In the last month, I’ve read tornado poems in a soulful Minneapolis bookstore to friends, family, online students I was meeting in person for the first time, and a Goddard student I hadn’t seen in years. I’ve laughed hard over gyros with old and new friends in Minnesota, complained about lunch and praised the beauty of the dogwoods while re-uniting with poetry therapy pals in North Carolina, watched spring leap forward in blossom and leaf from the northern to the southern border of Iowa, listened to people living with chronic pain read their powerful poems in Kansas City, and marveled at the dozens of prom-dress-attired couples filling Falls Park in downtown Greenville, SC. I’ve tasted nettle pesto for the first time in a Kansas library right before Stephen Locke and I presented our virtual tornado chase and associated poems and stories. I lucked into a private tour of Jay and Barbara Nelson’s stunning Strecker-Nelson gallery in Manhattan, KS, and just Monday, talked with a WWII veteran and a woman who grew up in Nazi Germany while presenting an Osher talk on Needle in the Bone. There
has been strong tea, too many carbs, occasional yoga, a round of antibiotics, a lot of hot baths, and serious thought about what kind of Spanx to wear. There’s also been an abundance of hugs, tears, deep talks, selfies taken with many a friend, and many manner of reunion or first-time connection. I would want to grow a bit more wiser when it comes to leaving spacious stretches of spring open. Maybe next year, I tell myself, and no matter what happens, even these blossom-weighted days and too-short nights have their gifts.
Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.
I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.
On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.
In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy teaching.
Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”). The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.
Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.
I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.
Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.