A Conversation on Right Livelihood With Laura Packer: Everyday Magic, Day 931

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.

Unity Village

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.

To learn more about the Right Livelihood Professional Training, please visit https://www.tlanetwork.org/Right-Livelihood-Training.  Learn more about Laura here.

This except of a longer interview is reprinted from Chrysalis: A Journal of Transformative Language Arts, 2016. The full interview is http://www.tlanetwork.net/2016/10/a-conversation-on-right-livelihood-and-transformative-language-arts-by-caryn-mirriam-goldberg/

Workshops, Readings, Talks

With Stephen Locke presenting Chasing Weather

I've been offering workshops, readings, keynote addresses, performance, and specialized classes for over 25 years around the U.S. and Mexico at various venues and communities.

Keynotes: My keynote presentations for businesses, organizations, conferences and festivals, tailored to the needs of your project, focus on topics such as creativity resilience, breakthrough thinking through the arts, writing as a way of knowing, community-building and self-care through writing, doing the work you love, or what it means to find and live our truest stories. Additionally, singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt and I do collaborative performances featuring our co-written songs and my poetry, each one focused on a specific theme.

Workshops: My workshops help people of many backgrounds discover greater meaning, connection, and joy through writing in community. Workshop specialities include legacy and vision, making life transitions, living with serious illness, right livelihood and your life's work, and writing as an ecological, mythological, and embodied practice. I customize workshops for each group, community, or event; workshops may be followed by solo or collaborative readings. 

Readings & Talks: I love giving readings of my poetry and prose (including improvisational poetry). I've presented hundreds of readings and talks at conferences, colleges, and events, including opening for singer-songwriter Dar Williams and performing with dancers, musicians, and other artists. Special readings and talks include:

I'm also roving scholar with Humanities Kansas's Speaker's Bureau and TALK (Talk About Literature in Kansas) program and available as a touring artist in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas through the Mid-America Arts Alliance's Touring Artist Program.

If you'd like to connect with me about the possibilities, please email me.

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Coaching

Meet Caryn for coffee in person or over the phone

Work with me one-on-one on writing (poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, or non-fiction) or right livelihood (making a living from your gifts and callings). Coaching sessions are individualized for your needs, goals, and timelines. Contact me here to arrange a free 20-minute session.

Coaching Topics:

  • What and How to Write: Find processes, techniques, inspiration, and magic that works best for you, whether you’re just getting started, returning to writing, or deepening your practice.
  • The Writing Craft: Explore the ins and outs of writing poetry, novels, memoir, non-fiction books and articles, and mixed-genre writing.
  • The Romance of Revision: Bring your strongest writing to the surface, and ready your work for publication, readings, and presentations;
  • Publishing Possibilities: Prepare book proposals for agents and publishers, connect with local sources, and consider other strategies to promote your writing.
  • Growing Your Readership: Find your best approach to reach readers, such as readings, blogs, presentations, and workshops.
  • Book-Whispering: Listen deeply to what a book wants to be, turn walls and blocks into opportunities, and and embrace the journey of what the book wants to be.
  • The Architecture of Your Writing: Unearth the best structure for a poem, story, novel, memoir, or article (Caryn's coaching superpower).
  • Workshop Design and Implementation: Research, facilitate, and assess sessions meaningful community workshops.
  • Right Livelihood Through the Arts: Make a living in concert with your callings, community, and experience. Caryn has extensive experience in marketing, website-creation and crafting, planning promotional campaigns, and more.

Sessions: Sessions include meeting for up to 45 minutes, followed up by notes, resources, writing prompts and/or readings shared via Google Docs. Coaching may be done in person, or via phone or video conferencing on weekdays, and as needed, some evenings and weekend times.

Fees and Packages available: I offer a free 20-minute session to talk about how coaching can best support you. Once we determine we're a good match, we can arrange payment:

  • 3 session package: $80/session for total of $240
  • 6 session package: $75/session for total of $450
  • 10 session package: $70/session for total of $700
  • Write Your Book Companion Coaching: customized plans available to help you start or make progress on a book of fiction, poetry, memoir, or non-fiction. Contact me to inquire about crafting a plan that serves you.
  • Finish Your Book Companion Coaching: Click here for more details
  • Individual sessions: $85

For more information, please contact me here.

Why Coaching?

We all have our callings: the work we're meant to do for a more loving, peaceful, and vibrant world. Over 30 years of working with writers, artists, activists, community leaders, educators, and healers through community workshops, college teaching, and individual mentoring led me to coaching. Clients who will gain the most from working with me have writing or work calling to them, plus a willingness to leap faithfully, honor their process, and devote space, time, and spirit to their work. My approach encompasses:

  • Process and Results: We will clarify your goals, set benchmarks, develop specific and do-able tasks, and make adjustments as needed. But we'll also look at your process: what conditions bolster your creativity and focus.
  • Learning What Wants To Emerge: You start with an idea, then we put your ear to the page to hear what else emerges. By deepening your capacity to listen to yourself and tthe art or livelihood possible, you can bring more of yourself to the work.
  • Body and Soul Wisdom: We'll explore ways for you to glean the wisdom from all of you, listening to what signs and wonders emerge.
  • Creativity Resilience: Whether you're writing a novel or planning a community workshop, the more you cultivate your artistic resilience -- the ability to bounce back from falls -- the more you'll awaken your widest and wildest creativity. I can provide you with prompts, ideas, and approaches to recover your bounce.
  • Getting Lost and Found: Creativity is often a winding path through surprise tangles of trees and unexpected giant parking lots where you can't find your car. I'll help you find more peace in the process and your way back to your work with new gifts and insights.
  • Redefining Blocks Into Opportunities: By redefining what people call "writer's block" into opportunities to replenish your creative spirit, ask new questions, you can find your way to your words. I have lots of tricks and tools to help you.
  • Work and Life Balance: One of our biggest challenges is balancing our life's work with our lives. We'll consider how you can sustain spaciousness for your creative process in concert with your day job, family, and community.

"Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." -- Rainer Marie-Rilke

Testimonials

At a coaching session

"I have loved working with Caryn! She has helped me take my experiences as a child psychiatrist, medical educator and Avatar Master, and find a voice that touches others. She helps me get what is in my heart onto paper. In addition to being a midwife for my messages, she is an expert guide for the craft of wordsmithing." -- George Thompson, MD, psychiatrist, educator, and writer.

"Caryn’s encouragement, even enthusiasm, for helping me revise and complete short stories has been a wonderful collaborative venture. Never the critic, she’s always the consummate partner in the creative process. Her skill, talent, wit, and wisdom have shown me the way to begin writing again, which is a restorative healing process. Caryn has taught me to reach deep within and unabashedly, without apology or shame, to tell my own story.” -- Julie Flora, artist and writer

"Caryn has been a treasured editor for several of my best-selling books, and other writing projects. I can’t imagine the writing life without her." -- Harriet Lerner, bestselling author of The Dance of Anger and Why Won't You Apologize?

"Caryn is unfailingly fully present with her clients and students and colleagues, gently offering wisdom or direction or knowledge or her trademark humor. When you meet Caryn, you realize you've encountered a truly unique human being, someone you'd fully trust learning from or being mentored by. I can't recommend another person in my own line of work more highly than Caryn." -- Joy Roulier Sawyer, poet, educator, writer

"When I first started running writing workshops, Caryn gave me tremendous wisdom and guidance. I don't know how I got so lucky! She was a powerful mentor and teacher at a moment when I was soaking up everything I could possibly learn. I have enormous trust in, and gratitude for, this powerhouse woman." -- Chris Fraser, owner and writing coach at Firefly Writing

"I've witnessed first hand the positive results of her one-on-one coaching and the creative, compassionate way she brings out the best in others. Working with Caryn is one of the joys of my life." -- Kelley Hunt, singer-songwriter and international touring artist

"To work with Caryn is to open your mind to the creative power within, and to show and better appreciate the creative power of others." -- Tracy Million Simmons, publisher, Meadowlark Press

Be a Patron

You can help create more transformative writing, workshops, and a new podcast series on the power of words. Please consider supporting my Patreon campaign for as little as $3/month. In return, you receive cool perks (books, poems written just for you, and more), early access to my new work, weekly inspirations to spark your creativity, and an in-depth writing guide just for patrons. More here.

Subscribe to the Writing Life

Sign up for my monthly newsletter for news of upcoming workshops, readings, and happenings. Click here.

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