Jean and Jeanne

Jean/ne was a popular name the generation just before mine, a Baby Boomer name par excellence. As it happens, Lynn/e was also a popular Boomer name, that I, a Gen Xer, happened to get because my parents chose a name, Lynne Sue, that had Korean sounds and syllable arrangements. (Oh how I wanted to be one of the Jennifers, though.)

Despite having an equally old-fashioned name, I looked up to Jeans and Jeannes. They were my teachers, my mentors, the more senior women at work who showed me the way.

How meaningful, then, to have recently won two awards named after them. The first was the Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, named after a prominent literary magazine editor who tragically died in a car accident. The second was the Jean Jew Award for Women’s Rights, honoring a professor who sued the University of Iowa for sexual harassment and won.

I never gave much thought to awards before, but then I had never really won any. But I now realize they can be a way to extend mentorship among people who have never crossed paths in person. I’ve never met either Jeanne Leiby or Jean Jew (though Professor Jew, now retired, sent me lovely flowers!), but I feel mentored by them nonetheless. From Jeanne: this path you’ve chosen, you can do it, I did it, you can be a woman editor. From Jean: Keep standing up for your rights and for the rights of other women.

I was asked to deliver remarks at the Jean Jew Award ceremony. How terrifying! But I quickly realized I had something to say. Here’s what I said:

Thank you so much for this honor.

My private definition of a mentor is someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself.

I’ve been lucky to have female mentors who’ve encouraged me to reach beyond what I thought possible, and I want to take this opportunity to thank them.

My mother, Sookja Chung, who modeled female achievement by moving to a new country at age 21 and learning the language well enough to eventually teach calculus in it for many years.

My educators throughout high school, college, and graduate school, including Teresa Jorgen, Jan O’Neil, Lauren Berlant, Catherine Peyroux, and Florence Boos, who have been feminist to the core, and have made me a proud feminist from the get-go.

And last but not least my current colleagues who nominated me for this award. Though younger than me, they too are mentors as they set a bar for me to live up to.

Thank you Kate Conlow, Morgan Jones, and Emily Ward for setting that bar high, thank you to the Council on the Status of Women and the Women’s Resource and Action Center for mentoring women by sponsoring this award, and heartfelt thanks to Jean Jew for showing us all the way.

The only way I can possibly find myself worthy enough to accept an award in her name, and to stand among the distinguished other awardees at this ceremony, many of whom I’ve revered from afar, is to see it as a challenge to live according to Dr. Jew’s example of bravery and truth telling, and to in turn mentor and empower others.

Learning of her ordeal and those of countless other women and people of color teaches us that if you’ve been at the wrong end of an abuse of power, a pattern of events will likely play out:

– you will not be believed,
– you will be asked to keep silent,
– you will be told that something about you made you deserve how you were treated,
– the narrative will shift to your character rather than what happened to you,
– this will only become more entrenched if you speak out, because then you are officially a troublemaker,
– and larger institutions will seem to accept the now official narrative.

However, you might discover the following to happen as well:

– people you never expected will step forward in support,
– you’ll gain new insights into how power operates,
– you’ll become more comfortable and effective in making trouble,
– and you’ll be more able to step forward in support of others.

Narratives and institutions can change, as Jean Jew proved, and as the existence of her award and this very event, the Celebration of Excellence and Achievement Among Women, proves.

The community of mentors is deep, and is here for you.

I’ll stand here and say for them that yes you can do the hard thing you don’t think you have in you.

Thank you again. It’s a true honor to receive this award. 

So Anyway, Des Moines

So as I was saying a moment ago (ahem), Des Moines. The Creative Capital workshop. The way I was cruelly forced to write down an artistic goal. I did, under extreme duress. “Nest,” I wrote, as my entire being shouted “How dare you think you could write a grocery list, much less a book?”

But I had no choice. I had to write down a goal, even if I had made it up that second because I had no experience in having goals. And then, bam, by January I had a chapbook manuscript that I was submitting to contests. By June it was the finalist in a contest. And by October it had won.

Yes I put in hours of labor, but in retrospect it feels like it just happened. Less drama than most of my life, and more ease. As the Creative Capital workbook states, “The act of recording goals…informs thoughts and actions and almost inexplicably [my emphasis] affects outcomes dramatically.” As the other workshop participants and I would put it when I’d run into them later: “Everything we talked about at that workshop magically came true.”

A couple of us got together to write more goals a few months ago. That hour has given me a sense of purpose for 2020. All I can figure about what works about this process is that the big hurdle in art is making something that doesn’t exist a tangible reality. And it’s not the artistic labor that does that–at last not at first. Setting a goal is what makes it a reality. All the rest, to some extent, is execution.

Reverberations

Have you been in suspense in the nearly full year since my last blog post about how my trip to Des Moines went?

Well, it was one of those days that has shaped the entire year to follow and perhaps more. I meant to give a full report of the Creative Capital workshop, reviewing my notes and everything, but instead I’ll just say that one of the exercises was to draft a proposal for an artistic project.

Sweating, I wrote “Nest” at the top of my paper and then “Nest is a book of essays exploring the meaning of home…”

Since then I’ve put together a manuscript and submitted it to five chapbook contests. It includes pieces that have been published, but I also wrote additional essays.

The other day I learned the manuscript is a semifinalist in one of the contests.

Thanks, Universe!

This summer I had literally been thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if something professionally exciting happened to me that required no effort on my part to make come about,” when BAM, my uber-talented friend Lauren Haldeman won an Iowa Artist Fellowship, which involves a free professional development workshop in Des Moines run by Creative Capital and, in the most Iowa turn of events ever (up there with one’s UPS man giving one a watermelon he’s grown), you can bring a friend. 

She asked me, citing my artistic potential but also the fact that I’m “not annoying,” and I accepted, of course. Thanks, universe! And Lauren (who is often in cahoots with the universe).

The workshop is not until this weekend, but I feel like it’s already changed my life. For one thing, I had to fill out a self-assessment in which I estimated how much time I spend doing art. Here’s my current breakdown of my waking hours:

Family responsibilities: 64%
Job/earning money: 27%
Maintenance (chores) [which I took to mean separately from at home/with kids, like getting the oil changed, going to Costco, etc]: 4%
Leisure [like working out, date nights, etc]: 3%
Creative practice: 2%
Art administration (promotion, grants, career maintenance): 1%
Rest: 0% (LOL, what’s that?)

I’ve never quantified it before. But numbers are power; I feel that now I know I spend, for example, two hours a week writing, I could try to nudge it higher. And I also can recognize that there isn’t a lot of give in my schedule right now and lay off the self-criticism!

The same questionnaire asked me to write down three specific goals for the next three years. I came up with two: 1) write regularly, and 2) start a book project. Even just writing those down on a piece of paper, all alone with my green pen, before even discussing it with anyone, is empowering. It helps me think of myself differently.

And lastly, I had to write an artist statement. I’ve never had to do that before. I liked it so much that I’m going to share it here:

For many years now, when the moment for self-introduction in an interaction has arrived, I’ve said, “I work for a literary magazine.” If they already know that, or more is needed, I add, “I also write short essays…about my feelings.” I say this with a self-deprecating pause before “about my feelings” to acknowledge the common critique of creative nonfiction that it’s more self-indulgence or therapy than literature, but also to subvert that critique in a way, to admit and assert the importance of feelings. I’ve written about my father’s death, my husband’s medical condition, the double-sided coin of parental love and fear. Right now, holding down a job and raising two small children, my main task is finding the time and mental space and self-permission to write, but many projects large and small beckon from the horizon: a personal, literary, and cultural exploration of breastfeeding; an ethnography of clutter; an account of starting to learn Korean (my mother’s first language) at the age of 44, concurrently with my toddler son speaking his first words. I’m currently feeling my way through these situations and will hope to find connection with readers’ own feelings, especially the more complex and less easily expressed ones.

Off to Des Moines at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, then! I hope the workshop doesn’t involve role-playing, and I hope things at home aren’t too chaotic without me. (First overnight away from the two-year-old, eep!)