On Assignment

How do you know when it’s time to cut the cord and when are you just being lazy? I think the answer lies in the process itself. 

by Jen Lemen
by Jen Lemen

I dealt with taxes and bills and legal documents all day. Now there’s a thunderstorm outside (yeah! spring!), and this blog entry is my metaphorical frosting on what was a rather crappy day. This being my moment to create. This sat waiting in the back of my mind all day: You get to write tonight, I told myself when the numbers felt overwhelming, when the money, or the lack thereof, was so oppressive that crawling back in bed felt like a superbly good idea. You get to write about people and things you really enjoy, I coaxed myself. It was, in a small way, an assignment of the best kind.

Tomorrow, April 1, I start another sort of assignment, a longer, richer sort: To interview single mothers and write about them, capturing vignettes in the style of The Vagina Monologues or a book by two fellow Iowa Citians, The Oxford Project. And I won’t be in it alone. I’ll meet every Tuesday morning for the next eight weeks with my friend Eve at yoga; then over coffee we’ll discuss our week’s progress. A poet who writes all sorts of things that pay the bills fabulously well but pay her soul less so, Eve has decided to focus on a novel. Output is the name of this game. Followed by eight weeks of editing. And eight weeks of making connections, i.e., sending work out, trying to find a home for our voices.

I did not make this idea up, but rather adopted it from two creative mamas, Jen Lemen and Jen Lee, who cooked it up last December. The two friends, who had met via their blogs, and attended an all-women’s art retreat last summer, were assessing their work for the year and starting to think ahead. They both felt bogged down by perfectionism. They had so little time for their art making, and then when they did get around to it, they spent too much time worrying whether it was right or not. 

Lee, who lives in Brooklyn, has two small children, is a storyteller and poet who takes photos and has been producing podcasts as part of what she and Lemen came to call The Portfolio Project. Lemen lives in Silver Springs, MD, with her two children. Her plate is full with multiple blogs, including Supersisters for PBS that she writes with her two real life sisters, and Shutter Sisters, which she started with Tracey Clark. She also traveled to Rwanda last year and her life is suddenly shifted more and more toward world travel and non-profit projects, like this.

One thing that’s fascinated me is that I found Lemen via Shutter Sisters, which led me to Lee and The Portfolio Project. And off of Lemen and Lee I’ve discovered more than a dozen intriguing, exhilarating women and projects. Connect, connect, connect! I know that’s what the internet is all about, but this has proven to be an especially rich vein.

Let me get back, though,  to the turn of the year, when the two Jens were considering the possibilities of just producing work. “We fantasized about what would happen if we did a sprint,” recalls Lemen. “We actually laughed at the possibility of me making fifty paintings!” They made the rules on New Year’s Day – similar to those I’ll be following, but in a twelve-week cycle. Lemen’s goal was to produce one hundred paintings. Lee’s were more specific: A story and a poem every day (this quickly became one or the other), including two stories a month for a live storytelling event in New York and a submission to This American Life. She also aimed to shoot a roll of film a week with her new analog camera.

The result has been galvanizing. Although both women concede that much of what they’ve produced will never see the light of day, much more important are the muscles they’ve developed. “Now when I connect with what inspires me,” says Lee, “I’m really connecting. I’m doing some very profound soul work.” She says she understands her own creative process much more keenly — that it has its own cycle of seeding, growth, harvest and dormancy. (A poem of Lee’s that speaks to this is at the end of this post.)

Assignments are easy to find online, such as at Illustration Friday or Shuttersister’s One Word Project. Doing them is harder. Ironically, I came across a series of images that really stirred me on the same day that their maker announced she was stopping an assignment midway. Carrie O’Neill had started her “365 Illustrations of Love” back in August, ending with a wonderful series called the “ABC’s of Feminism.”

"Ernestine Rose" by Carrie O'Neill, part of her ABC's of Feminism series
“Ernestine Rose” by Carrie O’Neill, part of her ABC’s of Feminism series

She gave herself the assignment to get out of her usual habits:  “Since the drawings had to be done quickly, I found I couldn’t be too precious about anything. Normally I would do a lot of research and sketching, but with this assignment I had to just go for it. It has helped focus my drawing time, especially with the competing demands of parenting a toddler.”

O’Neill, who returned to art making after her daughter was born, says that preparation and regularity can help in sticking to assignment. All of the drawings for the Love series were done in the same size and she prepped them ahead of time, so that she could sit down and begin. Posting them on the web and at flickr was her accountability piece, akin to Lemen and Lee’s daily phone conversations.

"Mina Loy" by Carrie O'Neill as part of her ABCs of Feminism series
“Mina Loy” by Carrie O’Neill as part of her ABCs of Feminism series

Eventually, she felt bogged down by the project. Which hastens the question:  How do you know when it’s time to cut the cord and when are you just being lazy? I think the answer lies in the process itself. As we complete more assignments—and I use that word very loosely here, including my children’s violin lessons as an assignment; my freelance writing as an assignment; caring for my cat as assignment—we get better at listening to ourselves. We can hear that voice inside that says, “Stop. This isn’t working any more.” Or “Keep going. You’ll really appreciate the view when you get to the top.”

As I continue to sit with my newfound single mama self, I know that reaching out to these other mothers and exploring the moniker that is so overused and, too often, unfriendly, e.g., she’s a single mother, will help me to see myself more clearly. And it will allow me to work in a form that’s entirely new to my writer self. Best of all, I can’t wait to get started. It’s like a peach that I’ve been watching ripen for the past few weeks and now that April 1 is here, I can actually pick it and start slicing off the thinnest of layers, soaking up each juicy piece.

You Write to the Fence
Jen Lee

You write all the way to the fence, then there’s nothing
left to do but tear it down and
expand the border.  To stretch
your life by trading in Safe and Secure.
To stare the beast, It’s Not Enough, in the
face and let it off its leash.
It runs rampant–it eats the flowers,
plows down the picket fence and
knocks an entire side out of the house.
Its appetite for destruction finally
satisfied, it gives you one last look and
disappears into the woods in the back of
your property.

You weep at the rubble of the life
you constructed so carefully–at the
petunias you had color-coded and
lined up in rows.
What have you done?
What choice did you have?
You wrote all the way to the fence.

Your friends come to sit with
you in your mourning.
They are gentle, but refuse to
join you in your black garb.
White picket wasn’t your style, they say,
and then point to the field beyond
the wreckage.
That wild meadow, though . . .
Their eyes giggle with the secret they
hold in.

Finally the grieving grows stale,
you grow weary of drowning your days
in despair.

You buy a new pair of boots, and set
off to explore the meadow with its prairie dog
holes and snakes, and butterflies you try to catch.
They surround you like the words flying around
your head and perching on your shoulder,
humming in unison with the insects. 
You could walk until the sun sets without meeting
any barrier.

Instead you return to the house.
You crouch in the ruined garden, and then toss
wildflower seeds in its place.
You look at the building, with only three of
four sides standing, and you begin to
see an extension you could build.
A sun room, perhaps, or a greenhouse,
or a kitchen made entirely of glass and sunlight,
of panes that give raindrops a place
to run.
Your heart expands to inhabit your coming life,
regretting no more that you wrote all the way to the fence.

8 thoughts on “On Assignment”

  1. this may be your best post yet! thank you for introducing ‘the jens’ – i’m inspired by their approach to their collaborative project and i LOVE their artistic styles!

    looking forward to following your oxford project!

  2. Thank you for inviting us to be a part of the great conversation you have going here at Mothers of Invention, and for sharing our work. I’m glad we met!

  3. I LOVE this, you’re just getting more and more amazingly clear and creative by the day. The poem is living above my desk now…thanks to all three Jens for the inspiration.

  4. I just wanted to tell you that your writting is … marvelous. I love reading your blogs. They give me inspriation and hope. Knowing that someone else can give words to my thoughts, that I am not alone, trapped in my head completely misunderstood. Thank you.

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