Outside The Lines: Lauren Carter
From day jobs to evening gigs and volunteer duties, Outside the Lines, is a series of posts exploring MFA graduates' lives and literary work outside of their primary writing practice...
Like many writers, I’ve done a lot for money.
I’ve worked in donut stores and diners, as an executive assistant, a travel writer, college instructor, jewelry creator and craft-sale-seller, and life-drawing model (yes, naked).
A serious car accident earned me a settlement that enabled me to shave my head and live on a BC commune for a while but after Jerry Garcia died and I traveled through the aftermath (so many drifting, sad Deadheads…), it wasn’t the same…
I worked in a newsroom for a summer, as a daily reporter, but discovered that I didn’t like having to break my focus in order to drop everything and run after a story whenever the scanner sparked with news of a fire/dog attack/whatever else. Once, the parents of a young man killed in a horrifying car accident asked me if I was okay when I was interviewing them. Clearly, not my calling.
My uncle saw that early on. A prof in a journalism program, he advised me not to go to J-school. It’ll destroy your creative voice, he told me. Maybe he was right. Who knows. Regardless, I opted for an undergraduate degree in English Literature and Cultural Studies and then, more than a decade later, for an MFA in Creative Writing.
While in the midst of writing my graduate thesis/first novel, I found myself dealing with intensely heightened anxiety. One day, I dropped something like creativity + anxiety into Google. Up popped Eric Maisel. Psychologist, writer, and creativity coach, Eric’s written over twenty books about creative process and the artistic personality including The Van Gogh Blues and Fearless Creating, which was the first one I read and which prodded me towards what would become my most beloved career path (next to writing).
Without that book, I’m not sure I would have finished my first novel. It coached me through the intense process of imagining and writing (and rewriting and rewriting) Swarm while undertaking what I affectionately term Plot Bootcamp with my mentor and thesis advisor, Susan Swan. The work was intense, draining, chaotic, constantly new (it seemed) and demanding. It was, I’ve since learned, my process of writing a novel.
It was Eric who helped normalize this experience. I hadn’t often heard artists talk about the role of anxiety in creative effort, and how it can be intrinsic to the process. His book detailed my exact experience of fear, anxiety, perfectionism, procrastination, repeated giving up, and taught me what it takes to navigate through that, get out of my own way, drop into the zone and create (or, as he calls it, hush and hold) and then calmly assess in order to revise. It was a game-changer for me.
After the newsroom, I went to see a career counsellor and she suggested that I try teaching at my local community college.
I brought in my resume and got a job teaching first-year students grammar skills and how to write essays (yes, it was as fun as it sounds). This position led me to further education in teaching adults and to doing lots and lots of writing workshops. Turns out, I love teaching writing – especially to people who really, really want to be there. Talking craft and watching people deepen their understanding of what words can do is amazing. But what I love even more is helping other artists see the normality of all the sticky feelings. And that, yes, it isn’t just them.
So, I did some training – mostly through an organization called Creativity Coaching Association. I traveled to San Francisco to take a course with Eric and was so pleased to work with a laid-back, grounded, easy going man without any edge of arrogance. Soon after that, I started coaching.
Since then, I’ve had clients from California to Qatar to northern Canada, and I’ve created online courses, one a series of videos that help people start at the beginning and launch a writing practice using lessons I’ve learned in my own creative life (including a big one from my mother, a visual artist who started painting after a different, more devastating car accident almost ended her life).
I don’t coach all the time, though. People often email me, wanting help, and then go silent once I respond. This is the nature of the game, and I get it. It’s tough to grab onto your dreams and ask someone for help to go after them. So, in order to make a living, I balance coaching with other stuff: residencies, grants, freelance writing and, at the moment, a full-time proofreading job. I’m also preparing to launch two books next year and hoping that the actually writing part of being a writer will bring in at least a little bit of cash (we can dream…)!
But if I had to choose one avenue for income out of all these things (apart from writing), it would have to be coaching. I feel so fortunate to watch my clients illuminate their goals, then work to get out of their own way and show up. I’ve been privileged to watch them push past resistances - guilt over not writing for years, those nagging, cruel inner critics, the tendency to freeze in fear of making a mess - and allow themselves to hush and hold and, simply, write.
I’ve seen them start changing their thinking, begin breaking bad habits, call themselves “a writer” for the first time ever even though they’ve been writing for years. I’ve also seen them get stuck and start learning the importance of self-forgiveness. Through it all it’s been work that gives me a deep sense of meaning, that feels a bit like a calling or what the Buddhists call “noble work.”
And, hey, I can do it fully clothed.
Lauren Carter's (2008 cohort) latest book is the poetry collection Following Sea (Turnstone Press, February 2019). Her second novel, This Has Nothing To Do With You, will appear with Freehand Press in Fall 2019. Swarm, her first novel, was listed on the CBC’s Top 40 books that could change Canada and Lichen Bright, her debut poetry collection, was long-listed for the Re-Lit Award. Her work has also placed first in the ROOM magazine Poetry Prize and the Prairie Fire Fiction Contest, been long listed multiple times for the CBC Literary Prizes and other contests and anthologized in Best Canadian Stories (edited by John Metcalf). She lives near Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she teaches, coaches writers, knits, feeds the birds and, of course, writes. laurencarter.ca