Lyz Lenz writes about the science of cosmetics for Jezebel’s beauty site Millihelen. She has also written for Pacific Standard,The Guardian, Aeon and the New York Times Motherlode. You can find her on Twitter @lyzl or on her website.
What first inspired you to start writing?
I always wanted to be a lawyer. But in High School, I missed class one day because I had gone with my parents on a trip for spring break and when we came back, we were locked out of the house and had to spend the night in a hotel. It was a mess, so I didn’t make it to school that Monday. One of my teacher’s made me write a paper about why I missed class.
I thought the assignment was stupid, so wrote it like a short story with lots of sarcastic asides. The teacher loved it and wrote that I should be a writer. He got me connected with the school newspaper, where I wrote some op eds about high schoolers being gross animals. The response to these articles, were kids dumping milk on my head in the stairwell. But seeing people respond to my writing? I loved it. I joined the newspaper in college and wrote for them. I wrote a lot of articles on topics that I knew would stir people up. I loved it. And one of my articles made it into an anthology. That early success sealed my fate.
It was great, because a few years later I got fired from a marketing job, and had nothing but the writing to fall back on. So, here I am.
You have an MFA in Creative Writing, how do you feel like that shaped your writing and career?
My MFA helped me in a few ways — it made me rigorous about writing and it made me take pride in what I wrote. Really rigorous. I was lucky to have a poet and novelist Wayne Brown for my first semester at Lesley. He’d tell me things like, “If you quit fucking around, you’d be a good writer.” Or “Why are you so sloppy? Care more.” Having someone who thought I was good, good enough that he wouldn’t accept anything less made me think that I could do more and better writing.
I went into my MFA thinking I’d be a teacher and I have taught, and I’ve loved it.
I also met some fantastic writers at my MFA, who I love and admire and who have continued to help me.
Do you have a creative routine? What do you do to keep inspired while writing?
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of time. So, when I sit down to write, that might be the only time I have to write all day. So, I can’t screw around. I have to get it done.
I will say this, as far as routine: when I am not writing, I am writing. I love running in the morning, because I like to listen to podcasts or music and think of ideas or work out problems in my head. Then, when I come inside, I write the ideas on a word document and come back to them when I have time. So, when I sit down to write, I already have lots of ideas.
Also, when I feel completely tapped, I read. I read lots of good books and good articles and good writers. Nothing makes you feel more inspired that another writer doing good work.
In 2012, you wrote about finally quitting your job to pursue writing full-time. Do you have any advice for moms thinking about taking that step? How did you prepare?
This is a smart question that I don’t have a good answer too. I, unfortunately, think that this step is often more motivated by money than anything. That’s what it was for me.
I was happy to try writing full time and glad that we had worked our way out of debt to make that move possible. I do think it’s important to be okay with money before you do that. You and your husband have to be honest and open and on the same page. Also, you have to get help. I send my kids to a school two days a week and when I have a lot of writing to do, I work in the evening. This has been hard for my husband who really misses me when I do that (I miss him too).
So, talking to him about my deadlines and being open about the time I need, this has been crucial. So many moms just try to do it all and when they can’t they implode. Ask for help! ALWAYS ASK FOR HELP!
Now you’re a widely published author with a couple of on-going columns, do people take you seriously when you tell them you’re a freelance writer?
LOL. This is a nice question. But no. Every family gathering someone is always like, “are you still writing that blog thing?” and their eyes glaze over if I try to explain I write more.
Or a mom of my daughter’s friend said, she feels weird talking to me because I might write about her. I told her she wasn’t that interesting. WHICH WAS NOT THE RIGHT THING TO SAY. So, I mostly don’t say anything at all. Lots of times, people don’t ask. So, that’s how sexism benefits me.
But, when I pitch places, it is nicer to say, “I’ve written here and here!” But ultimately, no one cares if you write for Jesus himself, if the pitch sucks, the pitch sucks.
Many writers have a fear of rejection that holds them back from submitting their work to publications. How did you handle that yourself?
I’m one of eight kids. I got rejected constantly growing up. I know, sob sob. But honestly, I’m kind of used to scrabbling for attention. Then, when I started writing, I was getting rejected left and right for jobs, so what was another rejection? Sometimes, I think I’ve grown immune, but then a particular rejection will come and I’ll just want to drink wine and wallow. So, I do. If I’m in a bad slump, I’ll email an editor I know and just ask if they need anything particular. That helps.
In the end, if you don’t send it out, no one will ever read it. Some writers are okay with that. I am not. If I want to be read, I have to be okay with rejection. Also, everyone gets rejected. Even successful novelists get told “no” all the time. That also helps.
How has your approach to writing changed since becoming a mom?
I think of all the time I had when I was doing my MFA. I was working full time and doing masters work and I’d sit around and watch TV and moan about not having ideas. I want to go back and shake that girl.
Also, I think I have more heart now too. My kids have made me see the beauty of the tiny things — Cheerios on the floor, crayons on the walls. A dear friend of mine said that having kids made me not afraid of sentiment, I think I was before.
What are the best and worst aspects of being a work at home mom?
It’s great because I’m my own boss. I do the work I want. I’m free to pursue the writing I want how I want to. But I don’t have tons of time and I often find myself turning on Netflix when I need to interview a source or letting my kids play with the iPad just so I can send a quick email. I hate that.
My neighbor sometimes loans me her 11 year old, when I’m desperate. But, I’ve had to shut myself in an office, while my daughter wailed and banged on the door demanding more animal crackers and then I had to play it cool and continue on with my questions. I even used my breast pump during call-in meetings. Sometimes, things are just nuts and you have to let them be nuts.
What aspect of motherhood has been most surprising to you?
So much poop. So much.
How do you draw a line on what to share and keep private in your writing, especially with your kids?
This is an ongoing conversation I have with my husband. And it shifts as my kids get older. When they were tiny babies, I didn’t think much about it. Now as they get older, I’ve scrubbed some stuff off the net, locked down my Instagram and been really careful about what I share.
I try not to use their names. If you Google them, my writing does not come up. I also started a journal for things I want to remember, but don’t necessarily want on the internet. But it’s really more about both my husband and I as parents deciding. He has a lot of say as well. One of those boundaries is that we aren’t super specific about the boundaries with outsiders.
Who is your favorite author or book?
I love Milan Kundera. Unbearable Lightness of Being is my favorite book. I reread it every year. I also love the Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I think his words just open up the world. Right now I’m reading Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson and really enjoying them as well. After that, I’m rereading The Empathy Exams, because Leslie Jamison is amazing.
What is your ultimate dream for your writing?
I want to publish the book I wrote this summer.
Fill in the Blank:
If I were a superhero, my super power would be always finding a babysitter.
When someone hands me keys to the time machine, I’m going straight to the the Napoleonic Wars and trying to seduce the Duke of Wellington.
The last book I read is Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso.
My brother always makes me laugh.
If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a criminal profiler for the FBI. Obviously.