Laurie Wagner is a writing teacher + coach, author of 7 books, mixed-media artist, fervent collage-maker, mother of two, and one-time amateur racquetball champion who lives in Alameda California.
What do you do and how did you start?
As a writer and a teacher I get to be all over the map, and my working life goes through a lot of phases and changes. For the last three years I have been teaching a personal essay writing class withWriters.com, and I teach wild writing class here at home as well as coaching writers on their book and essay projects. I also teach yoga/writing workshops with a friend. And I write, that’s the idea, to balance the stable teaching work with the more precarious writing world where you can’t depend on books and essays getting sold in a timely manner. Sometimes I get a call to write a quick and dirty gift book for a publisher, sometimes I come up with my own books. I have written five, all for Chronicle Books. The most well known are Living Happily Ever After: Couples Talk about Long Term Love, and Expectations: 30 Women talk about Becoming a Mother. I also take odd jobs, like my friend Anne Hamersky and I just wrote a grant to design posters for the inside of Muni busses and bus shelters to bring awareness to breast cancer in Hunter’s Point, California. I also do the occasional documentary film project, working as a writer and a producer and was a part of the Academy Award nominated documentary,¬†For Better or For Worse.
How old was I when I realized I wanted to write?
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. In college I studied it, but deep in my heart I always hoped I would follow my musical path and write and play music for a living. Unfortunately I didn’t have the confidence and writing sort of came along and I had some lucky breaks early when I was around 25. I got published pretty easily and one thing led to another, things came to me but I hustled too. One of my writing strengths is that I’m very curious about people and I found that I really liked interviewing so I did that for a long time.
When did I actually begin?
I started writing and publishing in 1982 when I was a student at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California. As well as being a student I worked as an intern for a local art magazine and I interviewed artists and wrote stories about them. I was 22 and kept a straight job alongside my writing for the next 8 years.
What jobs did I have before I went out on my own?
I worked in bookstores for at least six years until I was 30. That was a wonderful place to expand my sense of the book world. I loved holding the books and trying to understand what made people go from the pick it up on the shelf stage to the pay for it stage and finally the get it home and read it stage. Selling books helped me to see what people were interested in, what they cared about. I also interned for documentary film people. For three years after the bookstore I worked for a major N.Y. publisher as a sales rep.
What steps did I take to create my business?
Things evolved. I kept a straight job until I wrote my first book in 1994. I also had a child at that time and so I wanted to stay close to home. A few months after she was born I came up with a second book project, which I sold to Chronicle and which bought me the time to stay at home for another year and write another book. So one book lead to the next and before I knew it I was freelancing.
Formal education? Experience that applies?
I got a BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado in Boulder, but I don’t think that has anything to do with where I am now. After that I went to art school and studied painting and sculpture, mostly to get in tune with who I was as a creative person. I was lost after college, became a waitress. Art school at CCAC in Oakland juiced me up and I ended up at an art magazine, a little freebee where I thought I would work in design. Turned out they needed writers and so I started writing, though I didn’t know what I was doing. I worked for free for Metier, the magazine for at least three years, eventually becoming the managing editor. It was quite an education because I really learned to write at the hands of the editor there. I did a lot of interviews and learned to craft them into real live pieces.
How did I first begin to sell and market the work?
My career has gone in phases. When I began selling journalism stories in 1985 I kept my day job as a bookseller. At one point in 1990 I quit writing because I didn’t think I had what it took to be a writer. I didn’t think I was talented enough. I wanted to be a cog, I wanted a paycheck and I didn’t want to have to self-generate. So I went and worked for the massive publisher, Simon and Schuster. I traveled and sold books for them for three years and learned a ton about the book business. I also learned that I was more artist than salesperson and if I didn’t quit the corporate gig I was going to die. I realized that I had judged my own talent so harshly and that wasn’t fair. It didn’t matter whether I would be successful or not, what mattered was that I gave myself a chance to express myself. Almost immediately after I quit Simon I got a call from a friend who had a book contract with Chronicle Books and wanted me to write the text for his project. That’s how I began writing books.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what I do? The most frustrating?
The best thing about writing about motherhood and marriage, women’s issues and relationships is that I live my story. So my world is all fodder for me. The day to day becomes my material; what happens at breakfast, the scene with the other mothers at the schoolyard, the bumps and grinds my husband and I go through etc. I also love the teaching I do because I get to articulate what I care about, which is story and how we find story. What’s frustrating is how much time it takes to do a job well, to give enough attention to my students as well as my own projects and how hard it is to make enough of a living. It’s easy to feel like a loser when I go to the accountant at the end of the year. I work so hard but financially it doesn’t always show up. Like many people I end up having to take stock in the simple things like making a fire at 10am on a cold weekday with my husband because it’s cold outside and being grateful for all the freedom we have to be with our kids and work at home.
Fear about what I do? How do I deal?
Sometimes I fear that the well will run dry. That I won’t have the energy to pump myself up everyday to create something new. On those days I look for jobs on Craigslist and other places, and realize that I’ve been doing my own thing for so long now that I can’t imagine fitting in anywhere else. While that can be depressing I often end up making a new project list and trying to get in touch with my deep interests. I’m also a part of a couple of groups of women who meet every month to show each other new work. One group is writers, and the other group is just people who want to accomplish projects, or make more money and we meet to brainstorm and hear each other out. We make goals in the group and we make promises. Maybe it’s the good girl in me but I always do what I tell them I’m going to do.
Dealing with creative blocks?
Deadlines are very good for creative blocks. Even self imposed ones. When my writing group is expecting new work from me, no matter how I feel I have to get them work. And even if it’s bad it’s a start and later, when I’m in a more loose, creative place I can take it to the next level. I also play a fair amount of racquetball which is an excellent release for all things stuck.
I work in a very messy extra bedroom in my house. I’ve got two little kids so it’s like grand central station in here. I’ve got a pile of someone’s books in one corner and clothes to be mended in another. After 8 years of working at home with kids I finally had the nerve to get an office outside of the house. It’s a mile from here, there’s no phone or email and I reserve my time there for reading and getting ready for my wild writing classes and for writing my more personal, less commercial material. It’s extremely quiet in there. I have been known to nap on the floor, though I got a notice from the landlord recently that the other people in the office, the lawyers and the accountants don’t appreciate my incense, so that had to stop. Ah well.
Financial obstacles? How have I overcome them?
Honestly, having some support from our family in times of need has been really helpful. My husband Mark Wagner and I both freelance so we work as a team.
My definition of success?
That’s a tough question. Sometimes I get in touch with how lucky I am to be working at home with two small kids, teaching and writing. Sometimes I feel success when someone calls me because they’ve heard about me and they want to know if I might be right for their project. I often feel successful as a teacher because I care about people and I think they feel the love. But it’s tough working on your own sometimes, especially when the phone isn’t ringing a lot and it’s just you bringing the best that you can to every workday, pushing it out of you, creating things to sell. There can be some very down days I can’t let that topple me, though there have been times.
Who/what are my inspirations?
Artist and writer friends. One set of friends in particular who make everything by hand; beds, bookshelves, costumes, and not because they’re so crafty, but because they don’t have a lot of money and can’t afford every little thing new. They remind me of the quote a friend heard in her own dream, “If you can’t make music from what you have, a new guitar won’t help.” In my mind these friends are truly creative because they create from scratch.
Words of advice for people pursuing their creative goals?
Keep a straight job for the first bunch of years but make sure you’ve got a hand in your art, whether that means taking classes or meeting with others like yourself for support. If you have time it’s always great to intern with people who are ahead of you in the process because you can learn a lot and the connections you make can be invaluable. Oh, and of course, try very hard not to judge your work by what the market is buying at the time. It’s the killer of all art.