Women’s Work: An Interview with Jenny Lee Maas

I was blessed to meet Jenny Lee Maas at one of my many coffee shop jobs — for real, the coffee shops of any city are overflowing with creative, intelligent, awesome humans — and we’ve kept in touch for the last four years with the intermittent adventure. She’s incredibly driven and creative, thus the perfect person for my third episode in the Women’s Work series. One of the things I’ve always loved about Jenny is that she truly believes the sky is the limit; I’ve never seen this girl give up, and she’s one of those people who will tell you the most heart-breaking story and end it with something like, “But hey, I learned a lot!” I’ll let her tell you herself.


Name: JLMaas or Jenny Lee Maas
Age: 32
City of current residence: Philadelphia
City of birth/childhood: the “nose” of New Jersey
Schooling/Provenance: Raritan Valley Community College, Peters Valley Craft Center, Maine College of Art
Current Employment: Freelance artist & designer

JLMaas portrait 10-2014

Jenny wearing necklace of her own design.

One of the many artistic endeavors you share with the world is fashion. How did you come to start making clothing and jewelry?

I started sewing and drawing dress designs in 4th grade. I would then sew clothes for my dolls, some of which I still have. I would also draw paper dolls with my own designs. I was obsessed as a girl with Tom Tierney, who is probably one of the most famous paper doll illustrators. I found his work at a bookstore in New Hope.

What was the first piece of clothing you remember making? What inspired you then? How old were you?

I remember watching Cinderella over and over. I tried to replicate her blue dress by cutting up and duct taping garbage bags together; I did a pretty good job. I hung it in my closet until it mysteriously disappeared (mom?!). However, I also remember making knee high boots out of tinfoil with my sister to be like some 80’s rocker superhero, like Jem. I was probably six years old when that happened. I loved building forts and playing dress up, which really informs everything I do now. And as far as making jewelry goes, same thing… I was always trying to make things that completed the costume or look.

Are your motivations for making clothes now different than they were when you first began?

Well, I make them because I like to and because I am picky, so I am always trying to create the vision I see. However ideas always transform when coming into reality so there is a certain amount of improvising and discovery.

Who do you make clothes for, in your mind’s eye, when you are designing?

In my minds eye the clothes I make are for my own daydreams and they become realities. That is why I make costumes as well as avant-garde couture designs. I am working on a series of short films based off dreams, so I make clothing for that purpose a lot of the time.


Atlantic City Fashion Week

You recently participated in a fashion show of your original designs in Atlantic City. Tell me about that — how did you get invited to participate, how was the experience for you, is it something you’d like to do again?

I was invited to participate in ACFW by luck — they found me after seeing my work and invited me. It was great, the first runway show for me so It was really a learning experience. And everyone there was cool, no nasty vibing anywhere, which is always important to make the best of anything. I have another fashion show this weekend with the Merge Arts and another planned for NYCFW January 2015. So yes, I would do it again!

What did you think you were going to be “when you grew up”? How does that compare to what you do now? What do you think the younger you would say about your current world?

Mmm, I always knew that I would be an artist. I remember every time I played the game of LIFE, I would pick the “artist” career. I know in the game it’s supposed to be a random draw, but I did cheat only in that area to be sure I was an artist even in the game. I think younger me would be proud.

Have you ever had a “straight job”? What kind of work did you do when you did?

I have had lots of jobs, several that overlapped for 2-3 years each: sales associate, sculpture lab assistant, hospital transport, artist assistant, Mural Arts assistant, janitor, nanny, welding lab monitor. For a few brief moments I was a server for a coffee house, a fancy tea place, drink sampler… jobs all over the map. But I like learning and experiencing from each environment.

Which ones did you like?

Well, anything art related was good, being a nanny was also good because they were an awesome family. The hospital was sometimes stressful, but good as well. I wanted to have experience with people in that atmosphere, I learned a lot about how art and music can aid healing.

Which ones did you hate?

My first job as a cashier at Wal*Mart. So many crazies came in there looking for a random human to treat like shit. But I had fun dealing with those people, and I never got mad. Just gave them some dry humor in return, sometimes jaw dropping.


Necklace and photo by Jenny Lee Maas. Model Chelsea Thoumsin.

Was there ever a time when you thought you would be better off with a straight job, or that it was your “only” choice — how did you metabolize that?

Of course a “regular job” has the financial stability, but I have tried it. I end up miserable. That’s why I have had so many part time jobs over the years. I don’t like over-committing to something that is a mere means to an end, that’s a guaranteed soul killer. I need to always keep time to focus on my own passions, even if it means just taking 10 minutes a day to dance like crazy alone in my studio. It raises my vibrations and keeps me focused.


Photo by Dan Cuellar

You also work for the Mural Arts organization here in Philly. How did you get involved with them? What is the work like, and what do you get out of it as an artist yourself?

Yes, I have worked on a bunch of projects with Mural Arts. I think nine so far. I learn all different processes for murals and mosaics — that is the most important thing for me, to learn the various approaches to making things. It gives me more to draw from in my own work. The community aspect is nice too, since I was a patient worker and nanny I do enjoy helping and teaching folks. I think the creative process is a very important one of self discovery, expression and realization, so pass art on.

Who inspires you?

Lot of people, but here are a few: Arthur Rackham, Dali, Alexander McQueen, Tom Tierney, Christian Lacroix.

Your video work is haunting and delves into fantasy — what little kernel of an idea started that series? I feel like initially you were planning one film and then now it has grow to ___ as a final plan. (You tell me!)

Well, I was making costumes and doing live performances while in Maine. Some friends wanted to see what I was doing, so it naturally progressed into film. Film wasn’t entirely new to me, I took classes before everything was digital. I loved it then but I think it was a fear of having to edit things on a film system that frightened me. That’s so much work. Digital video technology is kind of a blessing. The final series of films (20 expected, with the possibility of my lifetime) will be released in groups where these weird dream narratives tell a continuing story, a weird one.

book keepers, photo by Natalie Sharp, costumes by Jenny Lee Maas

The Book Keepers — photo by Natalie Sharp, costumes by Jenny Lee Maas

What’s “success” for you — both now and long-term?

Well, as for success now, I think I have it: It’s working hard to create more opportunities for growth. Long term success would be that I see all these current ventures become further refined and come into fruition, and continue that process with other ventures and a budget for assistants.

Does that differ from how your loved ones and family define “success”?

Kind of. But I feel lucky to come from a family of free-spirited engineers and artists who all love music. My dad has a regular job, but his free-spirited vice comes in the form of motorcycle rides with no plan. My mom is a helper to her older family members and her community. My brothers are both geniuses and adventurers, my sister is on her yogi path, working towards her own actualization. So they might think I’m taking risks sometimes, but they see or at least support the dream.

The art world is sometimes seen as being more progressive, but all communities struggle with being inclusive. Are there times when you’ve felt being a woman has been as asset or a detriment to your success that you’d feel comfortable sharing?

Well, this is a good question. It seems women have all these extra judgements to go through towards acceptance of our work. We are still very much in a patriarchal society, and yes, that reflects onto how I am treated. Assumptions about me have ranged from that I’m stupid, vulnerable, a slut, genius, and/or amazing. Most of those negative ones are based off others people’s projections, assumptions, and sometimes hopes. There is so much coding instilled onto the perception of females. Barbies and Bratz dolls are some of our contemporary symbols of women, yet when we mimic them it is assumed that we want a certain kind of attention that often amounts to harassment. That says it all.

I have been told and asked to ‘put out’ to forward my career, and it’s total bullshit. None of those slimy dudes that spoke to me in such a way would really give me anything. They are just takers hoping you won’t recognize their selfish intentions. And another truth is that the world is not exclusively sexist when it comes to mistreatment. I know my excitement and passion for doing as much as I can has threatened others whom I have worked around. Aside from the BS of peoples projections and assumptions, another reality is that just by following my dreams I am sometimes a reminder to others that they have given up on their own dreams. Those people are not generally good to be around. So I have been my own trailblazer. Maybe that is where I am a punk: if the system seeks to control or manipulate me or others for gross means, I want to avoid it. I want to turn it over, rebuild it better, positive, and efficient. As a female in this industry it is important to do so, so all the women after me have gained a little more equality. I notice a difference in my treatment when I am in my sloppy painting clothes versus cleaned up. I guess it’s kind of fun to experience that difference. It gives me a broader perspective.

Have you found allies in the art world who are helpful in this regard?

I think my allies are those whose intentions and attitude are good. It’s about demeanor.


Dress and jewelry by Jenny Lee Maas. Photo by Dan Cuellar.

Even as recently as our mother’s generation, art was not societally seen as a great way to make a living — for women or men. Obviously, people ignored that sentiment (and thank goodness they did), but do you feel that push-back still exists in today’s world? That instead of making cool shit, you should just pick a “real career” and get on with it?

Sure, but the best advice I ever got was that usually the right thing to do isn’t the easy thing to do. We are here to challenge, push our limits and grow, not to be complacent in a system that is far from ideal for all.

How do marriage, babies, a family fit into your world, now or in the future — or do they not?

Well, I was married. It didn’t work. Now I’m in a long good relationship, with someone who is equally focused on their own goals. We also work like a team when we need support. I think trust and team-like skills are the best thing to have in all relationships. As for babies, if the time is right, great. If that never happens, I love dogs too. But yeah, my door is closing on that one!

I know you play the didgeridoo, but how else is music a part of your self-expression? Also, how the heck did you get into the didgeridoo?

I make music for my films. I also jam out alone in my spare time, practice. I sometimes accompany my DJ friend Tantrum Tonic with the didgeridoo, because it sounds good. I got it by chance. A musician friend went to Morocco and met a local musician who gave it to him. He had a hard time with it. At a party (full of musicians) he said who ever could play it could have it, I got to it last and BAM! Right away, I could play it.

applique cu back

Jenny models her own necklace design.

What do you hope your projects give to those who view them?

Inspiration, trust, intuition.

What do you think it is about you that spurs the urge to create, and in such a wide variety of medium?

I like seeing how each medium yields to the same concept so differently. It’s fun, it’s like seeing the same conversation translated in different languages; some things are lost, some things translate in a different tone.

What piece of artwork that you viewed (any medium) would you say had the biggest impact? 

Walking in a Richard Serra swirl was pretty cool, the way the walls move throw off how people perceive space, some leaning with the walls when they didn’t have to. There is so much more I could write here…

What artist or teacher you worked/studied with influenced you the most?

A lot of my teachers have been important to me, too many to list really. I had awesome sculpture, drawing, and music teachers at RVCC and MECA. High school, too. Mr. Falacco saw me drawing all the time and insisted I signed up for his AP art classes; I never felt worthy of an AP class before that.

You can find so much more of Jenny here on the world wide web:
Jenny Lee Maas – Facebook
IndieGoGo – Send Jenny to NYFW
Artists On Artists – Video Part 1 \\ Part 2
Procession at Dawn
Pysche’s Lullaby

Women’s Work is a series of interviews with women who are redefining success as they navigate the modern world. No longer “young,” but far from old, the years following formal studies have exploded into a time more complex than simply settling down and beginning a family. Touching on work, love, art, music, child-rearing, our bodies, ambition, achievement and more, Women’s Work explores how we find the energy to do the things we love while we also do the things we need to do to pay our bills.


Five Sentence Book Reviews, Numero Uno

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I loved every word of this book, or at least, I loved most of them and enjoyed thinking about the rest. There were so many allusions to things I was glad to find that someone had created this list so that I can refer to and continue to understand references. The whole time I read, I kept thinking, I’m never going to be able to get rid of this copy, I will have to have it so I can check off each reference as I go. Particular high points for me were discussion of Sweet Valley High, Roxane’s interest in Scrabble, her astute observations about Holden Caulfield (i.e. they’re same as mine; he’s a little whingy bitch), oh and the entire essay about “likability.” There were many sentences in this book that I was just blow away by — Gay’s writing displays wisdom, brevity, beauty, and self-awareness.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The idea behind this book is a little gimmicky and, because it’s never outright explained, it takes the reader a minute (or twenty) to catch on. As a fellow member of my book club pointed out, there are real problems with the metaphysics here — [SPOILER] does Ursula have control over her next version of life? Does she choose to die with the knowledge that she can come back and fix things? Atkinson doesn’t give us answers to these questions, she doesn’t even acknowledge them, but she does give us likable (sorry, Roxane), multi-faceted, interesting characters. The Todd family was my favorite thing about this book, and considering it’s entirely about them, I’d say it’s a recommendation for the intro to them alone.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This book is super sexy, but not as sexy as Waters’ subsequent work Fingersmith. There was something shallow about the relationship between Nan and Kitty; maybe it’s that I never liked Kitty much, and when she messes up, as all humans do, I wasn’t at all surprised. I do have a soft spot for historical fiction, however, and this book satisfies the part of me that loves a rich, detailed setting. I feel very “meh” about it in retrospect, but now I’m itching to re-read Fingersmith and relish in all the improvements Waters made between writing the two. I’m probably being unnecessarily harsh when you consider that I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish this (fairly large) book in one sitting.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I feel grateful to this book and to Gaiman because I hadn’t completed a book in over a year when I sat down with this one on the train from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand. Ocean is all the things I love about Gaiman’s work in general: transporting, fanciful but not overly so, and absolutely A Story. This one is perhaps more of a fairy tale, of the Grimm variety that’s light enough to read to a child but will seem much darker when they’re older and reading it to themselves. The story winds up in a non-sentimental manner, the kind of ending that makes you think, Magical things like this could be happening all around, and we’d never even know. Who doesn’t want to live in a world like that?

No offense to Mr. Gaiman, and all respects given for getting me back into reading, but I’ll be reading almost exclusively women authors for the remainder of the year. I’m in the middle of Geek Love right now, so stay tuned. Give me your (female written) recommendations! You got the GoodReads? I’m here.

The Magic of Three

Two summers ago was not the first time I have experienced The Magic of Three Women, but it’s one that will stick with me. Perhaps the magics all stay with you, in their own way. This one sticks out because it had been some time, years, since I connected with other women in that way. There is something about that kind of connection that defies and exemplifies romanticism — because it is just as intoxicating as you remember it to be, and if you could find it again, if you could conjure it, you would. Or, let’s be precise, I would. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, even the heartbreak of its passing.

Two summers ago my partner and I bought our first home and I opened my second coffee shop. One of the magical three helped paint my rooms with the bright colors that still define them. We purchased dirt and potted succulents. She taught me how to care for them. All three of us magical women sat on the previously un-christened garage roof, legs dangling over the edge of the silver painted surface; we drank, smoked, and talked to the neighbors and to one another. When the August rains came, we still kept christening: we opened the garage doors (undoing the hatches that my partner had set, learning for the first time how to operate the unfamiliar opener), we sat just two feet inside on milk crates stolen many years before we’d met, and still smoked, still drank, still talked. The rain smacked down on the cracked sidewalk with purpose, and we watched it. The drops splashed our feet. I felt altogether whole and also part of a whole. Three is a magic number. 

When there are three, there could be three hundred and I’d still feel accompanied, connected. We sought one another out, and now that the threads have been severed I am even more aware of how much seeking was done. These days, text messages go unanswered, and hellos are exchanged on the street in passing. We show up at one another’s events as mere attendees. That summer, hello’s turned into hour-long ice cream eating extravaganzas in the back of a pick-up truck. We were sweaty, we were beautiful, and we were together. Attendance turned into private sessions in spaces not open to other attendees; we made space for one another in our hearts and our worlds. Because it was special and we made one another feel special.

That particular incarnation of three doesn’t exist as it once did and I feel certain it never will again. That’s not bad or good — it just is. And as sure as I feel about it’s passing, I feel certain I will find The Magic of Three Women again. I look forward to it, and I hope I am smart enough this time to bask in its glow appropriately, to love it while it lasts, and to nurture it to last as long as humanly possible.

Women’s Work: An Interview with Taylor Flory Ogletree

I am delighted to introduce you to writer, recent MFA graduate, and my dear friend, Taylor Flory Ogletree. Taylor and I met on a diary website over ten years ago; she was actually the first person I agreed to travel to meet in person who I knew solely from the internet. At the time we were both in undergrad programs, she in Atlanta and me in Delaware, and it seemed both insane and completely normal that I should go to meet her after drunkenly purchasing plane tickets late one night. But that’s ancient history. Today, Taylor is the reason this blog even exists, for it was her Thirty is the New Thirty that inspired me to begin writing publicly again. So you can thank her for this beautiful mess, but either way read on to learn more about an amazingly smart, stylish, and witty lady.

Which writers (artists, musicians, humans) inspire you?

This might sound corny, but honestly I feel most inspired by the community of writers I have around me, both in Austin where I live and elsewhere. My peers and my (now former) instructors work so hard and in so many varied and interesting ways. They’re ambitious and passionate. They support their fellow writers. That’s what makes me want to keep writing, too.

I’m also totally obsessed with Rihanna, which is well-documented. She does not give a fuck what people think about her, and I try to channel that when I can.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working mainly on a collection of short stories, but there’s also a longer nonfiction project I started in a class with the amazing poet Lisa Olstein that I imagine I’ll keep working on for years to come. The [short story] collection is something I’m eager to put out into the world as soon as possible, but the nonfiction project is very weird and personal and it might just remain a creepy secret thing forever. In the money-making sense of work, I’m hanging out with two bright, funny little girls after school on weekdays. Taking care of children has been my profession for a lot of years now, and although I don’t plan on doing it forever, it’s definitely a large and meaningful part of my identity.

When did you decide to become a writer?

This question is tricky, because I don’t necessarily feel that there was any decision-making involved. I don’t mean that in the sense of writing being My Destiny or anything romantic like that (and in fact typing “My Destiny” made me giggle), but rather in the sense that writing is something I always did, so getting my undergraduate degree in creative writing seemed like an obvious thing to do. But then I graduated and didn’t write a thing (other than angsty journal entries) for a few years after that. It actually surprised me to realize that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue an MFA, mostly because it required taking myself seriously in a way I hadn’t before–and I think that lack of seriousness was a big part of why I quite writing in my early twenties.

But although I would never have said it out loud, I thought of myself as a writer even when I wasn’t writing. I wouldn’t say I was correct in that assessment. It seems fundamentally necessary that a writer…. well, write. By the same token, “being a writer” is difficult, and the rewards are often small and long in coming, so at the end of the day the only thing you really have is your belief in the work and in yourself. I would say I didn’t truly have that until probably my second year of grad school, which was 2012. So I guess I did make a decision at that point: that I was going to take the risk of calling myself a writer and backing it up with my actions.


Who was your favorite fictional character(s) growing up? Is it different from age nine, to thirteen, to nineteen? (I should hope so.)

If I’m remembering the age correctly, at nine my favorite fictional character was Jo from Little Women. I read that book, without exaggeration, probably fifteen or twenty times that year. I’d get to the last page and open it right back up to the beginning. At thirteen I was reading a lot of fantasy, and I was obsessed with one series in particular called The Darkangel Trilogy. The main character’s name was Aeriel, and she was very brave and suffered very nobly, which was, of course, exactly how I felt about myself at the time. At nineteen it’s harder to recall. I started reading literary fiction at sixteen or seventeen, so all those formative books of my late teens sort of blend together. I think my favorite novels at nineteen were The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan. I envied Phoebe, the main character in the Egan novel, her trip to Europe and the illicit sexual relationship she embarked upon there.

What were you like as a child? Do you see her in yourself today?

Well, for one thing, I look exactly the same. (I have photographic proof, if you’re interested.) I was often anxious and very particular, which are both still true. Like now, I had friends, but I spent a lot of time alone. I wrote then, too; my mom likes to tell people that my version of “drawing” was sketching a few perfunctory stick figures and then writing out the story of what they were doing in the rest of the white space. But I’ve also changed a lot. I was a very serious kid–most people would probably say I’m a serious adult, too, but I have a much better sense of humor now, and I’m better able to take a joke. I like to think I’m pretty funny. I went through an extreme girly phase followed by an extreme tomboy phase and have now settled somewhere in the middle. I’m a lot less sensitive than I used to be–although, given what a sensitive kid I was, this might not be saying much.

How much research do you do for your writing? What kind of research have you done in the past for your work? What was the best rabbit hole you fell into?

Until recently, I had never done more research than your basic Wikipedia search, but the aforementioned nonfiction project started with Lisa asking her students to engage meaningfully with an obsession and see if it generated anything. In my case, it definitely did. I started with the photography of Nan Goldin and of my friend Janna Ireland, both of whom make work that elicits strong feelings in me and which I wasn’t sure how to unpack. That led me into notions of privacy and the different ways in which the art I was looking at negotiated that concept. Then that led to interrogating my own relationship with privacy and disclosure, and I’m still in that rabbit hole. Most recently, I read a great essay by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker about Virginia Woolf’s idea of privacy. It’s fascinating stuff, how we classify what belongs only to us and what belongs to the world, and the different shapes vulnerability takes in each of us.


Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you? Both? Neither? How do you start building a story?

Writers who outline are basically mythical creatures to me. I can’t work that way. Most of my stories could more accurately be described as having a “situation” rather than a “plot.” I’m mostly interested in character, and what people do when they’re backed into a corner, so that’s usually where a story begins for me. Because of that, I don’t really have a choice other than to get to know the characters as I go and see where they take me. Whenever I try to exercise my will too much, I end up with a lifeless draft. It’s better, in my experience, to submit to the unknown and treat writing as a process of discovery.

What are your ambitions for your writing career? For five years from now? Ten?

I dearly hope that in five years this collection will be a real book and I will have at least started a novel. Novel writing is a task that daunts me. I don’t understand the way novels work, but I do want to tackle that challenge at some point. I have an idea that I think is the right size for a novel, which is maybe something. I also hope to be teaching creative writing for a living in some capacity. I love to teach and feel as passionately about it as I do about writing itself. In ten years, my hopes would be much the same–that I’m still writing, that I have a teaching job, that maybe some of the books I write will sell a few copies. That I’ll be supporting myself with my degree.

What was the impetus for beginning your blog Thirty is the New Thirty? Has the experience been what you expected? What are your goals for TitNT?

A lot of converging things served as an impetus for Thirty is the New Thirty. The first was wanting to celebrate the process of aging; by and large, I’ve enjoyed getting older, and you couldn’t pay me to go back to my early twenties. I wanted to mark the positive feelings I had about entering my thirties. They (the thirties) are a really interesting span of ages, because you’re no longer a young adult, but you’re still young. That’s a good place to be. It feels like a luxury in a lot of ways. The second–and perhaps contradictory–impulse was to talk back to the part of myself that was constantly telling me my interest in fashion wasn’t valid because I’m not thin or rich. I wear a size 12-14 and I can’t afford designer clothing, but I still love clothes, and I think I have a good eye. The blog was a way of being kind to myself and saying, “Maybe no one will read this, but you’re allowed to write it.” I hoped it would interest other people, of course, but the main goal was really to inch me closer to accepting myself for the way I do look and not the way I wish I did. There were other factors–like wanting to have something Googleable associated with my name, and the basic desire to try something new–but I think those first two were the big ones.


What book/s are you reading at present?

I just finished three books that I was reading concurrently: In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larsen, The Other Language, by Francesca Marciano, and the collected stories of Mercé Rodoreda. I think I’ll start Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands next.

What is your measure of success as a writer for yourself?

That I’m writing. That I’m putting in the work. I want publication, certainly, and recognition, and a job. But in the meantime I have to take myself seriously without all that. So as long as I’m generating words, I try to tell myself I’m successful.

What kind of job are you looking to have in the future? (Asking this one so that I can find it for you in Philadelphia and we can live in the same city.)

Ha! I would totally move to Philadelphia! Or to anywhere the Northeast, for that matter. I would love to be teaching creative writing at the graduate or undergraduate level at a progressive university. Other than that, I’m not picky. (That’s a joke, by the way–creative writing jobs of any kind seem to be the holy grail.)

Do you have thoughts on the Amazon vs. Hachette modern dilemma of publishing?

I do, but they’re inextricably tied to my concerns about the squeeze corporations put on the little guys in all sorts of instances. This applies to artists and writers, certainly, but also to workers and small business owners in general. The Hachette debacle is a symptom of a much larger ill, in my opinion.


You’ve just finished a MFA program. Congrats. What is your perspective on the grad school experience currently? Other than graduation, no small feat, what are you most proud of from that time?

My writing improved immensely over the three years I was in graduate school. Much of this was due to my peers, but the bulk of the credit goes to my adviser, Elizabeth McCracken, who is the most insightful reader I have ever encountered. From her invaluable advice, I culled an essential list of questions to ask of any first draft; she taught me that it’s tempting to think we create new and exciting problems in every draft, but in fact it’s more likely that we make the same mistakes over and over. Which makes the process of revision less daunting, at least for me. Even though I had so much help, though, I still think the progress I made in my work is the thing I’m most proud of. That I was able to put my head down and hear the criticism that was useful to me and to take it seriously. That’s something I wasn’t always able to do. I also want to say that I don’t think every writer needs an MFA, but I really did. The experience was absolutely essential for me, and I’m grateful for it. That said, I’d rather gouge my own eyes out than get a PhD.

We met via something akin to a blog website. What effect do you think your online writing had — or did it affect — your decision to pursue writing? How did it influence your style? Your subject matter?

My fiction is completely separate from my personal life, so I don’t know if the semi-private internet journal writing had anything to do with my choice to write stories. My journal entries tended to be short, and there was a lot of hyperbole and melodrama there, because even though I treated those entries as writing, they were also an expression of deep, unfiltered feeling. My short stories are pretty traditional in form, and I try to be very strict with myself about excess of language (although I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as an excess of feeling). I read old journal entries and cringe at a lot of them, which is also something that happens when I read my early fiction, but it’s a very different kind of cringe. On the other hand, maybe the public diary-keeping did have one important effect: hearing from virtual strangers that I could put together a good sentence helped me to believe it over time. My fiction also privileges women and their experiences, and it seems unlikely that the years I spent reading the innermost thoughts of a bunch of different women on that journal site don’t have anything to do with my choice of subject matter. I’m still in touch with a lot of those women and am grateful to them for all kinds of reasons.

You can find more from Taylor on her blog, Thirty is the New Thirty.

Women’s Work is a series of interviews with women who are redefining success as they navigate the modern world. No longer “young,” but far from old, the years following formal studies have exploded into a time more complex than simply settling down and beginning a family. Touching on work, love, art, music, child-rearing, our bodies, ambition, achievement and more, Women’s Work explores how we find the energy to do the things we love while we also do the things we need to do to pay our bills. 

Women’s Work: An Interview with Jeanne Lyons

And now for something just a wee bit different!

I met Jeanne over five years ago when we were both working at the same local coffee shop. She was always a joy to be around — a rarity sometimes in the food industry — and she steered clear of the drama that many of us (myself included) were drawn into at the time. I moved on to another shop, and eventually so did she, or it happened the other way around, and we didn’t run into one another much for a few years other than coffee events. But the internet told me that she was taking on a big challenge this year, and not long after that, she joined me in volunteering for Girls Rock Philly after reading my blog about my Ladies Rock experience.

I’ve been delighted to reconnect with Jeanne personally, and today I’d like to share with you an interview about her music, her big project, and her dreams. At the risk of a spoiler alert: I didn’t imagine her to be a woman who’d go out and make a hip hop album, but that’s precisely what she’s doing! (Show’s how little I know.) Pretty rad. I hope you’ll enjoy it.


1. Why hip hop? Just because it’s (maybe) unexpected or was this the plan all along?

The plan was to record my singer-songwritery stuff and create a simple album with guitar, vocals, and some percussion. When Matt Berman (my producer) and I hit the studio and recorded my first jam we simply weren’t feeling it. I’m so glad we were on the same page. We scrapped everything and then he asked me a few key questions.

Matt: What artists are you inspired by right NOW?
Me: Macklemore, Lauryn Hill and Amy Winehouse
Matt: If you could be any kind of artist what kind would you be?
Me: One who expresses a powerful message. An activist. One who can write, rap and sing.
Matt: So you’re gonna be a hip-hop artist. Great!

2. Who are some of your hip hop (or just musical) heroes? What do you think makes their music or persona have an impact on you?

This is totally not an exhaustive list. I really do have soooooo many heroes!

When I look back to the beginning of my obsession with performers and singers, my first role models were Frank Sinatra and Mariah Carey. Franky was so authentic and captivating without effort. Mirah was my first introduction to the [idea of the] Pop Star. I remember blasting “One Sweet Day” on my six CD changer boom box on repeat and mimicking the music video. I had the whole set up; the music stand, the hairbrush microphone, the headphones…

[In terms of] hip-hop, I grew up listening to a wide variety but I latched onto Jay-Z (for his charisma and flow), Eminem (for being super expressive and daring), NAS (for his softer side), Kanye (for his cleverness), and Lauryn Hill (for her voice and boldness).

3. What’s your ultimate music dream? To make a living off of making music? Tour? Fame?

My dream is to travel all over the world performing to crowds of tens of thousands of people. I dream of having a ridiculously spectacular, inspiring live show that leaves people lit up, motivated, inspired to follow their dreams, and free to love themselves and others. I dream of having an amazing team of people working with me and they are all super fulfilled. Collaboration is my favorite thing! I dream of making music with all sorts of people… oh, I would love a choir of kids and teens to sing on stage with me! My dream is to impact as many lives as possible in a positive way by doing what I love: making music and performing.


4. Is your family musical?

Yes! My family loves and appreciates music and the arts. My mom had an awesome record collection ranging from Pink Floyd to George Frederic Handel and everything in between. We would listen to “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi when the seasons changed, Bruce Springsteen when it was time to clean the house for company, and “A Chorus Line” when I wanted to dance my heart out.

My father was always introducing me to all sorts of music. It’s because of him that I got into Joan Baez and I have fond memories of going to the opera with him. He introduced me to Maria Callis. I’ve cried listening to her voice more than any other artist. Just stunning.

My brother is a jack of all trades. He started with the saxophone and later added the piano, the guitar, the harmonica, and has most recently picked up the banjo.

5. What is the first album you remember purchasing with your own money? Do you still own it?

I remember vividly. I bought two used CD’s: “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey and “Boys II Men,” the self-titled album. Yes, I still own them, and yes, I still blast them on long car rides.

6. If you had to describe your music in three words, what would they be?

Evolving, Risky, Motivating.


7. What inspires you to write songs? Are there themes you find yourself returning to?

I am inspired by what I see possible for people…

  • Freedom from shame
  • Boldness
  • Audacity and greatness for the sake of positivity
  • Contribution
  • Forgiveness
  • Peace
  • Love
  • The pursuit of living the dream
  • Ongoing discovery
  • Compassion
  • Anything’s possible
  • Be yourself! You’re straight? bi? gay? anything in-between? changes everyday? OWN IT and LOVE IT!

8. Where would you like to see yourself as an artist in the next five years?

Fulfilling my ultimate music dream. See #3 🙂

9. How did you connect with your producer and marketer? What made you all connect and decide to work together?

Matt Berman was a coach of mine in a 7-month leadership program I participated in. From day one, I saw Matt as a hugely creative, passionate, driven and (bonus) hilarious human being. Matt and his fiance Kristin Medved (my marketer) were starting a production company called M.A.D.E. — Make a Difference Entertainment — and my wheels began turning. In short:

  1. Matt and Kristen believe in me and are my unconditional champions. They are always challenging me to expand my voice and develop myself as an artist. I trust them to tell what I could work on and they always reassure me that I have the final say given it’s my voice.
  2. I stand behind the purpose of M.A.D.E. — to produce artists who have a positive message to share with the world.
  3. Being one of the first artists to work with them provides me with a huge opportunity to be a part of creating something great. I told Matt and Kristin that my dream is to have them walk the red carpet because of a song we record together.

10. Why choose KickStarter as a method for starting your music career? There are some other, more traditional routes, but you went this one.

Crowdfunding is incredible. It provides an opportunity for all people to be a part of the creative process of an artist. Also, it is risky! I am ongoingly and intentionally challenging myself with taking audacious risks because I know in the end it will expand my life whether I hit the goal or not. I saw it as a platform to get my message out there, to let people know what I’m up to and to raise the funds for the cost of making and marketing my album.

Jeanne’s Facebook
Equally Beautiful Kickstarter

Women’s Work is a series of interviews with women who are redefining success as they navigate the modern world. No longer “young,” but far from old, the years following formal studies have exploded into a time more complex than simply settling down and beginning a family. Touching on work, love, art, music, child-rearing, our bodies, ambition, achievement and more, Women’s Work explores how we find the energy to do the things we love while we also do the things we need to do to pay our bills. 

So You’re Getting a Tattoo. Cool! Let’s Chat.

Not that I have a rapt audience of thousands, but to bring anyone who doesn’t know me in “real life” into the loop as to why I have any grounds writing about this subject — my partner is a tattooer of over 15 years, many of our friends are also in the business, and I personally have been getting tattooed since 2004. Hell no, this does not make me the end all be all expert. Hell no, I am not right all the time. Hello no, this is not a definitive list. But I get asked questions on the topic of tattoos on a weekly basis, at least, and I’ve been thinking about compiling this list for some time. I hope it is helpful to someone!

1. Do your research on the shop and artist.

I have gotten many of my tattoos “on the fly.” I am a big fan of choosing from an artist’s flash (sometimes drawn for a specific event) when I arrive at the shop. It’s not for everyone, I admit. But you can guarantee I have done a bit of Googling or talking to friends before I arrive there, and I’ve most certainly checked out the artist’s online portfolio. If you have something specific in mind, this is even more integral! For custom work, look at their portfolio and make sure the tattoo artist enjoys and is skilled at the style of tattoo you desire. If they don’t have any black and gray portraiture posted in their online portfolio, they probably don’t enjoy doing that kind of tattoo. Some artists will tell you that if you ask — “I don’t do X, Y, Z styles, but so-and-so is really great” — and some will hobble through a style that isn’t really their forte. You probably don’t want the latter.

2. Let your artist draw your design.

Put down the internet print-out image of someone else’s tattoo and back away slowly. Or, at the very least, accept that the print-out is reference material and not the exact tattoo that you will have on your body.

All tattooers worth their salt will be able to design something custom for you — and besides, another artist designed the tattoo you printed out for someone else! Flash has been a part of tattoo culture for decades, but copying custom work 100% (or as best your artist is able to do) is akin to plagiarizing in my book. Some artists will refuse to do this type of work, but I would like to encourage all us customers out there to exercise some trust in our artists’ skills, and some integrity to rock our own designs. You can of course reference the style, the subject, the placement, or the coloring of other work out there. But that’s the difference between a copy and a reference, isn’t it? Be aware of that line, try not to cross it, and find an artist who can do this with you. If your artist can’t draw? See #1 and #4.

3. Don’t feel comfortable? Leave.

Too often I hear stories, from women in particular, about folks who felt uncomfortable or bullied during their tattoo consultation or application. To this I say: lose your deposit and walk the eff out of there. You are the customer, you are paying for a service, and you deserve a positive (or at least neutral) experience. No, I am not best friends with every person who has put a tattoo on my body. I still love my tattoos. They aren’t all going to be earth-shattering, connective experiences, and you shouldn’t expect them to be. BUT — and this is a big-ol’ “but” — you deserve to be treated like a human being and you do not deserve to feel pressured, stupid, small, ignored, or scared. Up until a very high level (we’re talking a year waiting list, famous folks), there is always another shop and another artist who will treat you well and provide the same quality tattoo. And at the highest levels, you’ll often find that those artists are there because they naturally excel at making people feel appreciated while also being incredibly talented in their art. These unicorns exist! Find yours!

If you don’t have the strength to walk out of a tattoo studio minus your $50 deposit with integrity in tact, then please, please, please do not walk into one.

4. Bear in mind that a portfolio is what the artist thinks is their best work.

So if it’s iffy or just ok or you’re not totally sold, do like the Talking Heads and “run run run away.” That’s why #1 is so important. You need to see the person’s work, and if you’re not 100%, there are other artists whose work you will really love. I promise. Keep looking.

5. This is not necessarily an emotional journey for the artist.

No matter what they showed you on the reality TV show, this is the artist’s job. Do you feel emotionally moved by your job every single day? Maybe… but probably not. I serve coffee for a living, and yes, some days I have the great joy of connecting on an emotional level with my customers. But not every day, and not every customer. I still try to serve all of them well and the same goes for good tattoo artists. It’s cool if you have an emotional connection to the subject matter of your tattoo, but don’t expect the artist to feel as strongly as you do, and have realistic expectations about your experience. That doesn’t mean you definitely won’t have a poignant connection with your artist! I simply suggest that you be open to experiences in a range and accept that they can all be good in their own way.

6. It hurts.

The end. Pain is subjective. No one can tell you how much it will hurt you. Let’s not talk about that any more than that, and please don’t ask.

7. Take your gosh darn time.

Laser really hurts, people. Most agree that it hurts worse than the tattoo application. And it’s a process. Any tattoo you allow to be put on your body will take multiple sessions and healing time to remove. Even then it is sometimes not possible to entirely remove a tattoo so that the look of your original skin returns. Make sure that you are sure, and if you’re under 25, maybe consider waiting until you’re older to tattoo your neck, hands, or head. It’s not a race and while I am definitely a proponent of facial and hand tattoos (no, really, I love them), I am a still bigger proponent of people being happy with their bodies and feeling comfortable with their decisions. I want you to be delighted with your body when we are seventy and we are all covered in wrinkly-ass tattoos! So let’s both agree to chill out, take our time, consider our decisions, and get together in our bikinis/trunks for cliff-jumping when we’re old heads.

8. Don’t argue cost.

Please. You will have it for the rest of your LIFE. Do you like the artist? Do you like the drawing? Do you like the experience you’ve had thus far? All of those things are far, far more important that squabbling about $25, $50, or $100. Sometimes you can find a great artist at a great price, but generally speaking, as with most things, there is a correlation between quality and cost.

9. Tip 18-22%. Or 15-20%. Just tip, dammit.

Same as your hair dresser or server, the tattoo artist does not receive the full amount of money you paid for the service. So tip them if you are happy with your tattoo, particularly if you plan on getting more tattoos from the same person in the future. Tip every time you are there for a session! When you get to know them, it’s kind of neat to tip in a gift you know they will enjoy but that doesn’t replace the cash tip. After all, they can’t pay their rent/mortgage in wine/Lincoln memorabilia/old taxidermy. But in my experience a thoughtful gift is a-ok.

This is likely a first installment. Sometimes I don’t follow my own advice. That’s ok. That’s life.

What questions do you have? Do you have questions you’d like to ask an artist that you’re not sure where to direct? Fire ’em at me!

Cut Him Out In Little Stars

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

This isn’t an entry about love. This isn’t even an entry about friendship. What it is about is death — and those little relationships we all have with people we peripherally know, which I suppose would be called an acquaintance. In the city of Philadelphia, as everywhere, each of us exists in the center of a social sphere. Our work, our favorite restaurant, our partner’s, our neighborhoods, schools, etc. And my spheres overlap with hundreds of other people’s, and theirs with still others, constantly coming closer and drifting apart throughout our lives. It’s imperceptible and overwhelming all at once.

Someone who existed in my sphere — and in varying levels of importance for hundreds of others — died suddenly this week.

I didn’t know Josh well, but what I do know is that he had an easy smile. That smile got him out of lots of trouble! The week of my 30th birthday, a year ago, he refused to believe that it was my 30th. He was young, only 24 at the time, and he couldn’t believe I was older than him. (Much less more than five years older than him.) I laughed and told him that just because my hair changes colors and I have a facial piercing, it’s not indicative of my supposed youthfulness. I stole his stapler and calculator every Wednesday for almost two years. If he was sitting at his desk, he’d giggle every time. He never complained about the albeit temporary loss of his office supplies, even when I apologized. Not everyone is so easy-going about their possessions, their desks, their spaces. Every Wednesday, I took a checking account deposit slip from his stash and jokingly accused him of failing at his job on the rare occurrence when the slot was empty. He could dish out the shit-talk, but he could also take it. Josh greeted every joke at his expense with his distinctive laughter — he’d start, pause, and then laugh more. There was always lively banter going on in the office, or over office-wide email, and Josh was guaranteed either the originator or target of the joke.

I know he had a family and I feel for them. His sister, especially, because I cannot imagine losing my little brother. They are not the only family I know who has lost a loved one in the last month. It’s terrifyingly sad and my heart aches for those that are left. Death is a part of life, yes. Logically I know that. But I don’t know the thing to do to correctly ease their pain, nor are my words, thoughts, feelings ever enough to honor the memories left. They were here, now they’re gone. How do you begin to acknowledge that?

I’d want them to know that they will be remembered and that they made an impact, even on people like me on the furthest regions of their spheres.


You never got used to it, the idea of someone being gone. Just when you think it’s reconciled, accepted, someone points it out to you, and it just hits you all over again, that shocking. ― Sarah Dessen, The Truth About Forever

Lori Writes: Farewell, Old Friend

Towards the end of my senior year of high school in May 2001, through a site called Bored.com, I located a website called OpenDiary. This was before everyone (and their mom) had a blog. This was before Twitter, or Tumblr, or Facebook. The idea of writing publicly on the internet was completely alluring to me, a young woman who planned to study English literature in college and to spend her life writing. I had always been a “sharer,” but I had trouble connecting to others in my extremely cliquey high school. Certainly my experiments in public writing in that setting had ended only in drama. Of course, once I got going on OpenDiary, that too led to drama, and I had to resort to a “Friends Only” setting not long after it was offered.

I paid for that website long before I regularly had money for food. It wasn’t optional to me. I spent hours and hours writing on that site, I wrote every day for years, and even more time on instant messenger with my friends from there. I was young, and my drunk dials were often to people I had never even met in person. (Sorry, Adam.) I flew hours away to meet these people, eventually, and have continued to do so throughout my 20s. Now that I am 30, I am still connecting and re-connecting with people whose lives I came to know through OD — two weekends ago, I travelled to Durham, North Carolina for a professional convention, but I stayed with a longtime diary friend and her wife who coincidentally have been friends with one of my friends through more conventional means for years. Y’hear that? My friends from the internet knew my friends from not-the-internet. And that’s the kind of connection I have come to love.

OpenDiary is everywhere in my world now. When I tried to tag all of my friends on FB who had once written on OD, I missed at least 5-10 people (but managed to remember 25+) because there are so many connections in my world that I consider vital which came from that site. There are too many integral moments to mention.

Today, Bruce Ableson announced that OpenDiary would be shut down sometime over the next two weeks. In a common theme with his last three years of “maintaining” the site, he cannot tell us what day it will go away. He recommended downloading our diaries, but the site has been trying to load for 2+ hours now on my lil Chromebook and I won’t hold my breath for its eventual appearance. I downloaded everything ages ago, but I did want a screenshot or two of my last OpenDiary iteration.

Bruce Ableson sucks. But all those people I met on his site? I love them beyond words. I am grateful for their parts, big and small, in my life. We have fought, we have kissed, we have stayed up all night talking about everything and nothing under the sun. We’ve married, divorced, had kids, laughed, cried, and on and on. However these relationships might end, the end of OD is not it. He cannot take these humans from me, because they’re in my heart, my FB feed, my email Inbox. R.I.P. OpenDiary.

Oh, look, it finally loaded enough for me to get this screenshot:

Screenshot 2014-01-27 at 9.58.44 PM

We had an ok run.