Artist in the Office Interview: Audrey Beth Stein
Audrey Beth Stein earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and is a two-time national prizewinner in the David Dornstein Memorial Short Story Contest. She teaches memoir and novel development at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Her memoir Map was a 2009 Lambda Award finalist.
What are some of the day jobs you’ve had? What do you do now?
The four “major” day jobs I’ve since college were as a secretary and webmaster for a university department, a web wizard for a non-profit multimedia start-up, an editorial assistant for a textbook publisher, and currently a reporting analyst for a bank. I’ve also been teaching creative writing classes for the past five years, which I love and consider an integral part of my writing self – it’s certainly not paying the bills though!
Were there ways you snuck your creativity into your workday? Were there ways your job(s) have helped with your creative work? If so, how?
The most important way my jobs have helped me creatively is by providing stability and structure. And by that I mean a steady paycheck, a place to go each day, and people to interact with, as well as a respite from the demand to be creative. I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways of writing, and there are definitely times on each project when I need immersion, but for the most part I find I am just as productive when I have a full-time job as when I don’t.
I think a lot of the creative process involves letting things simmer, and so getting absorbed in something completely different, like computer code or an engaging work project, is often beneficial. I’ve also found that there is a similar skillset involved in structuring a database or website and structuring a book, so practicing those skills at work pays off when it comes to my writing.
I’m still trying to figure out how to integrate more creativity into the work environment itself… I definitely found The Artist In the Office inspirational on that front!
When I met you, you were fresh out of college, but it seemed to me already a professional writer. You were ambitious, sending work out to be published, winning awards, writing at open mics, at home, wherever you could. It’s been over ten years since then (!)—how has your relationship to writing changed? Have you ever felt like giving it up? What has kept you so ambitious?
Thank you. It’s funny… a few people have commented on my ambition and determination, and I don’t think it ever occurred to me back then that it was even a choice. I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough, and I still wrestle with that. Spending nearly a decade on a book when the first draft only took a couple of months definitely led to a good deal of reflection. But I’ve never felt like giving up writing. For that particular project (Map), what kept me going was activism—a firm belief that there were people out there who needed to read a memoir like mine, and that my book could make a positive difference in people’s lives. But as far as writing in general…
I believe in the power of telling and sharing stories. Writing is how I often make sense of the world, of my life, of my feelings. I do a lot of journaling and other forms of creation for myself—for instance, I painted a dinner plate last week to capture an idea—but when I spend a long time trying to express something, or I write about something that no one else seems to be talking about, I tend to want to share that with others, to communicate. Which usually means some form of publishing. At the core, though, it’s no different from a little kid tugging on a parent’s pant leg saying, “pay attention to me!” And I think the biggest change for me in the past decade is that I have been more and more valuing individual human connections—both in person and through the page—and understanding that transformation lies there, not in hitting the bestseller list.
You recently self-published your coming out/coming of age memoir, Map, which has been making its way in the world, and was recently nominated for a Lambda award. While self-publishing isn’t a new trend, it seems to be a growing one. It also seems there are a lot of unknowns (and misconceptions) about self-publishing—can you talk about the process of publishing Map yourself? What has gone into it? What would you say to someone who was thinking of self-publishing?
Sure. I’ll say first of all I was inspired by hanging out with you and other independent musicians in the late ’90s… practically everyone had a CD or at least a tape to sell, and it was both a matter of pride and a creative pursuit to put out your music without the involvement of a big record company. I remember wishing publishing was like that, but at the time self-publishing was really looked down upon and also quite expensive.
Fast-forward a few years… print-on-demand has come into its own which means you can have a paperback book in your hands and available for sale online in under a week without a huge outlay of cash, traditional publishers and booksellers are trying to figure out how to survive in this changing e-world, big-name and unknown authors are experimenting like mad—sometimes quite successfully… and suddenly self-publishing is the hot new thing. Probably 99% of what’s out there is still either crap or of interest to a really really small audience, but there’s a 1% that is really good and people are starting to recognize that.
After sixteen drafts and nine-and-a-half years of revision and feedback, I knew that Map was a good book and that I was proud of what I’d written. That was an important part of the process—I didn’t want to publish something before it was truly finished (0ne of the biggest potential pitfalls of going the self-publishing route). I did the design work myself–I’d taken a class in book design and production in grad school and later taught myself how to use desktop publishing programs, and I had a good aesthetic sense that was honed through years of photography, so I was comfortable that I could create a professional-looking book. For distribution, I decided to use Lulu.com, which is a digital marketplace that does print-on-demand books. They offer various packages with different levels of assistance and reach, but the one I chose was pretty basic: I uploaded PDFs of the cover and the book interior and set the price, they made a paperback available through their website and through Amazon. Every quarter they send me a check for my cut of the sales, and I can also buy copies from them at a significant discount to sell off my back. I usually have about forty copies in my kitchen at any given time, which is much more manageable than the typical 5000 copies in a garage from yesteryear’s self-publishing.
Of course that’s just half the process, and in many ways the easy half. Once you have a book, you have to get it to readers. Like every good independent musician wannabe, I had built up a mailing list; I also had a website and I added on a blog for the book. I held a book release reading. I sent press releases and review copies and dabbled in social media and went to writing conferences and set up more readings and arranged a virtual book tour. I submitted Map for a few awards, and was beyond thrilled when it was named a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. I mentioned Map to everyone I knew and to almost everyone I met. I handed out business cards and carried copies everywhere I went for the first six months.
I thought I was pretty knowledgeable and prepared, but there were still some interesting surprises, like discovering that I was selling two copies by hand to every one sold online. I definitely learned to redefine success, and to value each and every individual reader.
To someone who is thinking about self-publishing, the short version of my advice is to be very honest with yourself about what you want for your book and then do your homework. For more in-depth thoughts about making the decision, I encourage you to read my essay “On Publishing Choices: An Opinionated Primer.”
So along with your day job, you also teach writing workshops and classes. When do you find time to write and do all the work around Map? Do you have any set schedules? How do you balance the artistic and business sides of an artistic life?
It’s a constant challenge. I think what makes the most difference for me is that I’ve learned that I can let a piece of writing sit for a long time and that won’t hurt it. I may go a little nuts if I haven’t had a creative release in a while, but the work will be fine and usually benefits from time passing and perspective. So a typical schedule for a book project is working furiously on it for a month or two—writing during breakfast, on the subway, up the escalator, you name it—then not touching it for another six months or more.
With teaching, the terms last 8-10 weeks, and when a workshop ends I find myself amazed at how much time I suddenly have with just a day job. I do a lot in the windows around December and March, and I take the summer off from teaching so I can use it for my own work.
Balancing the business and artistic sides—and simply fitting in publicity work, which never really ends—gets trickier. Exhaustion is a very common theme in my journals. Flextime at work and an understanding boss have made a big difference, especially on those occasions when I get immersed in something that keeps me up until 3am or have a quick-decision opportunity that takes place during the workday. I have a chart on my wall at home where I wrote down my overall values and goals around Map—like reaching out to queer and questioning teens, and giving a reading that my family can easily attend—and a calendar, and I use post-it notes to keep track of specific tasks and when I want to accomplish them. It helps me keep my head clear, and every so often I’ve revisited the chart and adjusted the tasks to keep me sane. I also added a reminder on there to breathe, which actually helps.
You do a lot of other creative work like photography and I know you have a passion for cooking. Do you have other things you do that don’t have anything to do with “The Work” of your creativity, like hobbies, guilty pleasures, etc? What inspires you?
Gardening, camping, and swimming at Walden Pond would definitely be at the top of the list for simple relaxation and rejuvenation. I’m inspired by other artists, and by my students, and by everyday people being honest and brave and true to themselves.
What are you working on now? What are some of the things you still dream of doing?
This summer I started two new book projects that are in very embryonic stages… I’m still figuring out how to even talk about them… and I’m also shopping around a novel that grew out of my award-winning short story “On the Eighth Day.” I have a dream of writing what I describe as “my Mockingbird book,” which is the one book that, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, would be enough for a lifetime.
I fantasize about meaningful sustainable part-time work, and I think a large part of that fantasy comes from separate desires for immersion in long-term creative projects, freedom to be playful and dabble in new areas, and opportunities to help others find their voices and to make this world better. It’s possible to fit all this in with an unconnected day job, and to a large degree I do, but just the idea of “fitting it all in” makes each piece harder to enjoy and appreciate on its own terms. It goes back to that exhaustion I mentioned earlier, and the fact that we live in a society that runs on caffeine and doesn’t value listening to one’s body. It sounds so basic, but I dream of being able to get all the sleep I need on a regular basis and being in a community that truly observes a day of rest once a week. I think the transformation and creativity unleashed from those two acts would be incredible.
If you were sitting across the table from a fellow writer, who just finished another draining day at work, and was struggling to find meaning in all the work—what would you say to them?
Eat a good meal, and give thanks for it. Find yourself some nature, and pause and breathe deeply. Remember that everyone around you has a story… reach out and start asking. You’re writing about life, and this is part of it.