So Honest It Hurts: A Conversation With Lyz Lenz

Name: Lyz Lenz

Claim to fame: Writer with bylines in The New York Times, Jezebel, and The Rumpus

Wise words: "Lying isn’t going to help, the trouble is always going to be there, it’s best to just speak fully and honestly about it and hope that you can bring a little sun in."

In the last few weeks of my mother's life, as the idea of death went from being an amorphous spectre to being a promise, she turned her attention the physical things that she was going to leave behind. All of the sudden, my brother was pulling steam trunks out of the basement crawlspace and I was making runs to Michaels for pretty boxes to hold mementos and keepsakes and special photographs.

One of the items on her to-do list was to write a series of letters for my brother and I, to be saved and opened at major milestones. From what I understand, she intended to fill them with advice, stories, and love notes.

I say "intended to" because they never got written. Maybe she ran out of time, maybe it was too difficult to do, or maybe she didn't think we would need them. I still harbour a secret fantasy that one day we'll find a stash of notes somewhere.

There are so many things that I never got to ask her, so many questions that I didn't even know I needed answers to four years ago, and so many more questions that haven't even occurred to me, yet.

But in the absence of those letters, I next best thing: I turn to my network of "other mothers".

They are women of all ages, biological mothers and unattached ladies alike, they live near and far, some I've known for my whole life, others that I will never even meet. They are family, friends, colleagues, and assorted women from the internet. I cling to their stories and words of advice -- either directed at me or at anyone who is listening -- on love, family, work, money, sex, health, and generally what it means to be an adult woman.

Individually, no one can ever stand in for my mother, but as a collective they sustain me -- and most of them have no idea, others have no idea that I even exist.

One of those women who probably doesn't realize the impact her writing has had on my life is the subject of today's feature: writer, Lyz Lenz.

In addition to being one of the most observant, insightful writers that I have had to the pleasure to read, Lyz is also a mother of two children, a wife, an Iowan, a friend, a former church founder, a daughter, and a sister to seven siblings.

Her heartbreakingly beautiful -- and often side-splittingly funny -- prose reminds me of that over-used Leonard Cohen line, "there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

Lyz's writing often focuses on the cracks, in families, in relationships, in careers, in religious communities. She holds them up to our faces and asks us to look. Not out of malice or schadenfreude, but because she knows that the first step to healing the cracks is seeing them and knowing them.

The wit in her writing is perhaps exceeded only by her the tremendous heart that she displays as she tackles some of the most challenging aspects of life.

In this interview, we cover a lot of ground -- from building a career in a small town, to learning to define yourself outside of your credentials, to the importance embracing your voice -- even if it pisses a few people off.

I hope you'll enjoy getting to know Lyz as much as I have -- she's got a pretty special way of saying exactly what you need to hear.

On Being Where You Are

“There’s this kind of tension because anywhere you live, it’s not like you’re nowhere,” she stated, matter of factly, as we discussed the joys and struggles of being a writer outside of a major urban centre. “I think even if you were in the middle of Canada, you live in this big, complicated, complex continent, but we kind of buy this narrative that the only places to be are the coasts.”

Lyz has been in Iowa for many years, but she is not from Iowa originally. Shortly after she got married, Lyz and her husband moved to the area when her husband found his dream job building autopilots for airplanes. With an English major to her name, and not much yet in the way of work experience, it was the best move at the time for the couple -- although the transition was not an easy one. In an essay for Literary Mama, Lyz described her ‘beige’ introduction to Iowa:

“Every apartment we saw was a box of beige carpet and white walls, housed in a low vinyl-sided building, tucked behind outcroppings of strip malls. The air smelled of yeast, and my husband told me that was the Quaker Oats plant. “On a good day, you can smell Crunchberries,” he said, sounding hopeful.  I cried. Welcome to Iowa.”

“Maybe if I had moved out to New York instead of getting married and moving to Iowa, a lot of the things that are happening now would have happened five years earlier,” she reflected, “I can accept that that’s probably true. But I live here, and I can afford a house, and I can afford groceries, you know? And I have two kids who are awesome, and I have a husband who is great and I think maybe some of those things are a little bit harder in New York.”

While she admitted that she didn’t love the area at first, the intimacy of life in this small-ish town has grown on her.

She pointed to her husband’s grandparent’s farm, an hour away from their home in the second largest city in Iowa -- something that Lyz points out, doesn’t mean all that much -- where the family often goes. “There’s this openness to the land, and I really think there’s this deep connection between where you live and who you are,” she continued, “we are connected to our geography in this really intimate way. I love the space here, the fruitfulness. It’s almost like everything that grows give you something -- the soil, the corn, we have this great pear tree in our backyard, my husband planted all these raspberry bushes, and I have a garden that’s terrible but getting better that is full of flowers that are good for cutting. I love that.”

“I think we all kind of find our balance somewhere,” she mused, “I really hate that conversation that people have around ‘oh, you really can’t do this unless you move’, that’s such a false narrative and it frustrates me.” While it is true that certain things really only happen on the coasts, Lyz argued that it would be foolish to turn your back and simply say ‘goodbye’ to the rest of the country. In fact, she noted, some of her very first clips in her writing career came from stories that she wrote about the place that she lived for a (now-defunct) magazine, stories she pointed out, that only someone living in her area would have access to.

“But,” she added, “I also know the frustration of building my writing career here in Iowa.”

In the early days of her career, Lyz was fortunate to be hired to work remotely for a love and relationships website, which she says was crucial to helping her break out of the rut of her geography. From there, she made a concerted effort to make semi-regular trips to New York in order to have that invaluable face-time with people in order to create those lasting bonds -- something that she acknowledges transformed her career. “There was a huge difference in my life before I connected with people in New York and after I connected with people in New York.”

Lyz also made the point that Twitter has been particularly helpful in the last few years of her career. “I got a writing assignment two days ago, because of Twitter,” she shared, “I got my book agent, because of Twitter. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people who have given me great feedback on essays and ideas and who have given me names of editors at publications and it’s all because of Twitter.”

On Living As a Human First, And a Writer Second

“I think that of my friends here, hardly any of them really know what I do. I mean, like, they know I write and they know I write for the internet, and my really good friends here make an effort to click on the links sometimes. But most of them have no clue. I’ll be like ‘oh my gosh, guys, let’s talk about how Gawker posted this story and they’re like ‘what are you talking about’?” 

She also told me about getting that dreaded two-pronged question that many internet writers get when they tell someone new about what they do for a living: “so, where do you write, have I seen your work?” When she names a few outlets in response, she’s often met with a conversation-ending ‘oh, okay’. “They don’t even care!” she laughed, “And I’ll be like ‘I was on The Rumpus once!’ and they’re like ‘that means nothing to me’.”

That said, Lyz reported that she has found that there are a few people in town that seem to be pretty plugged in to the internet media world: “Two coffee shop baristas in this town, they are always impressed [when she talks to them about her writing]. They’ll say ‘wow, you wrote for Jezebel?’ and I’ll be like ‘I will come to this coffee shop all the time now’.” She added with a laugh, “and the hairstylists, they always know, they’re my target audience.”

While Lyz acknowledges that having a career that confuses people in your immediate circles can come with it’s own set of frustrations, she also explained that the experience can be quite liberating. “Other times it’s so great because it’s like, there’s this whole big world out here but I’m not consumed by it,” she gushed, “I rarely talk about what I do and what I write when I’m hanging out with other people.” She continued, “it’s good, though, I think. Because it keeps you outside of yourself, and at least for me, I’m inside myself so much that having your perspective yanked back outside of yourself [is good].”

“So there’s still this tension, but there’s also kind of this anonymity because if people [where you live] don’t really know what you do and who you are, not like I’m some important person, but if they don’t understand it, I think there’s a difference in how they treat you.”

“I went to a cooking club once and there was this lady that I was trying to talk to and was just kind of acting shifty. A forty year old woman acting shifty, just imagine that. And I finally just asked her “what’s the matter with you?” She laughed. “I’m not very polite sometimes. And then she said ‘I don’t want to talk to you because I’m afraid that you’re going to write about me’.” Apparently, the woman had stumbled across Lyz’s work beforehand and read through several of her old pieces. When she met Lyz at the cooking club, she put the dots together.

Lyz’s reply? “I said ‘don’t worry about it, you’re not that interesting’,” she laughed, “I’m so rude!” And, if you’re wondering, yes, Lyz and the Cooking Club Lady do still see each other from time to time, courtesy of some mutual friends, “she still doesn’t like talking to me, she didn’t take that comment very well.”

On Speaking Your Truth, Even When Your World Shakes

Now, it’s one thing when your writing gets you in shit with a lady at your local cooking club, but another entirely when it causes problems within your own family.

When I asked Lyz -- a tremendously candid writer with a knack for beautifully and compassionately illuminating many of the aspects of womanhood and family life that regularly shrouded in secrecy and shame -- whether there had ever been moments where she had chosen to be honest in her writing, knowing that she would have to contend with some fallout.

Her answer was an emphatic “yes.”

“I think the Rumpus piece was something that I needed to write,” she offered, “I worked closely on it with my sister Cathy [who is one of the subjects in the piece], and if you’ve read some of my stuff you’ll know that she has a difficult past and she’s a survivor of sexual abuse. So one thing that I always do is to make sure that my writing doesn’t victimize her again, that’s the one thing I do, and she and I have had a lot of great conversations about it. If I write about her, I make sure that she sees it first -- I don’t do that for anybody else.”

Lyz explained to me that when she’s writing a piece, she does just that: she writes, without paying too much mind to the repercussions of her words. But then as the piece progresses through the rounds of editing, the reality that the words that she has written will become public domain begins to sink in, “and then when it gets published,” she said, “that’s when it gets really scary.”

“I have this real belief, and it comes from my own family and the way dishonesty hurts people and seeing how secrets carry over, I just think that there’s thing about secrets and shame where if you do your best to hide, people still find out,” she explained.

When I sent the draft of this piece over to Lyz a week after our interview, she forwarded me a Nietzsche quote that beautifully and effectively sums up the truth of family secrets:

“What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found in the son the unveiled secret of the father.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

“I just think of my mom’s mom who had a lot of secrets and a lot of things that she didn’t like to talk about and she wasn’t very honest about them. And now her children and her grandchildren have done a lot of those same things. The more I have learned about her, the more shocked I am to see how we repeated that, even though we had no idea what went on in her life. I just think that there are these patterns that we create in families that persist through secrets and shame and so I really feel compelled to be as honest as possible.”

When I asked her if that level of honesty ever felt radical, she demurred, saying that it didn’t feel particularly radical in the sense that she is “putting on war paint and going out and doing this brave thing”, but that it does feel a little scary to be one of eight siblings writing about her experience as part of a family. “[It can] feel scary because I have seven siblings, and that’s seven ways of looking at a problem, and that’s seven ways of interpreting a secret, and that’s seven ways of telling a story,” she elaborated, “so what scares me about the honesty is that I might be staking a claim to a piece of a pie that might not actually be pie, it might be cake or something, you know?”

In those moments of fear and hesitation, Lyz draws motivation from the late Iowa writer Barbara Robinette-Moss, who Lyz says wrote very honestly about her difficult family.

“She said that ‘if it happens to you, it’s your story’,” Lyz explained, “so I think of that in terms of truth, that if this happened to me and this is how I see it, that is the truth, that is the truth for me and that’s the story. So in a way it feels radical to speak when you’ve been told not to speak, but also that’s what writers all do in their own way, so it’s not really radical because we’re all doing it and just going about it in a different way.”

To be sure, when we step outside of the boundaries of what our families consider to be “acceptable behavior”, there are often consequences. And Lyz has had to face her fair share, including a bout of silent treatment that lasted six months, something that she said was extremely difficult for someone who grew up in a large, close-knit family.

But, Lyz said, she has learned over the years that “you can do scary things and still be okay.”

“Sometimes it feels like you’re lighting yourself up, but it never burns you up, it never ruins you. Or that if some things are ruined, maybe they didn’t need to be there in the first place. It’s a hard thing to say ‘light the match, watch the house burn down’, but maybe it was already burning in the first place. What are you really protecting? Having gone through experience after experience, I would say that even if I wasn’t writing about families and relationships, we would still have trouble, I’d still get yelled at, they still wouldn’t talk to me for six months. Lying isn’t going to help, the trouble is always going to be there, it’s best to just speak fully and honestly about it and hope that you can bring a little sun in.”

On Knowing That Your Voice Can Let the Sun In

Although Lyz now has an MFA under her belt, she did not originally set to become a writer, assuming instead that she would follow in the legal footsteps of her father. (I say thank goodness for that, because I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world without Lyz Lenz’s writing.)

Her first writing gig was in college when she started writing for the campus newspaper. While writing for the school paper may not sound like a big deal to some of you, for Lyz, it was a pretty major step out into adulthood -- and away from the way that she had been raised.

“I come from this very conservative background, women are not allowed to teach in front of men, preach in front of men, I had a lot of experiences where I was told not to talk, told not to state my opinion in public,” she explained to me. “So I had all these experiences of being told ‘no, this is not your place, you are not being submissive, you are stepping outside of the boundaries of this box that you are supposed to be in’, and then I went to college and thought that writing for the paper sounded fun.”

As a self-confessed naive freshman, Lyz eagerly accepted a story assignment from her editor about fraternity and sorority rush. What she didn’t realize that there was a reason no one else wanted to write the piece. She recalled going into the cafeteria on the Friday morning that the paper was published and being greeted by the sight of all these large young men reading the story and getting mad.

“The dudes were angry,” she remembered, “I saw this one guy stand up and take the paper and crumple it and throw it across the room and he was swearing. And I was so proud! It was like ‘people are listening to me, look, my words matter!’” Lyz referred to that moment when she was able to witness the effect her words had on other people as “intoxicating.” She said, “I just remember thinking that this was great, it felt like I was a person who had worth and value.”

“So, should people listen to me more than anybody else? Nah. There’s so many great writers in the world. But I’m not going to stop because I love that I can be heard, and I love that it gives me a voice and I feel like I have something to say. Whether it’s great or not is for other people to decide. What’s for me to decide is what I want to say. The rest is not something I try to concern myself with too much.”

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