Original author photo by Winni Wintermeyer
The main question that comes up when talking about Bay Area writer, performer, and rising literary star, Beth Lisick, is how does she do it all? This past July saw the release of her third book, Everybody into the Pool: True Tales (Regan Books), as well as the third anniversary of the popular Porch Light storytelling series, which she runs along with Arline Katte. She and her musician husband, Eli Crews, started back up their cabaret-style novelty band, The Loins, and not so long ago, she released a hilarious art film, “Diving for Pearls,” which she co-created and starred in with regular performance partner, Tara Jepsen.
This is on top of already having published two other books (with Manic D Press), writing the Buzz Town column for SFGate.com for eight years, contributing to NPR's This American Life , and having her (now defunct) spoken-word/music band, The Beth Lisick Ordeal, featured at Lollapalooza in 1994. Among other ventures.
So how does she do it? After meeting with her at her writing office in Oakland and talking about all things writerly, I'm starting to know. It has something to do with following her muse, putting herself out there, and having a whole lot of fun along the way. Of course, it doesn't hurt that she's talented, wickedly funny, as Dave Eggers called her, and seems to have boundless energy. For more, you'll just have to read the interview.
I understand you got started performing and writing by reading at poetry open mics. How long ago was that? And how long did you do that before getting involved in other projects?
I think it was 1994, when I did Lollapalooza. Yeah, I would just go to open mics like the Chameleon Monday nights and Paradise Lounge Sunday nights, which were the two big readings in San Francisco for a long time. So basically, I was doing readings, and then featured readings. A lot of people were coming and Jen [Jennifer Joseph, who ran the poetry readings at Paradise Lounge and is the publisher of Manic D Press] just stepped up and said why don't we collect what you've been reading and put them in a book. So when I had written them, I had never intentionally thought they were ever going to be in a book. …I was just writing stuff – “Oh, here's about three minutes of reading.” So this first book is just a collection of performance monologues and poetry.
How long after doing readings did the book come out?
The book came out in 1997, so I was probably doing stuff for about two years.
How did that start you on the career path to where you are today, in general? You've done so many projects; how did one thing lead to another?
When the book came out, I went on a big tour in which I piled all my books in the back of my dad's pickup truck and drove around the country by myself to about 30 cities. There was a scene through the poetry slams – because I did that for a couple of years – and so I had met people in all these different cities. So, mostly I did featured readings at poetry fests around the country. I sold a ton of books out of the back my truck, about 500 books.
I had never believed in a career or anything. It's really only been with the publishing of this latest book that I thought I need to get serious about something. Or, how am I ever going to pay the bills, if I just keep doing all the things that sound fun? So I'm trying to figure that out right now.
But my first book tour did show me that, oh, I can be a writer. I didn't call myself a writer until just a few years ago, really.
Did you think of yourself as a performer?
No, I don't know what I thought of myself. I would say what I was doing by saying, oh, I write this column [Buzz Town for SFGate.com] because I was making some money doing that. But I was never one of those people that say oh, I have to write, people have to hear what I have to say. So that's why I didn't think of myself as a writer. I really thought you had to have something sensitive and important to say.
With the first book, Monkey Girl , I really thought, oh, all right, I can write stuff, and wouldn't that be great to write a book knowing from the beginning that it was going to be published. One of the pieces in Monkey Girl was published in The Best American Poetry , and that was my first published poem ever. I never even thought of that piece as a poem. That really showed me something, that the higher world is completely open, and there are no rules. You can do everything in your own way.
Did you choose projects by what inspired you in the moment?
Yeah, and I still have a hard time trying to focus. But yeah, I always just did what seemed interesting. I've always enjoyed the process of making stuff and working with other people and doing things, and not done much worrying about what happened after it was out there.
I just kept saying yes to everything. Will you do this reading? Will you do this performance? Do you want to work on this together? Opportunities just keep coming if you keep saying yes and putting yourself out there. I've never been concerned that my output has to be perfect. … On this last book, I worked on it harder than I've worked on anything in my life because I did want it to be really good, I really wanted to be happy with it. But before that, I thought, it's just fun to get stuff out there.
Yes, because that holds up a lot of people: perfectionism.
Yeah. I'm not just going to put stuff out there, which is why I never will have a blog. (I don't think there's anything wrong with blogs or bloggers; it's just something I would never do.) But at the same time, I'm not overly concerned.
What do you consider to be your first break as a writer?
Well, definitely The Best American Poetry thing.
When did that happen?
That was 1997. What happened was that Jennifer Joseph was pregnant and couldn't go to this writer's conference in Birmingham, Alabama, so she sent me and two other authors from Manic D. My book hadn't come out yet. So we went to this conference and there was a cocktail party with all these fancy poets and writers. We were the cocktail entertainment; it was me, Jeff McDaniel, and Bucky Sinister. People were eating appetizers and drinking cocktails and then it was, “Oh the kids are going to read their poetry.” I read one poem and James Tate, who is an incredibly well-established, famous poet and who was in the audience, said that was an incredible poem. I was like, oh, really, that's a poem? James Tate is telling me that something is a poem. He asked if it was published anywhere, and I said no. To get in The Best American Poetry anthology, the poem has to be published somewhere first, in literary journals. So he referred me to a guy who publishes the Clockwatch Review . [This person] said, why don't you send it to me and I'll publish it in Clockwatch . So I did that, and then James Tate pulled it from Clockwatch to put in the anthology.
You know, I've never once in my life submitted anything to a journal. The thing I liked to do was read stuff out loud. I thought, why try to get into these things that I don't even read? What would I be trying to prove by sending my poems to some journal I've never even bought, whose poets I don't know? Reading my poem out loud is how I got into this.
Had you always wanted to write or perform? I read that you were a “frustrated writer” and that's what motivated you to get up and perform.
I was and still am a very practical person. I didn't know any artists, I didn't know any writers. I didn't grow up with that, so I didn't really understand. I thought you had to have a huge, gigantic ego to be an artist. I thought, why would you do something and think that anybody even cares? Not in a bad way. But like, god, it takes a lot of balls to express yourself and think someone else cares.
When I was in college, I started writing down overheard conversations and things like that. It wasn't until a couple years after college that I was at an open mic having a beer and thought, oh, OK, so people can just get up for three minutes and say their thing, and they get off the stage and whatever. Some of it's good and some of it's bad. So I'll just go write something and bring it back, and I can read it.
That's when I found out some things, like I'm not afraid of public speaking. Supposedly that's a lot of people's morbid fear – and so I've got that going for me. I'm not afraid of looking stupid. I've gotten up and read things that weren't so great, but it's never bothered me. I never thought that somebody was going to not like me based on what I read.
Do you prefer performing or writing? Or do you see them as together?
When I started out, I was writing just to perform. The performance that I do now … is more about the performance and less about the writing. They were close. I would memorize everything. I would write a 40-minute set and completely memorize it. Now, I'm concentrating on my writing and just reading it, and the performance is separate.
How do you balance among all your obligations?
Now Gus [her son] is in pre-school. It's great, because now I can drop him off and come over here, and I don't pick him up until six o'clock. Before I would be up until three, four in the morning writing. Now it's great because I can be more on a schedule.
It's hard figuring out [where to focus]. The stuff I do with Tara [Jepsen, her collaborator on “Diving for Pearls”] is super fun and we have such a blast doing it, but we don't make any money off it. And right now it's really hard because I'm supposed to be writing a short story for an anthology. It was due last week, and it actually pays money. I'm trying hard to finish it, but at the same time I have the stuff with Tara, which I really want to do.
A lot of it [balancing] is really financially based. … I need to actually improve my quality of life.
Do you set goals for yourself? How do you motivate yourself for your projects?
Most of [my decisions were] based on if a project looked interesting and fun to me. I never really thought, I'm going to make a movie today. But then Tara and I start talking about it. Well, yeah, let's do it!
And then, yeah, I do set goals. I don't have any master list or agenda or anything like that. When I was doing a reading two years ago, there was an agent in the audience from this New York agency. She approached me afterwards and said, I would really like to represent you. That was definitely a time in my life when I said, OK, I need to take this really seriously, I need to write a really good book, I need to come up with a good idea. I said, here's a chance where I can work really hard and try to make this happen.
How would you describe your work process?
Hhm. I don't know.
Do you just do whatever is needed to be done in the moment?
Yeah. I'm really deadline-oriented. I like having a deadline a lot. It really helps me. I just sit there and try to write. I don't know what my process is.
Do you sit down at your desk at the same time every day?
Yeah, pretty much during the day.
What inspires you to keep writing?
Other writers definitely inspire me, writers that I know. Seeing Michelle [Tea], and reading Michelle's work, and Mary [Roach] and Lisa [Margonelli] and Joe [Loya]. And Porch Light, hearing people's stories. That's really helped me in my own writing, hearing all the different ways that a story can be told, and seeing what's interesting to me and what works. So yeah, other artists and writers inspire me.
What have been your biggest challenges in your career and/or writing process?
Having a kid was hard, a challenge. It really was. I tried to pretend that it wasn't for a while. A certain part of my personality was like, oh, everybody makes such a big deal about it. Everybody has kids. What's the big deal? And then it was, oh, it is a big deal. It takes up a lot of time and energy, it's hard work, and so that was definitely a challenge.
Another big challenge is just that insecurity of, “is this even good?” Trying to get past those little voices that creep up and say, why are you even doing this? Why would anybody even care? Is this an acceptable way to write a story, because it's weird or whatever? So that's always a challenge.
How have you made ends meet as a writer? I know you've said you've never really had a regular day job.
I have not had a day job in five years. I was working at SFGate as an editor doing pages (pulling stories together from the Chronicle), and I was writing a column at the same time. And then I left and just was writing my column. It wasn't a lot of money, but I was paid weekly for the column. Besides that I would do a lot of things. It's really funny but when I start talking about it I can't remember how it happened.
I'm looking at my calendar to see what I have. This Saturday, I'm going to spend all day at a celebrity chef cooking event that I'm managing. … I have a lot in October. The Headlands Center for the Arts has a mystery ball, and I'm going to do the art auction at that. I get asked to do a lot of benefits. In November, Marin Country Day School is having a big book fair, and they're paying me to give a talk and a reading.
It really is week to week. I wrote something for the back of the Chronicle magazine a couple of weeks ago, and this anthology that I'm doing a story for now pays some money. I've done some magazine writing. I'm starting to get a little work that way. But a lot of it is a combination of freelance writing and art auctioneering.
What advice would you give a writer who wants to follow in your footsteps, either as writer or performer or combination thereof?
For me it's been really important to not stress out about making sure that everything is perfect. I think it's really important to just keep writing and performing and putting things out there, because you learn every time you do it. You shouldn't be paralyzed by the thought that what you're doing isn't absolutely perfect.
Maybe people think, oh, she puts out all this mediocre stuff in all these different genres. But for me, I'm learning something every time I do that. There's mediocre music and there are mediocre TV shows and there are things that have redeeming qualities. I was reading something someone wrote about me that said, just because you're good with a mic and Ira Glass let you go on American Life doesn't mean you can write a book. And I'm like, really, why not? So to write a book it all of a sudden has to be this… That's the thing about Porch Light and stories, it shows that everybody has stories to tell. So yeah, maybe a few people aren't going to want to hear your story, and maybe they are.
What does the future hold for you?
I have two different book proposals right now. So I'm definitely going to write more books.
And you have a screenplay out, right?
Tara and I wrote a screenplay, and yeah, it almost got made. We have one of those stories. So that's out there. My literary agent got me a TV and film writing agent, and so I have a couple TV show ideas.
So the two book proposals you have out, are they creative nonfiction or…?
One of them is creative nonfiction; it's an idea I have that I'm really excited about. There are people all over that teach workshops and classes out of their homes, so what I'm going to do is go around the country and take classes at people's houses and write about them. Like there's this lady in Fort Wayne, Indiana who teaches witchcraft out of her apartment, and there's this lady in Las Vegas who has a stripper pole in her living room. There's also mundane stuff, like scrap booking and weird cooking classes and money management classes. I just love the idea that you would maybe or maybe not be an expert at something, and would put up an ad, invite strangers into your house, and teach them how to do something. It's kind of about making friends and making money, and it's so weird to me. I'm really excited about doing that.
The other one is something I never thought I'd do. A couple of young adult editors asked me if I wanted to try a young adult novel. … And so I got this idea. I thought, what kind of book would I have liked to have read? So I'm going to write a young adult novel.