For one of the first interviews in this series, I figured who better to feature than Karen Lentz, who is writing a book about work. I met Karen in a writing workshop a few years ago, and have always been impressed by her project, which asks really smart and thought provoking questions about finding meaning in what we do and staying true to ourselves while meeting the demands of the modern workplace.
You can learn more about her in this interview with the folks at Xochi Quetzal Artist Residency, which she attended a few years ago. Karen lives in Culver City and our interview took place in her breezy top floor apartment.
Tell me about what you do on the work front.
I work on Internet policy, and I actually do a lot of writing in that capacity, which can range from correspondence, reports, summaries, a lot of proposals and the rationale for developing them — the pros and cons. So in my day job I work a lot with words.
I also have for most of my life thought of myself as a writer primarily. I studied English and Creative Writing and throughout most of my life have had some kind of side creative project, and in a way, that’s always been the tension that I’ve had. I would like to have no obligations earning a living, however, I do. So there’s always this struggle about how I spend my time and how I make sense of the balance I need to keep.
Right. So to talk a little bit about your day job, our mutual friend Chris Daley who runs our writing workshops always says something like “you hold you Internet together” or “you are making the Internet run.” Tell me a little bit more about the organization you work for and the policy aspect of what you do.
I work for ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. We coordinate the system of unique identifiers that support the Internet. So that includes domain names and IP addresses, any of the protocols that are used in transmitting information throughout the domain name system, and policy considerations that relate to that. This is not an original analogy, but if you think about the postal system, it’s got nothing to do with the content of the letters or the mail, it’s all about making sure it gets to where it’s supposed to go. Sort of an infrastructural role.
Which is interesting because it’s something that everyone just sort of takes for granted. The work that you guys do seems pretty amazing. You came to it how long ago?
12 years ago.
It was a startup at the time?
It was very small — about 20 people. At that time it was about four years old. Because it was so new and so small, I really got to do a lot of everything. It was an amazing experience and also kind of consumed my life for a length of time.
How did you come to this job?
Well, I had no background in technology at all. I came to it from the intellectual property standpoint. Previous to this job, I worked in Washington D.C. in scientific publishing, and part of my job was to keep track of what was happening in the world of copyright and trademark issues. It was in the course of reading about the UDRP, which is a cybersquatting arbitration procedure, that I learned of the existence of this small organization in California and filed it away as something to look into when I was ready to move back.
So you’ve been back in California for about 12 years and you’ve had this job the entire time. At first you were working a ton — has that smoothed out into a more reasonable workweek?
A little bit. Well, yes, it has. But it’s also just a different time. There are definitely still urgent, unforeseen things I need to respond to, but the work is more organized. It’s a stretch to say it’s manageable, but it’s going in that direction.
So switching gears a little bit. On the creative side, when did you start writing? Did you want to be a writer when you grew up? I think I didn’t really know that was an option. I know that I would always write things down and I loved to read and I jumped onto every assignment that was like, “write a story about something.” But it was actually other people who pointed that path out to me I think. I’d get comments like, “oh, you’re a really good writer” or “your book report was so well done” or whatever that made me think maybe this is something I can do that not everybody can do.
So when you went to college, did you major in Creative Writing?
I majored in English, and added Political Science later on.
So even then you had the Poli Sci background, which suits your profession pretty well now. It’s interesting you’ve kind of ended up where you probably should be in some ways. Tell me then — I know you got an MFA.
Yes, from American University in Washington D.C.
How did you decide to get an MFA?
Well, once I finished college and realized there was such a thing as a creative writing program, I thought what better way to spend time than learning about writing and spending time with other people who write. It was a while until I could figure out a path to do that — how to set myself up as an applicant to a graduate program and figure out how to pay for it, and it took me a few years before I was actually accepted into one.
How long between college and MFA did you go?
During that time you applied multiple years?
Yes. I think I applied starting probably four years in a row.
So you really wanted it.
What do you write now, and what were you writing then?
At the time I thought of myself as a fiction writer. Mostly because that was what I had been exposed to and that’s what creative writing was to me — novels or short stories. I was interested in different places or different types of places and how where you live determines your destiny in some ways — it shapes who you’re going to meet and what you’re going to do. So I created these imagined towns and worlds and people in them. I’m still interested in that.
You wrote short stories?
Yes. I always had a longer book in mind, or a few of them. But I also would always seem to end up writing about work in some form, whether it was fictional or whether it was this person who was stuck in a job or lost their job or didn’t get a particular job. A lot of it I’m sure was semi-autobiographical … I was always trying to work out the choices you have in being an adult who earns a living and how that functions in a person’s life.
So when did you get your MFA in fiction?
At what point did you decide you were going to switch to nonfiction?
Good question. In my MFA program we had to take one class that was called Literary Journalism, which before I took it I really had no idea what that was. At the time it was taught by Henry Taylor, and we did interviews and book reviews, criticism, personal essays and a variety of things like that, and I really loved that class. I think that’s when I got the idea that I could have these kinds of nonfiction projects. And it was probably only about four years ago when I started taking Chris’s nonfiction workshops and writing from that perspective on a regular basis that I realized some of the pieces I was writing would lend themselves to a book. I finally I figured out that I actually could write about some of these subjects in a more direct way — I felt like my own experiences had become varied and deep enough that I had something interesting to say.
So you just kind of wrote until you figured out what it was you were writing.
Your job, from all accounts, is very demanding and stressful. Were you writing during those early years of working at ICANN? How did you fit it into your life then versus now?
I think there was a period of time that it was just very sporadic. I would have an idea or I would have an hour and I’d just try to get something down so that I could go back to it when I did have time. I did a lot of that, taking notes and writing down questions. For a while I remember that I would try to get up early and write, but that has never worked well for me because I don’t like to get up early, or at all. But I would do it sometimes and even if it was for ten minutes, I would go through this stream of consciousness and write about what I was thinking about or observing, and dilemmas I wanted to explore. A lot of shorthand that I did go back to later.
Did you feel when you were working, for this job and maybe for all your jobs, did you ever feel resentment about the time that you had to spend on work versus your creative projects?
Maybe a little bit, but it was also my choice to do that, because I was in the middle of something that was kind of crazy and exciting and it was incredibly demanding, but it was also creative in the sense that it hadn’t been done before. I felt that I was growing in a creative way, so it wasn’t a question of work or creativity — it was more like, I’m choosing to do this for this period of time because I feel like it’s a once in a lifetime thing. For me there’s a constant taking stock of time — you hit points where you think “Why am I doing this?” and then you look at where you are and figure out whether something needs to change. I’ve written about stress and the insanity and the attractions of it, and it surprised me how much it seemed to resonate with people–it is just a society of hyperspeed, and that forces awareness of time.
OK, so after you got out of your MFA program, you were a young writer, newly minted with this degree. Did you make an attempt to sell a book or work in publishing? What were your aspirations at that time?
Well, I think I was fairly lost after that. Getting an MFA had been my ambition for so long that I just oriented myself around it. It took a long time to get there, so I hadn’t really thought a lot beyond that. Like OK I have this, now what do I do? I did plan to take my master’s thesis, which was a set of short stories based in an office, and polish them up and send them out with the idea of selling them as a book. But also I think for a while I was just getting into the life of a regular person who’s not pushing herself to achieve something. I did that for a while. I graduated from the MFA program without a real plan.
I don’t have an MFA, so I’m always curious about that process. What were your fellow students doing when they graduated? Was the sense like, oh shit, what are we all gonna do now?
There were a handful who were teaching, who had adjunct positions. I don’t think anybody really had a job lined up, in the traditional sense. We all sort of wanted to get our stuff out there and figure out what to do next.
Why weren’t you interested in pursuing teaching? Was that the most common thing people were doing, would you say?
Probably, yeah. It was probably a good transitional thing because it gave you something to do and a little bit of income for a while. But I didn’t do it because for one thing, I was broke, and I needed to find something full time. Also teaching was just really hard for me. It was great in a lot of ways, but to be a good teacher you have to give a lot of energy to your students, and in the last couple semesters when I was teaching I was putting a lot into helping them and supporting them and it did take away from my focus on my own stuff. And I’m sure that’s a balance that you could learn over time, but I hadn’t achieved it, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to continue that dynamic.
Is it fair to say that you felt it was just too taxing?
For where I was at the time, yeah.
Makes sense. So you ended up doing some interesting science publishing jobs, and you’re now at ICANN. Tell me about the book that you’re working on (or you’re done with?) now.
I would say it’s close to done. The book is about work, obviously. It’s partly about looking back through the different jobs that I’ve had and tracing what I learned from them, in what ways they fit or didn’t fit me. In a way, it’s a story of searching for a place to belong that everyone does in life. They might do that in different spheres, but for me, I’m looking at it from the different positions I’ve held and what I learned from all of those. So half is that story, and the other half is a little bit specific to me, but about the broader questions of how you go about functioning while in a workplace, what ethics you have and how you look out for your own career interests and relate to other people. Lots of questions that I was exploring through the last few years.
This is sort of a sexist question, maybe, but how much has being a woman informed your work. Would you say it’s a main theme?
I guess it is somewhat, because one of the things that comes up a fair amount is that I feel like generationally speaking, I was in a unique place. Looking back at my mother or women who were a generation before me, they lived in such a different context when it came to work, and so there wasn’t any sort of that guidance that could be passed down for the kind of questions that I was asking. About how to true to myself and be empathetic and who I want to be in terms of character and to be living in my real personality while at the same time being an achiever and a high performer. So that’s part of it. But in another sense, I never thought of it as a women’s book and I never wanted it to be that. I hope a lot of the questions that I think about, like how you choose to spend your life, what you’re going to dedicate yourself to, and what you’re going to tolerate or not tolerate are all questions that I think apply to men too. How you find meaning in your job and in your life.
You mentioned your mother. You’ve written a really great essay about her and the things that you can’t say to each other based on these huge generational differences. I’m curious about your parents and whether in your upbringing you were encouraged to be creative and to write, or if that’s just something you discovered completely on your own.
I think my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, basically. They’ve always seen my love for books and known that’s where my talents lie, so they have been supportive when I’ve pursued that in different ways.
Your parents are teachers, is that right?
My parents also both started out as teachers. My mom ended up staying home with the kids and my dad went on to have other careers. But I think a lot about work in terms of generations and what’s handed down to you, and the combination of what you may have inherited as an aptitude versus what you were encouraged to do. I think that does have so much impact on people’s career paths. But just on the financial side, were there ever times where you thought, I just want to make money? How much of an impact did finances have on your writing and professional careers?
I’ve had a fairly low standard of living at certain times because I wanted to spend money on going to school or taking classes or buying books or whatever, but I’ve also always been financially independent. But it’s interesting looking at myself as compared to, say, somebody who has attempted to make a living just by being a writer. I’ve known people who had fellowships and things for a while where they really haven’t had to work and can write for the majority of their time, and in a way I think that’s heaven. And in another way, I feel like in some cases their writing is a little bit disconnected from the experience of most people and most readers. I’m now at the point where I think even if I did have an opportunity like that, where I didn’t have to work and earn a living, I still think I would want to. Probably not the kind of hours I do now, but I think supporting it yourself lends a certain integrity to the writing.
Also, when I write I am more free from the considerations of what’s going to get published and what will my editor think, and will that affect my paycheck, and I’m not swayed by that at all, because it’s just not why I write. I try to imagine being where I do have these contacts or pieces that I need to sell or I need to get out there, and how that would change the way I wrote them. But I’ve heard writers say that really what made them a writer in the truest sense was when they actually had to do it to live. They needed to write something and sell it. So it’s something that I wonder about a lot. For me right now, I like the independence of not having to have my creative pursuits go a particular direction.
Right. I think I agree with you, but then I also think like it’s probably easy for me to agree with you because I can’t sell any writing. So there’s that. But no, the question I often ask myself is, knowing what I know now, if I could rewind 20 years, would I have made a bigger attempt to make this more of a career? I’m curious what you think about that.
Well, yes and no. I probably could have saved some time by not going through things that took a fair amount of time to learn. In an ideal world I would have skipped that. But I also don’t think I would have had the same kind of life experience and tenacity, if you want to put it that way. It still is very hard for me to have my writing rejected, but I’m better at it now than I was. If I hadn’t had the kind of exposure and toughness that comes from being in the professional world, I think I would have had a hard time making it in a writing career.
Back to an everyday basis, you said you’re not a morning person. What is your routine? How do you fit writing in?
At the moment, because I’m done with the book, I’m not generating a lot of new stuff. I don’t really have a set routine, I just do it whenever I have an opportune time. I travel a fair amount, and I get a lot done on planes because I’m stuck there and have no other options.
Do you write after work ever or mostly on weekends?
Some of each. Evenings.
That’s very hard for me personally. Figuring out exactly when and how to do it — on a good week, I’ll have done it a few days in the morning and a bigger chunk on the weekend, but it’s never consistent. Which is interesting to me, because the writing advice is always like, “make sure you write every day!” And I wonder how many people actually do that. I admire them if they do.
I do too.
The only other question I have is, what are your goals for the future? Do you have goals, or are you just finding your way as you go?
I do have a goal to get more of the book out there. I’d like to sell it as a book, but even if a lot of the pieces got published, that would be satisfying to me. One of the things that I’m a little envious of in other people is time. Because I work full time and try to squeeze this stuff in, it goes very slowly. If this was my number one pursuit, I’m sure it’d be going much more quickly. Besides just finding the time to actually work on the writing, there’s also a fair amount of work that it takes to send things out and write cover letters and figure out where to send it and make sure it’s in the right format. That’s all time consuming too. Sometimes I compare myself and feel like, “I’m not accomplishing as much as these other people,” but they also have different competing demands than I do. Or they’ve chosen that as their number one priority, and I haven’t. So that’s a little bit frustrating. But I do have a goal to get it out there. And then I have one or two more books in me, at least. I think! At a certain point, I’ll be ready to move on from this one.
Do you have any sense of what you might do next?
I have a few, but they’re not totally formed yet. I’d love to do some kind of immersion project or study, and I don’t think I’ve left fiction behind entirely. As we were talking about, I’ll start writing something and it’ll become apparent.