Since childhood, writer Kendra Levin has had a slew of mind-blowing mentors who shaped and guided her art, whether her medium was poetry, plays, or short stories. In her new guide, The Hero Is You: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You were Born to Be, she seeks to give back by becoming a mentor to her readers. A fresh take on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, Ms. Levin’s debut serves as an enlightened how-to for achieving breakthroughs that were sparked by her dual careers: children’s book editor at Penguin by day and life coach to writers and artists by night. She shares observations, exercises, and stories from almost a decade of coaching creatives. It’s a call to arms for artists who wish to combat their self-doubting fears, fiercely protect their time and seek the manifestation of a completed project.
On a rainy spring day in the West Village, we talked at Levin’s Penguin office about her influential mentors, her two jobs, and her own creative struggles that led her to put playwriting aside.
The Rumpus: How did you decide to become to be a life coach?
Kendra Levin: Almost a decade ago, I was an assistant in publishing, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I noticed I was getting way too involved in my friends’ problems—a breakup, a pregnancy scare, whatever. I’d be like, “I’ll drop everything! I’ll be right there!”
I knew it wasn’t healthy. Then I was at a party, talking with a woman saying, “I work in publishing, what do you do?” and she said, “I empower women.” I was like, “Wow, that’s cool. I want to be able to say something like that.” It turns out she was a life coach, something I had never heard of before. I became interested in pursuing that as a way to have an outlet for this impulse I have to talk to people about what’s going on with them. It made sense for me, because I had experience as an editor working with authors.
Rumpus: What compelled you to frame your book around Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?
Levin: For a long time, I thought about writing a book about writing. I wanted to find a way to put together things I’d learned from a decade of being an editor, teaching writing classes, being a coach, doing workshops, speaking at conferences, and teaching creative writing at a women’s prison. I needed a container to put all those experiences into. I’d met a lot of different kinds of people who were writers and were struggling with the same things.
Then a dear friend was teaching class on Hero’s Journey. I knew the storytelling model, but hadn’t read Campbell. She lent me her books, and I got obsessed. I knew there was something there because I don’t fall hard for things. I got a Campbell crush. I saw the Hero’s Journey as an apt metaphor for the creative process. I developed tools to use with my coaching clients for process. People responded.
Rumpus: Everybody needs a metaphor to explain life.
Levin: It was a nice way to distill things and then, as I researched, I found an interesting psychological basis for our desire to see everything as a story. I’m a very amateur psychology enthusiast, so that was interesting for me.
Rumpus: So this book is an extension of your coaching. That was your goal?
Levin: I wanted to write this book because I love helping writers. It’s my passion, what I do most of the day—and nights. I have a limited number of hours in the day, a limited number of people I can reach one-on-one or when I’m speaking at an event. I saw how much these ideas helped people and wanted to find a way to amplify them.
I found writing a book challenging and have a lot of respect for anybody who does it. I worked on it for six years, and the thing that kept me going at those moments of doubt was thinking about my reader, all the writers out there, especially people who live in places that aren’t literary enclaves, who are isolated and feel alone. I’m trying to connect writers to each other. There’s something very isolating about writing. When making art you have to retreat into yourself to do it.
Rumpus: How did spending your childhood in an incredibly artistic environment shape you?
Levin: I was born in Santa Barbara, where I lived until age nine. My dad was a college English professor and my mom an elementary school teacher. We had a lot of books in our house, a lot of art. My dad was a regular cast member of Santa Barbara’s Gilbert and Sullivan Company and played violin in the pit orchestra of the Civic Light Opera. My childhood was full of creative people. Being around artists so much made me conversant in their experiences.
Rumpus: Could you tell me about your string of impressive mentors?
Levin: When I was in third grade, a poet named Perie Longo came to my school as a visiting artist. It was a particularly meaningful crucible of time in my life. My family’s house had just burned down in the Painted Cave fire, which was started by an arsonist. We lost everything. I was eight years old by a few days and had just been given my first diary for my birthday. I was feeling lots of feelings and looking for way to express them. Perie encouraged me so much. I loved her and fell in love with writing poetry. Through her, I got the opportunity to read a poem I’d written at a public reading. It was a thrill to be taken seriously as a writer.
Rumpus: And in high school, I understand you had a renowned novelist become your mentor?
Levin: A year after the fire, my family moved to the East Coast, to Marblehead, Massachusetts. I was fortunate to spend my last two years of high school going to a boarding school, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, to focus on writing. I had a writing teacher there, Jessie Schell, who encouraged me to submit my work to contests. That’s how I ended up in publishing. She also brought in Andre Dubus III to give readings. He was somebody I connected with, and he was encouraging about my writing. It was so cool, this author I admired so much, giving me advice. He told me to not just focus on writing, but on become a well-rounded person, to try lots different things that can inform your work. Which, arguably, I didn’t follow that advice, but it seems to have worked out all right.
Rumpus: Was it one of those writing contests that led you to Scholastic?
Levin: I submitted work to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards contest and won a few times. When I was in college, I was contacted by an editor at Scholastic, David Levithan. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but now he’s a big deal in the children’s and young adult publishing world. He was putting together an anthology and reached out to get permission to include a short story of mine. I’d just moved to New York, and he said Scholastic was looking for interns, so he invited me to come and interview. I got the internship, and he connected me with an editor there, Joy Peskin. She introduced me to publishing. She hooked me up with Mediabistro, where I became teacher; she connected me with a program teaching at a women’s prison; and she’s the reason I started working at Penguin. I consider her the mentor of my adulthood.
Rumpus: After so many early successes, why did you stop writing?
Levin: In high school, I won all these awards and was getting attention and accolades. Then after a false-start year at Johns Hopkins, I came to NYU to study playwriting. When I was a senior, a play I wrote was produced off-Broadway by the Cherry Lane Theater as part of its Mentor Project. It was a wonderful experience, but I didn’t realize until after that was done how much pressure had been building up and building up. I’d been on this trajectory since third grade. People saying, “You’re going to be a famous author.” After the production was over, I knew I needed to revise the play again and take to next level, but I just never wanted to work on it again. I had worked on it for three years and couldn’t stand it at that point. I hated it.
Rumpus: This was after it was produced?
Levin: Yes, because there’s always more, you always have to keep going. And I needed to write more. If you want to be professional writer, you have to always be writing more, never looking back. I just couldn’t. It wasn’t happening. I felt a lot of pressure, mostly from myself, like, “Oh, my God, this is my moment.” I’d just graduated from college and had a few months’ worth of money saved to keep living in New York. I had the pressure of looking for a job and trying to start a career as writer. It was all just all too much. I did get a job but didn’t revise my play. I didn’t write a new one. It forced me to be like, “Okay, if I’m not a writer, who am I?” And that was a hard question to answer, after everybody telling me what I was going to do.
Rumpus: Were you driven internally, too?
Levin: It was both. So I retreated for a long time. I had trouble writing and working in publishing. It can be a tough combination because you’re surrounded by people who want to be writers and you pour your creativity into your job and get home and you’re like, “I just don’t wanna.” So what really saved me was becoming a coach. It made me feel less alone, like I was contributing to something. To this day, my clients inspire me. They’ve gone through so many different experiences and struggles and always get through them and go on to do amazing things.
This is what finally got me to write again was this book. I found what I really needed to say and it was about helping other writers.
Rumpus: Does that make you more sensitive to writers going through similar struggles?
Levin: I think so, but I’ve also met lots of writers who’ve gone through the opposite experience. Nobody encouraged them. Nobody supported them. Making art isn’t easy, especially in the world we’re living in right now, constantly under threat. Art and writing are being reduced and derided by people, yet they’re among the most important things we have because they’re how we explain our lives to ourselves and each other, develop empathy for people we’ve never met. It’s how we translate the chaos of the world into something we can wrap our heads around.
Rumpus: How was it getting back into wiring?
Levin: Hard! [Laughs] This is why I wanted to write about process rather than craft. There are lots of great books about craft. I’m glad they’re out there and didn’t feel like another one was needed. What was missing from my writing education was any material about how to write. How to make yourself sit there and do it. How do you develop discipline? How do you inculcate yourself with good habits? What do you do when you hit a roadblock? What do you do if you get bad feedback, emotionally? How do you navigate the actual process of writing? You can always make your work better—that’s a big part of the job of an editor—but what is harder to tell people, because it’s so personal, is how to actually do it.
Rumpus: The book took you six years to write and you kept it a secret?
Levin: I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted to keep it private until I was sure I was ready to share it. I wanted to be with the manuscript myself. Part of me enjoys having a little secret, like walking around knowing I’m working on this thing and nobody else knows about it. I wanted it to get more fully baked before I started telling people about it.
Rumpus: The Hero Is You is geared to writers, but can also benefit other artists?
Levin: Definitely. I’ve coached dancers, choreographers, musicians, actors, puppeteers, and even a magician. These techniques are relevant to anybody who does a creative art form, because it’s all about how do you do the work. How do you make it a part of your life? How do you find balance? How do you overcome obstacles?
Rumpus: Do you still teach creative writing at the women’s prison?
Levin: No, more recently I’ve taught at the Focus Forward Project. They have an incredible program for people arrested for federal crimes who are awaiting trial. It’s a twelve-week course, a combination of personal development and job readiness skills. We read the memoir, A Long Way Gone, have book discussions, work on resumes, public speaking, and conflict resolution.
Rumpus: What’s next and do you think you’ll ever go back to revising your play?
Levin: [Sighs, then laughs] As I said, this book took six years to write, but was more like a decade in the making and represents my experiences as an editor, coach, teacher, and human being. So I feel like I’d need another decade to amass sufficient material to write another book. And as far as more creative writing, you never know. It’s one of the things I appreciate about writing, as opposed to other art forms; it doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what shape your body is in. If you’re drawn to write, you can, at any point in your life. So I don’t feel any particular pressure about it.
What I’m focused on right now, along with my work at Penguin, is coaching people and speaking at events around the country. Whatever my medium is, it’s the same spirit. The point is to get my message out there. The book came out the week after the presidential election. When I headed to the West Coast to do events, I was like, “How can I possibly ask anybody to pay attention to my little book?” But I’m here to say: Your voice matters. Your perspective matters. If you have something to say, especially if you are somebody whose voice has not been sufficiently represented, speak out. Speak your truth, whether it’s through writing or another form of art or running for office. Whatever your medium of self-expression is, your voice is important.