We had the good fortune of connecting with Nancy Lynée Woo and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nancy Lynée, how has your perspective on work-life balance evolved over time?
I’m a writer by profession and a poet at my core, so I’m always seeking balance between my personal creative work and my professional jobs. While I’ve tried on many different hats for size—journalism, ghostwriting, copywriting, just to name a few—I have always been a poet at heart. Writing poetry is not something I can afford to neglect in my pursuit of a balanced work life. I teach community poetry workshops called Surprise the Line and I’m in Antioch’s MFA program for poetry, so currently I’m carving out lots of intentional time for my art. It’s essential to make the time! Non-negotiable. After ten years of testing my limits, I think I’m finally mastering the art of balancing a writer’s life. It hasn’t always been a cakewalk. As a freelance creative, I’ve juggled all sorts of different jobs and projects. In the past, it’s been very easy for me to get swept away by a dazzling new idea, and then find myself overwhelmed by everything I’ve said yes to. I realize now how much precious time is needed to write my own books. So I’ve been creating strong and healthy boundaries to protect my creative time. No one else will do it for me. As much as I want to do everything, I can’t. The book Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, has had a great influence on me. I have been asking myself “What is the highest contribution I am making?” I wish I could say yes to every brilliant project that comes my way, but I have learned to be more focused in my pursuit of the creative life I want to lead. My process changes pretty often to accommodate whatever developmental stage I’m in, and right now I’m in a great flow! I sit down with my cute calendar notebook and different colored markers to plot out my schedule at least once every three months. I make this process very fun for myself. I plan ahead as best I can, marking blocks of time dedicated to different types of projects. For example, I will block out two weeks just to dedicate to my own manuscript project, and then plan for eight weeks of teaching and client work. My schedule is always fluctuating, depending on what’s calling for my attention. Plotting out my “creative times,” “teaching times,” and “client times” (not to mention “travel times” and other categories) helps me train my brain to know what kind of mental zone to be in: wild creative breakthroughs, grounded open teaching, steady laser focus, carefree whimsy, etc. Planning ahead by months, weeks, days and sometimes hours really helps me relax into the process. Having a general structure leaves a lot of room for spontaneity, which is where inspiration finds me. My personal creative time feeds my teaching, too, since I’m always teaching what I learn, and this is a nice harmonious bonus. If I have time pretty much every day to read a bit, eat well, exercise, learn something, meditate, relax, spend time with my loved ones and animals, tune into nature, and work on meaningful projects, I feel pretty balanced. Progress over perfection is always the goal! To me, balance means living in the present moment. Having a dog certainly helps! If there’s one thing I’ve learned about striking balance as a poet, it’s that the writing lifestyle requires both hyper-attention to detail (intense focus), as well as open swaths of free time (non-focus). I used to jam pack my schedule to the max, trying to do everything and be everywhere. Life is so interesting and there’s so much to explore! Now, I know the value of scheduling downtime to just be, and see where that takes me. I’ve heard it said that when the poet looks like she is doing nothing, that’s when she’s actually at her busiest.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
What a series of big questions! I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t always believe it was possible (even when I was actually doing it). Malcolm Gladwell proposes it takes around 10,000 hours or 10 years to master a skill, and I have certainly spent the last ten years overcoming imposter syndrome. There is no clear charted path for living a professional creative life, and I am sure it is nuanced and particular to every individual artist. I remember a few early lessons: A professional chef named Chef Lizette had asked me, “Am I willing?” Later, a medium named Carmen Sima asked me, “Am I willing to be seen?” To both these questions, I had to find my true yes in order to proceed. If there’s anything I want the world to know about my story, it’s that I have always been fueled by questions. Whatever challenge I’m facing, it’s best for me to remember: Find the right questions to ask, and then pay attention to the answers. Listen to the world. The longer you look, the clearer the images become. Poetry is the subconscious dancing on the page. I am also an entrepreneur, and I believe that a business can be a way of healing, connecting and creating new stories. What I am most excited about lately is building new classes for my poetry business, Surprise the Line. I’ve started inviting guest teachers, and just launched a new website with an event calendar at SurprisetheLine.com! I realized recently that the more I consciously build my business, the more I can live my purpose, which is to spread the joy of creativity (especially a love of language) everywhere.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, with cultural hotspots either temporarily or permanently closed down during the pandemic, my mind right now immediately goes to my favorite outdoor nature spots in Long Beach that I’m always roving around: Rosie’s Dog Beach, the Colorado Lagoon, the El Dorado Nature Center, the beach path, and probably some others I’m forgetting! Walking, camping, and hiking are some of my grounding activities to balance out the hyperactive poet-brain. Yoga on the Bluff would be a definite must. Also: going out on the water in some way! Wandering around Marina Bay. The Queen Mary. Honestly, staying home for the last year has made my brain soggy when it comes to “things to do in the world,” but there are plenty of amazing artistic events here that are currently on hold. And there are so many good restaurants, too many to name right now. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I could give so many shoutouts! Right now, I am currently working towards my first full-length collection of poems with the support of the MFA program at Antioch, and I wouldn’t be here today, getting a master’s degree in poetry, without the help and support of the incredible Victoria Chang. She was my mentor in 2015 through PEN America’s Emerging Voices Fellowship, and she has been an unwavering believing mirror for me and my work ever since. I am deeply grateful for the immense contribution she has made to the trajectory of my life and my path as a poet.