Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #5: Stephanie Alison Walker

Stephanie Alison Walker is a playwright, blogger, and book author whom I know from several online groups.  Just before Christmas in 2008, she and her husband learned that the bank intended to foreclose upon their home.  She chronicled their subsequent journey through the belly of the home foreclosure crisis in her blog, Love in the Time of Foreclosure, which eventually became a book of the same name.  She also addressed the same topic in her play, American Home.  Through all of their ups and downs, she also gave birth to a son, Malcolm.  She was kind enough to take some time from her busy life to talk about her adventures in moving, home foreclosure, writing, and parenthood.

You and Bob faced some pretty extreme challenges in 2008/2009, when you lost your house in the crash of the housing market.  You even had to sell all your stuff.  Through it all, you wrote your blog, Love in the Time of Foreclosure, about your experience.  And it was not just tragic, but also extremely positive.  Readers were able to read about an experience that was being shared by millions of other homeowners and watch you getting through it.  Looking back, it seems like a natural choice for a writer to write about this, but it’s not quite that simple when you’re in the midst of such enormous turmoil.  What got you to start the blog, and what kept you going? 

Yes, yes yes. We were broke, losing our house, dealing with massive failure, feeling like big dummies, feeling lost, scared, frustrated, angry and confused. Exactly what you would expect. What surprised us is that we were starting to feel happier than ever before and totally hopeful about the future. There was this moment where we really owned up to our failures. We embraced our personal financial crisis from the perspective that we have nothing more to lose and everything to gain. We fortunately knew better than to allow it to destroy us. And we knew if we didn't "own" it, it would eventually be our downfall. Once we "owned" our failures, we could objectively confront the mistakes that led us there. And in doing that, we were able to actually learn and grow from our mistakes. It didn't just happen. We had to be really rigorous with ourselves. We couldn't let ourselves off the hook. It was time to really tell the truth and get to the root of the problem. We had to be bigger people, so to speak, than we'd ever been in our lives.

We began to do things we should have been doing a long time ago. Such as talk openly about our debt and finances as a team (not adversaries.) We stopped silently blaming each other. We let go of resentments and disappointments. And we joined together to build a future based on trust, openness and integrity. What began showing up was incredible amounts of gratitude and joy. Relief. We were finally on the same page. Finally being the partnership we had always wanted to be. It took a pretty huge wake up call. And that's what it was for us; a wake up call.

In the face of all of that, we were still trying to sell our house. Still creeping dangerously close to foreclosure. Still hemorrhaging cash. I did everything in my power to educate ourselves. And what I wanted to read was a first-person perspective from someone who faced foreclosure and lived to tell the tale, so to speak. In a powerful way. Not as a victim. But I didn't find that. What I found were stories about people in foreclosure who killed themselves or their families. Who burned down their homes rather than let the bank take them. There was nothing but tragic endings out there to be read. My choice to start the blog was to provide a foil to that. We were in foreclosure and it frankly sucked, but we were still able to be happy. I wanted to share that perspective. That it isn't all doom and gloom. That it didn't have to be tragic. I wanted to show all sides of it in a raw and truthful way. 

That's how it began. At first, I was worried about revealing too much. I also wasn't sure that anyone other than my family would read it. But it quickly caught on. Probably because I was the only one writing about it. I began to hear from people who were being positively impacted by my sharing. That fueled the fire. I was encouraged by friends and family to keep writing and not be afraid of the hard truth. So I shared some pretty raw emotion at time. But it always came around to the positive. That was my commitment. No matter what. The blog ended up being a tool to hold me to that commitment. There were days I wanted to just crawl inside a hole and never leave my pity party. But I now had readers who expected me to rise above. So I had to. It kept me honest in the best way imaginable.

Just as you were leaving the house that you’d had to sell, you got a message from one of the readers of your blog offering you an opportunity to house sit on San Juan Island in Washington State for two years.  Then a month later, you found out you were pregnant.  You were in a strange place, in a very different situation.  What did you think when you found out?

It's funny. My husband knew I was pregnant before I did. I was experiencing some strange symptoms including car sickness and stomach cramping. Bob said, "I bet you're pregnant." I thought I just had indigestion. But once my pregnancy was confirmed, my immediate reaction was, "This is perfect." It really felt like everything we had been through with losing everything was to bring us to that moment. Pregnant. On a remote and beautiful island. Priorities powerfully rearranged. Ready to begin a family. It all made sense.

And yes, it was a strange place. No hospital on the island. I had to figure all of that out. How would I deliver? Who would be my doctor? I had recently joined a running group on the island and the ladies that were a part of that group were among the first people I told. They barely knew me beyond our story (as I had shared it with them) but they were so happy for me. I'll never forget that. That told me right away that though it would be challenging, I was in the perfect place to have this baby. 
Malcolm is 20 months old. We're living in Chicago in an apartment on the north side. I love our neighborhood and our apartment. We have six chickens in the backyard thanks to our landlord who lives in the third floor apartment. We're in a very walkable neighborhood and have fresh eggs in the morning. It's really fabulous, I must admit. Malcolm loves the chickens and loves collecting the eggs. 

I often find it difficult to write plays about situations that I’m currently facing.  A blog seems a good match to everyday situations and turmoil.  But you also managed to write a play about your experiences, American Home.  How did you find the perspective you needed to write the play?  Where does the play stand now?  It seems to me that it’s something that should be produced far and wide, given that the country is still dealing with the shakeout from the housing collapse.

I actually began writing the play before the blog. I was temping as an accountant assistant which involved a lot of mindless work-- filing, scanning, etc. The idea for the play hit me at work and I was totally energized. My idea was to write the worst-case scenario of our situation. I thought it would help me to face our situation knowing that it would never get that bad. I suppose the writing of the play began as an attempt at therapy. And maybe that's how writing always is for me. I'm usually attempting to understand something when I decide to write a play. 

In writing American Home, I included our story but also focused on several other scenarios that I had read about and that were very different than our situation. One of the characters is a prosperity preacher whose congregation is far and wide facing foreclosure and her own church is also facing foreclosure. That story came out of an article I read about Prosperity Preaching having a hand in the foreclosure crisis. I found that fascinating. I was looking to understand the housing crisis from a societal and cultural level. What really led to this? 

American Home was the winner of Chicago's American Blues Theater's first annual Blue Ink Award for Playwriting in 2011. As a part of that award, it received a staged reading. ABT is currently considering it and so are a couple of other Chicago companies. Nothing is decided yet. Thank you for saying you think it should be produced far and wide. It's not an easy play. It has comedy in it, but it's not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination. So it's tough. But, it's real. And it's happening. So I do hope it will be produced and reach the people who are dealing with the loss of house and home. I though it might be really powerful to do it in a foreclosed building... if that were somehow possible.
The Moving Arts production of "The Big Ride"  Pictured: America Young and Nathan Frizzell.

Balancing writing and foreclosure is a hard challenge.  So is writing and moving—I’ve moved a lot, and often find that I lose a solid six months of writing time around a move.  Did you find ways to keep writing during your various moves?
No. Not at all. I had this vision of moving to the island and writing like I'd never written before. But I was blindsided by a severe depression only two months after landing there. I missed my old life. I missed my family. I hated the island. I couldn't write. I was tired all the time. I was also in my first trimester and didn't realize that depression can be a symptom. Once I discovered other pregnant women dealing with that, I felt so much better. The fog lifted as I moved into the second trimester and I was able to begin writing again. But I lost a lot of time. And then I felt desperate. Like if I don't write everything I've ever wanted to write right now, I'll never have the chance again. I was writing against a ticking clock-- Malcolm's birth. Still, I was only able to churn out a few new ten minute plays, some articles and a handful of blog posts. I tinkered with things but didn't have a lot of forward motion.

So, yes. Moving, foreclosure, pregnancy... they have all made it hard for me to be very regular about my writing. And I'm very hard on myself. I always feel much better when I'm writing. Especially when I'm writing well. 

And now you’re a mother.  How to you find time to write now that you have a young son?  (Assuming that you do find some time to write.)  Do you find that it changes how and what you write? You were able to write about the foreclosure as it was happening, are you able to do that with motherhood?
Sometimes I write late at night when Malcolm and Bob are both sleeping. But usually I'm sleeping then too. My mom is a saint and watches Malcolm every Wednesday so that I can write. And my sister has started to nanny two days a week so that I can not only write, but do some marketing on the book.

It definitely changes how I write. I have to write much faster and more focused. So that's a good thing. I have to limit the amount I research. I love researching, but just don't have the time for that anymore. I try to write in my head. 

What an interesting question (writing about foreclosure in the moment vs. motherhood)! It's funny, when I was pregnant, I loved blogging about it. I was very open about certain aspects and even posted pictures of my humongous pregnancy bras (that was on my blog "Two Years on an Island.") I documented the entire birth story (and am so glad that I did that.) But I just haven't written about BEING a mother. Maybe because I'm too busy. Maybe because I need to be writing about other things. I don't know. I just haven't found my voice on that subject matter just yet. It all feels so in flux and like my mind is always trying to just catch up with this incredible being. The most I've been able to write about being a mom is in occasional Tweets or Facebook updates. And sometimes in his baby book (which is a project that has sat stagnant for far too long).

I’m very impressed by your positive attitude, and how you’ve managed to transform such a challenging situation into a blog that’s been helpful to thousands of readers, and then get a play out of it, and now a book based on the blog.  Tell me about how you found your publisher, Outpost 19.  They’re publishing it as an ebook  They publish ebooks only, not print.  You could have self-published Love in the Time of Foreclosure as an ebook—what did Outpost 19 give you that you couldn’t do on your own?

Outpost19 came to me. Jon Roemer, their publisher, had been a reader of my blog and felt it would make a powerful book and wanted to include it in his launch. I'd by lying if I didn't say that I tried first to sell it traditionally. Working with my agent (who I teamed up with as a result of the strength of the blog) I wrote a proposal for a memoir based on our story and the blog. My agent worked really hard to try to sell it, but it just wasn't in the cards. At first, no one really believed that the foreclosure crisis would last long enough. (Hello!) Here we are three years later. We finally put my memoir proposal to rest after several rounds of rejections and that's when Jon contacted me. Because I wanted to reach more people, I was excited by what Jon proposed. His idea was for a book version of the blog. In that, I saw an opportunity to expand our story. To include episodes that I had left off of the blog because of the sensitivity of the subject or the timing. Jon had a great vision for the arc of our story -- which posts to include, which to leave out, etc.

And yes, they do only publish eBooks. I could have published it on my own through Amazon, but I chose to work with Outpost19 for the support and so that I didn't have to do it on my own. Jon was also my editor and helped me so much through the editing of the book. It was super helpful to have such a smart person on my team to help shape our story as a book. Outpost19 is a new, indie digital publisher and I was drawn to what they are about. I wanted to be a part of their launch. And as a part, I also benefited from their marketing and publicity. Their resources, like mine, however are definitely limited. There is so much more we could be doing. If only. If only we had more money. More time. More manpower. But I am definitely glad that I chose to publish with Outpost19 as opposed to on my own. The idea of doing it completely alone was so overwhelming. And Outpost19 also provided the moral support... which is critical. At least to me.

Can you compare the experiences of writing a blog, plays, and a book, both in terms of your process, and in how you find and relate to an audience?

 Oh gosh. Such a big question. Well... goodness. They are so different. So much goes into writing a blog that people actually read regularly. And it takes thinking in such a different way. I had the most readers when we were facing foreclosure. When our future was unknown. When each day brought a new piece of terrible news. People were rooting for us. (Thankfully.) And they wanted to know what would happen next. I continue to blog, but I haven't had the same kind of readership because our stakes are no longer sky high. That's a big part of it. So if I want to draw more readers, I have to find a different way. And I'm not sure what that is, quite yet. This is all part of the thought that goes into my blogging and explains my large gaps in contributions to my blog. I get overwhelmed. I feel like no one is listening, so why bother. 

It's not like that with playwriting. I just had a reading of a play I have been working on for over nine years. It's easier to give up on blogging when I'm not inspired, because it's not my passion. Playwriting truly is my passion. So... though it takes forever and is all about rising above constant rejection, I know I'll never stop writing plays. It's just what I do. It's part of the air I breathe. It's in the way my brain works. And how I think. I think in scenes so often it's scary. 

The appeal of blogging is the immediate interaction with the audience. When we were in the midst of our foreclosure crisis, I heard from so many readers. They shared their stories with me and we were both changed for the better as a result of that interaction. It's addictive. 

It's very different with my plays. I have to wait for the opportunity for an audience. And that happens fewer and farther in between. But I always keep the audience in mind. And I don't know if they are different in my mind. The audiences for my plays, book or blog. I think not, actually. I'm just always trying to tell the truth. To capture it in a way that the most people can feel known. And it's no different in any of my writing.

What’s next for you, as a writer, as a family?

I have huge writing goals. I'm currently revising two full-length plays and writing two new full-length plays. I'm marketing both American Home and The Art of Disappearing. Trying to land productions for both of those plays.
I'm also working on a couple of screenplays - both of which I began writing about five years ago. I'm determined to polish those off! Everyone always tells me that our story would make such a great movie. So I'm working on a treatment for the film version of Love in the Time of Foreclosure. And lastly, I do want to write another book that would encompass our time on the island. That was such a special time in our life, I want to capture it and share it.

As a family, what's next is getting Malcolm sleeping through the night (Please, God. Please!) so that we can all catch up on our sleep. Oh, yeah. And a date night would be lovely too. 

Thanks for your time, and for being an inspiration and source of support and information to so many people.

 Thank you for having me, Patrick!

You can find Stephanie's blogs at Love in the Time of Foreclosure, Two Years on an Island, and I Am Saw (her playwriting site).  The book version of Love in the Time of Foreclosure is available from Outpost19.

Next week, I'll talk with fellow playwright and stay-at-home dad, John Shea.

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