By Len Lear
In 2012 Mt. Airy resident Janet Mason, 57, wrote a memoir, “Tea Leaves, A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters,” which her publisher, Bella Books, maintained was the first LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgendered) nonfiction book in over a decade to address directly the issues of caring for elderly parents. Janet is also a lay minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue in East Mt. Airy.
But primarily, Mason is a peripatetic, much-in-demand writing teacher. She will be teaching “Taking Yourself Seriously As a Writer” for Mt. Airy Learning Tree (MALT) starting Feb. 23 and running Thursday evenings, 7 to 9 p.m., through March 30. She has taught other creative writing classes for MALT, “but I feel that this one gets to the heart of what beginning writers need to pursue their craft.” Last week we asked Mason the following questions:
- What prompted you to want to teach this course?
“A lot of people want to be writers. It is true that everybody has a story. But serious writers set goals (such as a writing schedule) and gain a unique perspective on themselves, their lives and their characters through their writing. In this society, where the arts aren’t really valued except in the case where artists have already ‘made it,’ so many of us need permission to take ourselves seriously. For me it came gradually and naturally. In order to be a writer, you have to take yourself seriously. My own experience prompted me to develop the class. I give my students the tools they need to take themselves seriously, and off they go! We also do in-class writing exercises, and I am often amazed at what they write!”
- Where else have you taught?
“I also teach an ongoing class at Temple University Center City and have taught at Stockton College in New Jersey; at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania; at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Wissahickon Valley Public Library in Blue Bell. I’ve basically been an itinerant writing teacher for some years now. The freedom allows me to pursue my own writing, and at the same time I meet many fine writers and am inspired by my students!”
- Isn’t it pretty much impossible to get an agent to represent you if you are not already a published author (a Catch-22)?
“It is most definitely an uphill climb to find a agent to represent you or even to find a small press (that can be approached directly by the author), but it’s not impossible. The trick is to establish a writing schedule and to stick to it. Also read voraciously! Stand on the shoulders of the great writers who came before you. Read the same book again to see how the author did it.”
- What are the mistakes most common among those who want to be published authors?
“One of the most common mistakes is in giving up before you get started — or giving up at any point, actually. Another mistake is taking rejection personally. Read the journals you submit to and make sure your work fits, but always understand that the business of writing is just that. It is not personal.”
- What has being a lay minister meant to you?
“The experience of being a lay minister was complete unexpected, especially since I was raised secular, but it’s been an invaluable experience of learning about Unitarian Universalism and sharing in the experience of diversity. Joining Restoration has been a powerful experience in understanding that everything (including all religions) really is universal. Restoration also has helped me be more connected to the Mt. Airy community.”
- Are you satisfied with how “Tea Leaves” did?
“My book, ‘Tea Leaves, a Memoir of Mothers and Daughters,’ did really well, with more than 60 reviews internationally, because I really got behind the book. That book meant so much to me, undoubtedly because it contains my family history and my life with my partner, Barbara. The editor I worked with actually wanted more about my life with Barbara (she’s retired from the Mt. Airy Post Office and is actually a very colorful character in life and in the book), so I revised the manuscript before the book was published. As a result, the book became much stronger.”
- How is Sappho, your 14-year-old cat (named for a lesbian poet from ancient Greece), doing?
“My little cat, Sappho, and her brother, Felix, are now feline seniors, so they’ve both had health conditions, and their doting mothers (my partner and I) have been taking lots of trips to the vet. They have both come through their health conditions, except that Sappho lost her sight. I was heartbroken and worried at first. But she has proven to be resilient and is finding her way around with her whiskers and her sense of smell, which probably always was her strongest sense.”
- Are you as pessimistic and fearful, as are many progressives, both gay and straight, about the prospects of a Trump presidency?
“I was talking to an 80-year-old friend who came here as a young man from Europe, and he said that he has faith in the future, not in the president-elect but in the Republic and the Constitution that has sustained us for so many years. I hope he’s right. In this environment, it’s more important to tell our stories — and to listen to each other — than ever before. We have to stand strong in ourselves and be allies to each other.”
- If you had your life to start over again, what if anything would you do differently?
“I’m very happy being me and don’t live in regret, so at first I would have said that I wouldn’t have done anything differently. But then on second thought, there are probably lots that I would do differently. But that’s not the way life is; is it? But at least as a writer I can use all of my experiences, perhaps in fiction, perhaps in a long ago time. As they say, it’s all grist for the mill!”
For more information about Mason’s writing class, call 215-843-6333 or visit www.mtairylearningtree.org