by Annie Scholl
Iowa author and columnist Lyz Lenz planned to follow in her lawyer father’s footsteps, but around the time Lenz was to sit for the LSAT (and the GRE for back-up), one of her younger sisters told the family she had been sexually abused for several years by a family member.
“That just broke me in a super profound way,” says Lenz, 37, of Cedar Rapids. “I didn’t show up to the LSAT. I did show up to the GRE and sobbed my way through it.”
In the aftermath of her sister’s shocking revelation, Lenz floundered.
“I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was applying for marketing jobs and then my boyfriend of three years proposed and I was like, sure. It seemed like a good steady thing in a world that was unsteady.”
Lenz, who grew up in Texas and was homeschooled along with her seven siblings, earned her bachelor’s degree in 2005 in English and Russian studies from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. While there, she dabbled in fiction writing and wrote for the school newspaper. A professor who read Lenz’s work in the newspaper suggested Lenz take her essay class. “That was really formative and really positive,” she recalls. “I had never read essayists before. She was like, ‘Read these memoirs; read these essays.’”
After graduation and newly married, Lenz moved from Minnesota to Cedar Rapids for her then-husband’s job. She spent her mornings applying for jobs and would then take the change she got from recycling cans and walk over to a coffee shop to write short stories. “I’d type them up and I’d mail them out and never got any of them published. Not ever,” she recalls. She used those pieces to apply to graduate school and was unsuccessful there, too.
Lenz worked briefly as a marketing writer and continued to hone her craft, earning an MFA in 2010 from Leslie University in Boston. It was there that another professor took her aside and suggested she write nonfiction.
“He said, ‘I think you write fiction because you’re too afraid to tell the truth.’ It was a tough thing to hear, but it was exactly the right thing for him to say to me then,” Lenz says.
As it turned out, nonfiction is where she’s found success. She’s a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Washington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times, and Pacific Standard, among others. In 2019, her first book, God Land, was published by Indiana University Press. Her second book, Belabored, is due out in August from Bold Type Books. She also has essays in the anthology Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay, and Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, edited by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal.
The secret to success for Lenz, the now-single mother of two: “I don’t ever quit.”
“That’s 98 percent of the thing: you just don’t quit,” Lenz says. “If we’re going to psychoanalyze, I’m one of eight kids. We’re a rough family. I’m No. 2. My parents are wonderful parents, but I didn’t have anyone holding my hand and guiding me to success. It’s like, ‘You want it? Figure it out.’”
Before the pandemic hit, Lenz talked with writer Annie Scholl over breakfast at Lightworks Cafe in Cedar Rapids near the marketing firm where the two once worked together.
From North Carolina, where I’ve lived since 2013, I’ve watched this evolution of the Lyz I knew as a proofreader to the writer you are today and I’m like, damn, you go girl! Have you been very purposeful in your evolution as a writer?
No. I think purpose implies that you know what you’re doing. Yes, I’ve always known exactly what I wanted, which was to be a working writer, but I didn’t know how to make it work. Especially in those early days where nobody wanted to publish what I wrote. I thought, fine, if nobody wants to publish it, then I’ll publish it myself. I started my own blog, which took off after I had kids. I found a space and an audience that was interested in what I had to say. Being able to create my own audience was the act of me understanding how to justify my voice in the world and have that kind of confidence to say, ‘What I say matters.’ At least it matters to these people and it matters to me—and that’s enough sometimes. The evolution of my writing has just been the evolution of finding an audience.
Why is it important to you? It’s not just about finding the right audience. It’s that you had something to say that you felt was worthwhile and the audience essentially found you, right?
I think you’re right. I grew up Evangelical home-schooled in a culture that basically didn’t value my voice and my opinions. And then I was in a marriage that didn’t value my voice and my opinions. And I think that throughout my life, I’ve found meaning from being heard. I remember the first time I wrote anything for that college newspaper. The editor-in-chief gave me, the green newbie, the story about the fraternities and sororities and she didn’t prepare me for the backlash. I remember walking into the cafeteria the day the paper came out. I was very small—I barely weighed 100 pounds then and I look like the world’s worst nerd; I’m not somebody people notice—and I remember seeing people reading my words and getting angry and being like, how dare she? And instead of being afraid, I felt so powerful because this was the first time in my life I felt agency. I felt like people will listen to me. They might not look at me and ask me what I think, but if I put words down on paper, people are going to listen. Talk about a high, right? So I think what you’re asking is about that kind of motivation. Not just being goal-oriented. Not just a book for a book’s sake. It’s not writing for writing’s sake. I feel like I do have something to say—and it is so powerful to be heard.
So how do you decide as a columnist, what gets your attention?
I wanted to write things in a space where it would absolutely matter. After reading both of the big newspapers in Iowa for so many years, I felt passionate that I wanted to participate in trying to make this place better. I love Iowa and I love Cedar Rapids. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do this. I would be writing for a different outlet. I came in knowing I was going to focus on (Iowa) caucus things and then shift into reproductive justice. The moment I got the job, I started reading Pulitzer Prize columnists in addition to Molly Ivins, Rebecca Traister and trying to educate myself. I might not be the best columnist in the world, but I’m going to read everything, know everything, and find where I can fit in—find those stories that are mine to tell.
We’re all going to exit the planet at some point and what do you hope they’ll say about you and your work? What you left behind on the page or the internet or whatever it is.
When the internet explodes, nothing will survive of mine. Thank God. I just hope my kids know that whatever I did, I always tried to tell good and just stories. I think that’s it. I’m sure they will be mad at me about things, but I hope that they’re proud, because, you know, I’m trying hard. It’s like Molly Ivins said, ‘You got to have fun while you’re fightin’ for freedom, ’cause you don’t always win.’
How do you get two books finished as a single mom with two little kids and a full-time gig?
The first book I did all the research for it in about two years. I had outlines and some things written, but I basically sat down and wrote it in a month because I knew I didn’t have any other time. I was given a residency in November of 2017 at St. John’s in Minnesota, which was amazing. I had just left my marriage and I didn’t know how I was going to live my life after that month. But I had that month, so I just sat down and did it. The other book was a little harder because it was basically written between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. I’ve been a little chronically exhausted because of that. I don’t think I would be able to ever do that again, just because of like how tired it made me. But that was the only time I had to write it.
I was afraid when I had children that I was going to quit writing. I didn’t want to lose that part of myself. I remember reading a blog post that was talking about writing after becoming a parent. The writer was like, ‘You just do it.’ So, you don’t rake the yard. So, you don’t do the laundry. So, you’re living out of laundry baskets. Who cares? What’s important here? Is it important that you get the dishes washed or is it important that you achieve your dreams? I remember reading that and pinning it up to my wall. So, yeah, sometimes we live out of a laundry basket. I’m not going to mow my lawn and it’s gonna look terrible. Too bad. I’m writing a book.
What advice do you have for writers to develop their craft?
I think the most helpful thing is to always find writers you would hire or be like when you grow up. Like I said earlier, I read Rebecca Traister and study her sentences because she’s a journalist in a way that is really beautiful and expansive. I read Jia Tolentino religiously, how she forms ideas out of the most interesting things. Vivian Gornick, I study her for her transitions. I go back and read them and read them and read them. The way Milan Kundera weaves in historical research and context into his stories is something I go back and reread and study. Jessica Valenti is the master of saying the thing that everybody is thinking, but nobody is saying. Molly Ivins, how she uses humor and colloquialisms in a way that’s not cliché. I could go on and on and on. To always be reading is the most important thing.
It’s important to you to be of service with your writing, it sounds like to me.
Yeah, I want my writing to do something. I want it to have meaning. I want it to incite revolution.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr