Q&A With Senior Editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, Journalist & Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

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Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is currently working on the feature film Lovers in Their Right Mind, the documentary film …But Can She Play? Blowin’ the Roof off Women Horn Players and Jazz (about contemporary women horn players in jazz that arose from work she did as a USC graduate student inspired by an unsung female jazz trumpeter in the 1940s), and is a senior editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She’s the co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, is a former columnist for the Associated Press, and has been a journalist for over 30 years covering entertainment.

I met her this past summer when we were both on a panel about avoiding burnout in a mobile-connected world. I wanted to hear more about her thoughts on work-life balance, especially since she is a writer working on so many different projects. We met at Cafe Brazil in Culver City to chat over fresh passionfruit juice and herbal tea.

  • How did you identify your passions and follow your dreams?

Essentially, when I was in college, I was studying fashion merchandising in hopes of becoming the president of Nordstrom. That’s the trajectory I was on. That’s what I thought I wanted to do. About my second year in school, I realized that I hated my accounting and marketing classes, and I took a fashion writing class with the fashion editor of the LA Herald Examiner, back when we had 2 papers in this city. She was black, she was smart, she was funny, she dressed well… she was who I wanted to be.

I had always written, but I never thought of it is a field. She encouraged my writing and felt my work was viable. And she helped me get an internship at Women’s Wear Daily. That internship changed my life because they let their interns write.

I loved the work. I loved that I could tell people things and introduce them to things they didn’t know. I felt smart [laughs]. And it piqued my curiosity: I always want to know about things that are happening.

So that’s where my writing career began… When I got out of school, one of the first jobs I got was at a syndicated radio show that covered urban enternmaint news. That’s when I  started covering junkets and going to the Oscars…  I was in my 20s, and feeling very special, because there were few, if any, young black people, and no women. It was great. I got to tell people about the films and TV shows and books that were coming out. And I had won a couple of awards about reports that I had done about black voting and adoptions. I felt like I was accomplishing something and contributing to this world.

  • What does the term “work-life balance” mean to you?

I think it’s a funny term for me, because my work is my life. My brother often teases me and says, “Do you ever shut it down? Everything you look at is a story.” We’ll be having a conversation and I’ll be like, “That would make a really good story.”

I have a writing life. But I enjoy what I do. I love sitting down, fiddling with words, trying to find the best words and trying to find the right angle for a story. It’s who I am.

For me, balance is making sure I take myself out of the minutiae of the business part of that writing life, to make time for walking in the morning and getting a good night’s sleep, taking time off even if I’m not going anywhere, and being cognizant to spend time with my friends and family.

My writing life includes time for self-care: To do those things that I need to do to make the work better… I set those things in place, and I’m a very serious list person. I try to adhere to my lists and make time.

At this fall's AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.
At this fall’s AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.

Janice and I met just before election, and she discussed wanting to make time to volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which inspired me to ask her about how people being perpetually overworked affects communities and the country as a whole:

Do you feel that we’ve become as a nation overworked and overstressed, to a point that we don’t participate in our country, communities and politics like we should? Does that have a negative effect? 

I don’t know if I can answer that. I think we prioritize what’s important to us. And for some, government and activisim is only important once every few years.

I grew up in an environment of service. The church I attended growing up was all about service. I serve on several boards, because I feel that is a part of what I do. Because it’s a priority for me. It’s not a priority for everybody else. And maybe if we made it a priority and a part of our lives, things could be different.

It’s about what we prioritize…. Find what works for you. Everybody doesn’t have to do the same thing. But there is something we all can do.

What do you wish you do differently in how you manage your day and time?

Facebook is my greatest time suck, and Netflix is as well. But I do put a timer on now. I set my alarm. I give myself whatever I feel I reasonably can and stick to the time I should stop.

I think I am good at balancing because I work for myself. I learned that distractions are detrimental to my bottom line.

What do you feel you don’t have enough time for, or wish you could tackle better?

Cleaning. I mean my house isn’t dirty, but my office needs to be reorganized. I don’t even work in my office that much anymore because it’s like, “I’ll come back to this later.”

And the other thing I wish I had more time for, which is both a product of their schedule and mine, is to spend more time with my nieces and nephews.

I remember, my neice told me, “You know, we didn’t go to the beach this year.”

Awww…

That’s exactly what I thought! Because I was working on a rewrite. So I wish I had a schedule that was a bit more flexible to make it more conducive to hang out with them more.

After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.
After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.

Do you have advice for someone starting a new endeavor and grappling with issues of following their passions, doing meaningful work and making a difference, while managing their time to so they can find their “balance”?

1. Figure out who you want to be when you grow up.

I think one of the greatest thing I did in the past couple of years was to go to a goal-orienting work shop that the Journalism and Women Symposium put on. And I think beyond setting goals, it’s about getting a picture of what I want my life to look like. That includes my personal goals as much as my professional goals. I want to be the kind of person who is engaged with her community and friends and family. I want to be the kind of person who works passionately on her craft. It’s up to each person… Look at who you want to be in 5 years. Who do you want to be by the end of this year? What would you like your bio for the year to say about you, the things you have accomplished? The lives you have touched?

One of the exercises in setting goals is writing a bio. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what do I want my bio to have said, and what from that have I accomplished?

The short answer is: Figure out who you want to be, and start working towards that and what is required for that.

2. Embrace the Shifts

The one thing that I will add is to understand that work-life balance shifts. My work-life balance is very different today than it was last year, or 5 years ago. And if we recognize that that shift may happen when we get married, when we have children, or even if it’s just year-to-year when we get a new job, we should embrace the change, and be flexible with ourselves and with it, and work within the shift.

 


Connect with Janice on Twitter and Instagram.

Edited for length and clarity. 

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Fulfillment Vs. Success: 5 Tips for Achieving Your Dreams From the La Jolla Writers Conference

1. You have to really want it and never give up.

That was the message of the 16th Annual La Jolla Writers Conference (LJWC), where I spent the day on Saturday. Not only am I now filled with inspiration and motivation to keep going, but I also took pages and pages of notes on practical tips to make my book better and advance my writing career.

The main lessons I learned though are applicable to and important for everyone, not just writers.

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Andrew Peterson, author of the bestselling Nathan McBride series, was one of the keynotes at the event. During his lunchtime conversation with Grace Doyle, his editor at Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer, he shared that he wrote 5 novels before writing the one that got published.

When he wrote his first Nathan McBride book, he gave it to an editor friend for advice. The editor said he loved the character but the book just didn’t work, and he asked him if he would write another one (from scratch) featuring Nathan McBride.

“How badly do I want this?”

That’s what Peterson kept asking himself, and he encouraged us all to do the same.

“You have to really, really want it.”

So he wrote a completely new book, and it sold 2 million copies (digital and print combined). Five others have followed since then.

Lissa Price shared a similar story in her query workshop later in the afternoon. She told us to just keep it at. It was the third manuscript she wrote that got her a 2-book deal from Random House, which become the bestselling YA books Starters and Enders.

2. Seek out help.

But it wasn’t just toiling away on his own, Peterson said to Doyle. “I also sought out help.” That is a consistent message from anyone who has gone after their dreams and succeeded.

For writers, he said that begins with finding other writers to get feedback from, getting advice from editors, and attending conferences like the LJWC for guidance throughout your career.

3. The First Draft Is Usually Bad. That’s OK. 

One of my favorite lectures of the day was Books Aren’t Written, They’re Rewritten by Martha Lawrence. She began with the premise of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” You have to assume that your first attempt won’t be great, and then you have to make it what you want it to be.

I feel like that goes for anything in life. We need to be OK with our first try at something being just that, a first try, and keep polishing and editing and trying again until we are proud of what we’ve done.

(Lawrence gave us a 6-step strategy to edit the “shitty first draft.” It was really an excellent lecture, and for the writers out there, you can buy audio recordings of all the lectures from the La Jolla Writer’s Conference).

4. Fulfillment Is Not the Same Thing As Success

The highlight of the event, which was the perfect end to an inspiring day, was Deeanne Gist’s uplifting keynote speech at dinner.

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She began with a quote from Tony Robinson:

“Success and achievement without fulfillment is failure.” 

She shared her own journey of discovering what success means to her, and what success does not mean: It doesn’t mean chasing status on lists, more social media followers, and it certainly doesn’t mean comparing herself with other authors.

“Success is subjective,” she said.

Right now, for her, success means writing the best possible book that she can write. And to do that, it’s all about working on her craft.

“Fulfillment comes from writing a complete book. Typing THE END, and knowing I did my best.”

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5. Learn Your Craft

She used the analogy of Michael Jordan. He can be the best player ever, but if he doesn’t learn the rules, he doesn’t get to play basketball.

“And the same goes for you, and for me,” she said.

When she first began her journey as a writer, it took her three years to write the first book that got published because she was so intent on perfecting her craft. (And to echo what Peterson and Price said earlier in the day about persistence, she finished that book in 1997, and it sold in 2004. Again, you have to really, really want it.)

Some of the things she did to work on her craft, and encourages writers to do, is to attend conferences like LJWC, find critique groups that work for you, listen to podcasts, read how-to books, books in your genre, join writers groups, go to talks and lectures… and, of course:

“The most important thing you can do to improve your craft is to write.”

She ended her inspiring speech with a call for us all to reflect on what success really means to us. “Tying your self-worth to achievement is risky business,” she said.