I grew up in and around Boston, an only child within my mother’s large family of second-generation Russian/Polish Jews. I started writing when I was six after my parents took me to see the movie, “Fantasia.” When we got home I asked for paper and pen to write down my feelings ….. and I’ve kept on writing. Mine wasn’t a household of books and learning — neither of my parents got beyond high school — but it was imbued with a love of art. Boston was a good place for people like us and I remember early trips to the Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum, a larger world opening up through its slender-columned courtyard that evoked the romance of Europe where I dreamed of going someday.
I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, returning to Boston and spending the summer waitressing at Club 47, the legendary café that was home to the Cambridge folk music scene. Whenever I could, I saw foreign films at the nearby Brattle Theatre, walking out afterwards in a daze of exalted emotion , sometimes weeping after seeing great movies like “Los Olvidados” or “Umberto D.” Maybe, I thought, I could make films one day.
I moved to New York as soon as I could, working during the day, getting my degree at night from The New School, and miraculously landing a job as associate producer at National Public Television (later PBS). My artistic and intellectual life was formed in those years, and I was able to produce and direct several award-winning films, among them “El Teatro Campesino,” about the Chicano theatre troupe, and “Virginia Woolf: The Moment Whole,” about the writer who still continues to inspire me.
But the need to write reasserted itself and I went back to my first love, poetry, publishing in small journals like Aphra, the first feminist literary magazine and directing the Writers In Performance series at the Manhattan Theatre Club. In the seventies, there was a buzz — wonderful conversations among women, talking to one another about what it was like to write, about the challenges and satisfactions of doing the work. Surely there had to be a book that captured those intense personal voices? But when I went to a bookstore, nothing like that existed. And so The Writer on Her Work — the first book of its kind — came about because I needed to read it.”
My friends used to kid me about my love for New York: “When the ship of New York goes down,” one of them said, “Janet’s will be the last hand waving.” But when my husband became President of CalArts in Los Angeles in 1988, we moved into a new life at a unique college that offers degrees in theater, music, visual art, writing, dance, and film — all taught by working artists whose dedication continues to inspire me. Since we’ve been at CalArts, I’ve written two memoirs, happy to find that the concision I’d learned from poetry as well as the narrative skills I’d learned from film-editing were good friends to me.
“You never know what’s around the corner.” Those words were a gift given to me by one of my aunts when I was a young child and the words have stayed with me. I love to explore, going to far-flung places like Iran and India, as well around corners of my own mind — wherever my natural curiosity takes me. In 1998, I embarked on a parallel life as a photographer and discovered that taking photographs makes me infinitely more alert to the present moment, very different from writing memoir where one spends a lot of time in the past. “Street photography as spiritual practice” — that’s the name I use to describe my work; it’s a kind of mindfulness. I feel blessed to be able to create work in several art forms, and to live a deep and full life.
And then there are the poodles . . . .