Janine Kovac was devastated and disappointed when her career as a ballet dancer was cut short by an injury. She moved on by completing a degree in cognitive science at UC Berkeley, graduating magna cum laude. She was pregnant with twins when she graduated and her sons were born nearly four months early. Her memoir, Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home, tells the story of her high-risk pregnancy, those early months of her sons’ lives, and how her dance experience guided her during that difficult time. She is also the author of Brain Changer: A Mother's Guide to Cognitive Science, and her personal essays have been published in several anthologies.
Kovac has been awarded residencies to the Mineral School and Hedgebrook, where she was the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship. She’s an avid attendee of writing workshops and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and Lit Camp. She’s also cofounder of Moxie Road Productions, a business whose programming includes writing retreats, workshops, curating readings, and consulting with writers on publishing, social media, and marketing.
Kovac lives in Oakland, California with her husband Matt and their three children. Literary Mama contributor Marianne Lonsdale and Kovac met to talk about how dance ended up influencing her writing, how her boys are doing now, and her work with Moxie Road Productions.
Marianne Lonsdale: The story of the first months of life of your twin sons, each weighing less than two pounds, is terrifying in parts. Catch me up on how old your three children are today and how they’re doing.
Janine Kovac: My daughter Chiara is twelve years old and in middle school at Oakland School for the Arts in the literary arts program. The twins are nine years old and in the third grade. To look at them, you’d never guess that they were micro preemies. Today their biggest thrills are piano, chess, Imagine Dragons, and the Marvel Universe. They’re big bookworms, too. Wagner finished the Harry Potter series last year while Michael tore through the Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase books.
ML: What do your sons think of Spinning?
JK: My boys are very aware of their status as miracle babies. We return to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to visit with their doctors on a regular basis, and their photographs have been used by the hospital for fundraisers and newsletters. They’ve always been in the spotlight in that way. They think of Spinning as an extension of that.
ML: Can you give me an overview of your dancing history?
JK: My early training was in my hometown of El Paso, Texas. After my sophomore year in high school, I moved away from my family to study full-time at San Francisco Ballet School and then at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. When I turned professional at age 19, I moved around to wherever the job was. I spent a year in Reykjavik with the National Ballet of Iceland followed by four years dancing for various companies in northern Italy. During the dry spells, I’d come back to El Paso and dance there. When I was offered my dream job by the former director of San Francisco Ballet, I moved back to San Francisco and have been in the Bay Area ever since. Unfortunately, shortly after I relocated, I got injured from a fall in rehearsal. I finished dancing the season, but I never fully recovered from the injury. I retired at age thirty.
ML: You’ve made interesting career moves from dancer to software programmer to cognitive science professional to writer. When did you start writing?
JK: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, all through high school and my ballet career. I wrote stories, plays, screenplays. Most of it was first-draft scribbles. I didn’t know how to revise and I never submitted my work for publication. The whole time I assumed that eventually I would become a “real” writer, as if someday someone would bestow the designation the way the Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio that he’s a real boy.
Then, when my sons were in the NICU, I had a lightning-bolt moment. Life was short and unpredictable. I couldn’t just sit around and think about how someday I’d write a bunch of books. I realized that I didn’t really know that much about writing, but I knew that it was an art, and I knew how to be a working artist. Being a professional writer was likely to be similar to being a professional ballet dancer: you needed a community, you needed role models, and you needed to put yourself out there even when you didn’t feel like it.
ML: I talked with you at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley after your early chapters of Spinning were workshopped. Your approach to the book took a big turn from a focus on cognitive science to one that had a much more emotional arc and included your ballet career. What changed at Squaw?
JK: They say that you need to write the book you want to read. The book I wanted to read was a how-to guide that implemented aspects of cognitive linguistics that would help a person’s brain bypass fear. At UC Berkeley, I studied emotions, neuroscience, and cognitive linguistics. I had a theory that if you could control the right images, you could control your feelings. And that’s the book I set out to write.
But when I got into the workshop at Squaw, I discovered that people did not want to read about cognitive science. They wanted to read about this mother who, by using lots of neuroscience jargon, kept herself in denial about her situation. She didn’t even know she was in denial! That was interesting to them.
Writing about a mother in crisis—that was not the book I wanted to write. I did not want to examine feelings and dig deep into my emotions. It’s painful to feel fear. It’s scary. As a mom, I wanted to ignore it and move on.
ML: But you also wrote the cognitive science book, Brain Changer: A Mother's Guide to Cognitive Science.
JK: Yes. I’m still very interested in how our language shapes our thoughts and how our thoughts manifest themselves in the words we choose. I wrote a series of blog posts for Christine Carter’s [former] website Raising Happiness in which each post matched a scene from the NICU with a specific problem and offered a solution analyzed from a cognitive science perspective. Topics included self-care in crisis, survivor’s guilt, fostering grit, and practicing gratitude, among others. The collection is about 10,000 words, which I then published under my own imprint.
ML: You were at Mineral School for two weeks and Hedgebrook for three. What was it like to have that time without your family and not working? How did the writing go?
JK: It was amazing. At home, the time available for writing starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m. But everything else has to fit into that time, too. Laundry, grocery shopping, teaching classes, doctor’s appointments, my volunteer and paid work. At a residency, there are no other obligations. During my time at Mineral, I had a specific goal I needed to complete: finish a draft of Spinning. I was so worried about meeting my goal that I sat at my desk when I probably should have gone for a walk or taken a nap.
At Hedgebrook, I decided to lift the pressure and see what happened, and the writing came easier. My goal was to complete a first draft of my next book. I learned the difference between a writing routine and a writing rhythm. A writing routine is what I had at Mineral and what I utilize at home. When it’s writing time, I sit in the chair and write until the timer rings, no matter what. I did that at Hedgebrook, too, but I also let myself sit outside on a park bench and stare into space. I let myself take an hour to eat a bowl of yogurt (and stare into space some more). I learned that I’m at my best if I can take about 90 minutes in the morning to settle in after writing my morning pages. Then I’ll have a creative spurt. After lunch I’d focus on more mundane things like editing or administrative work. Evenings were for reading. I can’t keep that schedule with kids and family of course, but knowing that about myself helps me structure my time more efficiently. I wouldn’t have discovered this about myself without the residencies.
ML: You are the only writer I know who performed ballet at a writers’ conference. When you first started your solo at Squaw, the audience tittered, not knowing if this was a comedy routine or serious dance. But within a few minutes, they knew it was the latter.
JK: The Follies is an annual tradition at Squaw Valley. Mark Childress does an Elvis impression, Amy Tan sings “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’,” the conference’s organizer, Brett Hall Jones, reads a found poem from the Joy of Cooking, and other faculty and participants perform skits. It’s a great way to come together after an intense week of workshops.
The first year I attended Squaw, I’d been away from the stage for almost a decade. The previous day I’d had my writing workshopped, and I was shaken up from the group’s feedback. I cried more that day than I had in the 18 months since my twins were born. The Follies offered me an opportunity to perform, to express in movement what I could not do in words—all the pain and secrets I could never say aloud. I hadn’t learned how to communicate grief in my writing, but I did know how to emote through dance. Since then, dancing the solo “The Dying Swan” has been my calling card of sorts and I’ve performed it at subsequent conferences.
ML: You have three school-age children. How does childcare get managed when you’re out of town at residencies or conferences? And I know you sometimes take a few days alone to write.
JK: It’s hard to make time for creative endeavors, especially a work-in-progress and especially when you don’t know if you’ll be paid for your efforts. But if you don’t prioritize them, they’ll never happen. My husband is also a ballet dancer. He discovered dance in college and spent the next twenty-five years balancing his passion for ballet with a day job that would give him the flexible schedule he needed for rehearsals and performances. Which means that he understands the sacrifices necessary to create art; he values my writing as much as I do. He now has a demanding job (and one that does not afford him the time to dance anymore), so in order for me to get away to write or to attend out-of-town conferences and residencies, we sit down with the calendar and make sure he can adjust his work schedule to pick up the slack—just as we would if he had to go out of town for a business trip. If the retreat spans several days, one of the grandmas will come and stay with us, usually my mother. And as the kids get older, they are able to help more and more. They can get themselves to school and back, do the dishes, a bit of laundry—that’s a huge help.
ML: You’ve been on the Executive Committee of Litquake, San Francisco’s annual festival, for several years, and you curate their annual “Pursuit of Publishing” panels. You have also planned workshops, readings and events for the writing group, Write On Mamas, for five years. Why is this volunteer work important to you?
JK: In the beginning I volunteered because I thought I’d learn special secrets and make important connections. But what I really learned was that the literary world is an ecosystem and if I expected to be supported by it when I became a published author, then it was necessary to contribute to it along the way. This meant buying all my books at my local bookstore and getting to know my neighborhood librarian. It meant going to readings and book launches of local authors, not just the famous ones. It also meant paying attention to the companies and philanthropic individuals who fund grants and donate to literary organizations, reading up on the ballot measures that support city arts funds, and researching which council members champion arts funding.
When you first start to take writing seriously, there is so much focus on craft, platform, writing the perfect query, and tracking submissions. I think there should be equal emphasis on the importance of being a steward of the literary world. A writer who doesn’t engage with her literary community is just as limited as a writer who never reads.
ML: How does your work with Moxie Road Productions tie in with your idea of a “literary ecosystem?”
JK: For many years I fueled other writers without filling up my own tank and I got to a breaking point. I think it’s a familiar refrain for moms. We are engaged by volunteer work and then burned out by it. In 2017, I started Moxie Road Productions with Tarja Parssinen, my co-director for the San Francisco production of Listen to Your Mother. We had one rule for Moxie Road: whatever we did had to fuel our own writing lives. This was key—it means we offer writing workshops and curate readings in which our participation is a part of the structure. Such as our “Get ‘Er Done” series where we’ll sit down with clients and research agents. Or “Finishing School,” in which we outline projects and complete them in a month’s time. Working side-by-side with clients this way feels very much like the way I parent. I don’t just tell my kids to clean the kitchen. We do it together.
Community involvement is still a very important part of Moxie Road. Over the last two years we’ve collaborated with Hedgebrook, Litquake, the Hivery, the Marin Writers Nest, Oakland School for the Arts and in 2019, we’ve got new partnerships planned with St. Mary’s College, Café Society, and ScreenSense.
ML: What place does dance have in your life today?
JK: During the Nutcracker season, I run rehearsals for our neighborhood ballet studio. My daughter dances, so I support her in that. And up until this year, I taught a few times a week. But the more time I dedicate to family and writing, the less time I have for ballet, unless it’s to see San Francisco Ballet in performance. My husband and I are season ticket holders and it’s our preferred way to spend date night.
ML: What’s next? What are you working on now?
JK: I’m working on a book of connected essays about our family’s experiences dancing in the Nutcracker. Between the five of us, we’ve danced in over twenty productions spanning five states and three countries. We’ve got a lot of great stories! In addition to writing, I am fueled by curating literary events and readings for Litquake and my consulting firm, Moxie Road Productions. Making time for community and collaboration is a big priority for me.