As a part of my series on how influential people built empires from nothing, I had the pleasure to interview Jessica (Tyner) Mehta. Born and raised in Oregon and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Jessica is the author of over one dozen books. She’s received several writer-in-residency posts around the world, including the Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at The Shakespeare Birthplace (Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK), Paris Lit Up (Paris, France), the Women’s International Study Center (WISC) Acequia Madre House post (Santa Fe, NM), the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts (Nebraska City, NE), and a Writer in the Schools (WITS) residency at Literary Arts (Portland, OR). Jessica received a Halcyon Art Labs fellowship in 2018–19 to curate an anthology of poetry by incarcerated and previously incarcerated indigenous women and is also a member of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Incubator co-hort in Chicago. She is the recipient of a 40 Under 40 Award from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED), received a Barbara Deming Award in Poetry, and was a Top 10 Pick from Portland Story Theatre for “Indian Burns.” She serves as the Associate Poetry Editor for Bending Genres literary journal and Exclamat!on peer-reviewed open access journal, and is the former President of the Board of Directors for VoiceCatcher journal and non-profit. Jessica has led writing workshops around the globe including at the International Women’s Writing Guild summer conference series and has taught poetry at various institutions including The Loft Literary Center. Jessica founded MehtaFor (www.mehtafor.com), a writing services company, in 2012 which serves a variety of clients including Fortune 500 enterprises and major media outlets. MehtaFor received two national bronze awards for Startup of the Year in 2015. Jessica offers complimentary writing services to Native American students and non-profits based in the Pacific Northwest and/or serving Native communities. She received her master’s degree in writing from Portland State University in 2007 and established The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund in 2013. It’s the only scholarship exclusively for Native Americans pursuing an advanced degree in writing or a related field. Jessica is the Visiting Poet at Chemeketa Community College for the 2018–19 academic year and is currently an editor and poet at Airlie Press, a non-profit poetry publisher based in Oregon. Jessica is also a registered yoga instructor (E-RYT®), registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT®), certified Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP®), and NASM-certified personal trainer (CPT). She continues to advance her yoga teacher-ship at The Bhaktishop in Portland. She’s the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga and strength movement (www.getitohm.com), which offers free classes to groups that don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?
People love to ask writers when they started writing, but as an artist and a creative it’s simply always been a part of who I am. Of course, when I was an undergraduate majoring in English, I got the common questions and comments like, “So, you’re going to teach?” or “There’s no money in that kind of degree.” I stumbled into writing as a living when I was laid off twice, consecutively, in the heat of the Great Recession. However, having that kind of segue into adulthood where writers are told prolifically that their degree is useless and art doesn’t pay is what led me to write the book 100 Ways to Make $100k with Your English Degree. I am where I am today, owner of the multi-award-winning company MehtaFor and author of several books because of happenstance, luck, sheer determination, and because writing is my most effective form of therapy.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I graduated high school when I was sixteen years old through a community college’s high school completion program. I’ve worked full-time and been self-reliant since I was 15. As an indigenous woman, unfortunately my family faced a lot of the disparities common in Indian country — incarceration, alcohol addiction, opioid addiction, neglect, and abuse. Like my career, I also stumbled into college. I was fresh out of my first abusive relationship and looking for any kind of way out. Since I was considered independent by the government due to “abandonment by both parents,” I was a dream for the financial aid office. I had no idea what a scholarship or grant was until my junior year, and by then it was too late in terms of debt. But I was ushered into my freshman year at 20-years-old while working full-time at the mall. I had to beg an admissions officer to give me a second chance after flunking out of my first term, but that was a big revelation. Although my dad had died by then of Hepatitis C (caused by a dirty prison tattoo needle), I felt his innate hustle come to life within me. I grew up watching my parents fight for and through everything, but in the fallout of such a volatile household I didn’t realize the survival instinct in me was so prevalent until that moment. Years later, after grad school and into my PhD program, I still reach out to that admissions officer to provide updates.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Drive is the only option — what else is there? I saw it showcased in my parents and my sister (who also died of Hepatitis C, though from drug addiction), but also throughout Indian country. My tenacity also stems from stubbornness, though. Simultaneously, I always had writing as a guide. I recently talked with a psychiatrist, as part of a research project, about the logistics of poetry therapy. When we talk about “triggers,” what we’re talking about is trauma that gets stuck in the hippocampus. It’s a common glitch in the human body, but when it occurs our body responds, holistically, as if the trauma is happening in real time. Art, including writing, can move that trauma to the prefrontal cortex. Here, it isn’t forgotten, but our whole body understands it’s in the past. It turns out I was healthfully “self-medicating” through writing likely my entire life. That, in turn, feeds drive.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
I started my company after two lay-offs and when I realized US citizens could move abroad and still collect unemployment as long as they still searched for work. I was living in Costa Rica where cost of living is much cheaper when I decided to give myself one year to make and sustain $100,000+ per year with writing. Previously, I’d been in the non-profit sector where I didn’t find happiness. I had found a few gigs on Craigslist as a virtual writer and discovered that you really can make a decent living writing. In that year, I learned the basics, such as red flags from clients and what kind of writing pays the most (ahem, SEO). That year-long deadline as well as the safety net of unemployment checks and low cost of living created an environment where grit could thrive.
However, I should also say that grit (for me) can also go too far. I developed anorexia in my 30s and wasn’t diagnosed until my hair fell out and my heart began to fail. Perfectionists and those who are very driven tend to develop eating disorders more than others (though it’s one of many markers). Now in recover, going through that experience ultimately led me to the perfect doctoral work for me: studying the intersection of poetry and eating disorders. I can’t say I’m glad my determination led me to develop an eating disorder, but I’m immensely proud of the research I’m able to undertake because of it.
So, how are things going today? :-)
Things are good but busy now. I’m currently undertaking a fellowship in DC at the Halcyon Arts Lab and gearing up for a residency at the National Parks Art Foundation next year. My company is doing well, my editors are happy, and I have at least one book per year releasing through 2020. I’m currently working with an editor who is curating a book of “selected poems” of mine and also working on a book of antipodes.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
1. Take breaks. Recently, there was a study that showed ants are so efficient because they take frequent breaks, or “idleness.” Those who naturally have grit or who are trying to develop it tend to go overboard. We’ll reward ourselves, like, “If I write 2,000 more words, then I can have a snack.” Unsurprisingly, this type of approach didn’t help with my eating disorder. Well-timed breaks feed energy. I recommend going outside. A brisk walk can do wonders for creativity.
2. Develop wellness-based support systems. Personally, I think everyone benefits from mental health and alternative medicine to complement western medicine. The more people you have on your side, including medical professionals, the better authentic picture you will have of your situations. Operating in a silo is rarely a good idea.
3. Learn to say no. This is especially true for women because we’re conditioned to be agreeable. Practice it. Stop agreeing to things that aren’t beneficial to you just because you’ve “always done it” or feel guilty. Don’t be afraid to put yourself first sometimes or a lot of the time.
4. Identify negative influences. You can’t banish all negativity in your life, but you can probably get rid of quite a bit of it. Recently I ended a toxic “best friendship” that had spanned over 20 years. It wasn’t always toxic, but that’s how it had turned. Take a look at the people in your life who you have control over mixing with and honestly assess whether it’s a healthy relationship. If it’s not, is it worth addressing or better to let go?
5. Put your health first. Your health is your number-one source of wealth. Without it, everything will suffer. Grit requires you to be as healthy as you can be. This encompasses physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?
I spent my childhood and 20s navigating abusive relationships. Although there was one friendship in my 20s which has sustained until present day with the same degree of closeness, I largely moved through spaces on my own.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to implement service in every aspect of my life creatively, professionally, and personally. MehtaFor offers pro bono services to Native Americans, Native-serving non-profits, and non-profits based in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also the largest vehicle for the scholarship I founded in 2012, the Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund. It is the only scholarship exclusively for Native Americans pursuing an advanced degree in writing. The poetry incarceration project I’m curating is designed to be not only a tool for information sharing, but also to aid in trauma management for the participants. Books will be donated to tribal schools, Native non-profits, and Native departments of universities. I’m also the founder of Get it Ohm! karma yoga, which is a mobile movement that provides free yoga classes to those who don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments. There are limitless capacities to cultivate goodness.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My three largest projects right now include Caged Birds Sing (the poetry incarceration project), the antipode poetry manuscript which is coupled with the first virtual reality poetry experience in collaboration with Equal Reality, and my research on the meeting of eating disorders and poetry. My hopes is that the poetry incarceration project will become a tool to effect real change in the criminal “justice” system where Native American women are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than their white counterparts. I hope that the antipode poetry will open up poetry play to more people. Teaming up with Equal Reality to create the first-ever “walk through poetry” virtual reality experience will also allow me to showcase poetry in a new way. Finally, my research will hopefully be usable as a tool within the eating disorder community. If published, it will be the first book directly and only addressing the link between the two.
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Just follow the golden rule. It sounds so simple, yet it’s rarely done. Workspaces can be poisoned by forcing corporate protocols and rigidity. Not everyone you hire will be a good fit, but do your best to work with people who organically mesh with you and your work. With every rule you have, ask yourself if and why it’s necessary. My editors have been with me for years and I believe it’s because I treat them how I like to be treated.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movements I’m personally nurturing don’t have, in my opinion, the capacity to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. Poetry and yoga will likely not be a daily activity for every person, at least within my lifetime. However, these are the spaces in which I have passion and can make the best waves. Still, if I were to consider what would bring the most good to the most people, it’s cognitive reconditioning. That was at the heart of my turn away from an anoretic lifestyle. Humans are consistently told by society, by the media, and often by their friends and family in ways overt and covert that they are not enough. We get the message that we’re too fat, too unattractive, not intelligent enough, not driven enough, simply not enough from the day we’re born. Birth, no matter how “easy” it is, is ultimately a trauma. We are born into and through trauma. It’s natural that we ingest these messages and began to tell them to ourselves. Many people would never talk to a friend or even a stranger the way we talk to ourselves. By consciously and daily practicing positive self-talk, we change ourselves which affects one another and ultimately the world. Be kind to everyone, including yourself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a poet, so I must choose a line of poetry. One of my favorite poets is Li-Young Lee. In his poem “Braiding,” he writes: “There will come a day/ one of us will have to imagine this.” It’s a reminder that almost certainly one day, one of your loved ones will be gone before or after you. Take advantage of the now. Love with wild abandon.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.