The Joyful Quill: Inspiring the Creative Self

During my quest to find influential women in the arts to feature on my blog, I discovered a writing group in Blacksburg, Virginia called The Joyful Quill. After a little research, I discovered this organization was not only run by two women, it was founded by them as well! I knew I had to speak with them about their lives as writers. Fortunately, Jenny Zia and Lesley Howard welcomed me with open arms into their studio where we discussed their journey as writers, The Joyful Quill, and challenges and triumphs they have faced as women in the field and life in general.

Lesley Howard

Lesley Howard


Jenny Zia









Jenny and Lesley have been writing together for over 20 years in various writing groups. Lesley had been a part of a writing group whose guidelines for criticism and feedback were inconsistent and lacking boundaries. One night in a group meeting, Lesley had shared a piece of work with the group only to be, in her own words, “eviscerated” by a fellow group member. This experience led Lesley to quit writing for an entire year.

While on a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, Lesley came across a lovely little bookstore where she found, “Writing Alone and With Others,” by Patricia Schneider. Lesley explained the message of the book was, “you don’t have to have a Ph.D and you don’t have to be destroyed from the ground up as a writer to learn craft. And furthermore, everybody has a voice.” This truly spoke to her.

Using the philosophy, everyone can write, Pat Schneider created, managed, and directed  the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) group in 1981. The AWA is now an “international community of writing workshop leaders committed to the belief that a writer is someone who writes & every writer has a unique voice.”

Shortly after reading Pat’s book, Lesley discovered an AWA certification program in North Carolina which she and Jenny both quickly signed up for. After they both completed certifications in the program,  they decided to create a writing group of their own in the New River Valley fostering a nurturing and welcoming environment for writers of all skill levels. In 2013 Lesley and Jenny started The Joyful Quill. Jenny describes the work they do as, “building on people’s strengths and providing positive constructive feedback.” She goes on to explain  how their goal of creating “a place that would be safe for people who were venturing into writing and useful for people who wanted to take it further” was a key factor in the impetus to create The Joyful Quill.

I  then asked Lesley and Jenny, what has impacted each of their writing over the years.

Lesley shared her experience with a month long writing retreat where she didn’t have to worry about anything other than writing. This allowed her to dive deep into her writing and gave her the permission to experiment with new ideas, some being successful while others were not. Lesley believes this practice is important to all writers along their journey so she and Jenny have established their own writing retreat for The Joyful Quill members. During these  retreats Jenny and Lesley provide lodging, meals, workshops, and feedback to the participants.  

Seeing as how this is an important part of Lesley’s writing process, I asked how she incorporates this into her daily life. As we know, finding time to oneself in today’s hectic routines of meetings, work, families, relationships, and extra curricular activities can be extremely difficult. Lesley says a supportive spouse has been key to allowing her to make this a part of her life. Also, establishing early on in the relationship that this was something which was important to her and would be an ongoing thing has made it an expectation every year versus a question up for debate. The whole family knows that “mama goes away to write.”

Being a mother has also shaped Lesley’s writing over the years. After the birth of her first child she was also working on her very first book. Knowing her new infant would require much of her attention, Lesley became very good at managing her time. She would set strict deadlines for herself and work when her baby was sleeping. This improved her ability to focus and stay on task during short periods of time.

What are some obstacles/challenges you have faced?

Jenny describes her challenges as being that of a personal nature of having too many interests. She is currently interested in tapestry weaving, writing young adult novels, and poetry. She characterizes herself as being easily distracted and believes in order to build a writing career  she would need to focus more on one specific area, something she just has little  interest in doing at the moment.

Being a woman from England the differences in American English and British English have proven a challenge. She shared the story of waiting for an oil delivery for her furnace. When the gentleman arrived, he was having a hard time reading the oil level through the small window so Jenny asked if he would like a torch to assist in his visibility. Seeing the horrified look on the man’s face, she quickly realized this was the incorrect word choice and immediately corrected herself and asked if he would like a flashlight.

What are some of your greatest triumphs?

Jenny’s greatest triumph has been keeping  her writerly self and poet alive over the years. She recently closed her psychotherapy practice and is happy that she now has more time for her writing. . A poem of hers was recently published recently in the Artemis Journal which she sees as part of  reconnecting  to her poetry writing self. Making sure she was part of a writing group and staying committed regardless of her work schedule is also a cause for celebration for Jenny.

One of Lesley’s poems was featured at the Moss Center, and seeing it reproduced on a wall there with graphics was a watershed moment for her. She was also pleased to be included in the Lascaux Review Prize Anthology in 2015.

As for The Joyful Quill, inspiring others to pursue their dreams and helping people succeed in meeting their goals has been a triumph for both Jenny and Lesley. It makes them feel as though the work they are doing is paying off. They have seen students go from drafted scenes to drafted novels, and from feeling they couldn’t write to embarking on plans for  a series of books. Two of their students also stepped into leadership roles for a regional writers’ group, the New River Valley Writers Group.

What advice would you give to women pursuing a career in writing?

Both Jenny and Lesley expressed two things:

1) They would like to see more women being published who are writing about what it means to be a woman

2) Writing takes many forms. You can be published, start your own website and blog, or even get a job as a technical writer.

They believe you must first identify why you want and your desired outcome, and then just do it. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and continue sending out your work despite the rejections  you might encounter..

We would love to hear about women who have inspired you to pursue your creative talent!


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