As we enter into April, we wanted to share this interview with creative nonfiction dynamo, Jennifer Jordán Schaller, who is Plume’s featured writer for May. I met Jennifer because we both teach writing at the same community college, and I have to say that she is as kind as she is talented. Recently, Plume had the pleasure of hearing Jennifer read from her work at our Albuquerque Women Write event. Her creative nonfiction does what I love best about this genre: it lures you in with wry humor, and then clobbers you with subtle, well-earned pathos. We hope you enjoy!
Plume: When did you know you were a writer?
Jennifer Jordán Schaller: In the first grade, my teacher asked my class to write a one-page story. I don’t remember my story specifically, but I remember my protagonist was on an adventure. My family lived in New Jersey at the time, and behind our apartment complex, there was a small thicket of trees that I was forbidden to go into; my brother and I called it The Woods, so naturally, my story took place in The Woods. There was also a leprechaun, a rainbow, and a pot of gold. I really liked Lucky Charms cereal. This was the 1980s after all.
While we were only required to write one page, I kept writing and writing because nothing was stopping me, and I was pretty sure I didn’t have to stop my story ever. I remember a boy who sat across from me saying, “You can’t write a story that long.” I told him I could. I said my story can keep going as long as I want it to. I felt inspired for the first time, and I get the same feeling when I really dig and become immersed in my writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in the first grade.
P: Where do you get your ideas?
JJS: My ideas for my stories usually come from my family of origin, from wanting to sort out experiences and to grow as a person. My stories start in the tangible parts of my life, and then after drafting and revision, I explore abstract concepts and reflect, then I play with imagery.
While my stories often originate in real life events and veer into the past, they also come from sitting in front of a computer and hashing it out. Sometimes my ideas come from brainstorming, and talking with friends helps me to feel human enough to write and express myself more.
P: Where do you write?
JJS: I write wherever I can fit my laptop: at my kitchen table, in my bedroom, in coffee shops, at ski resorts, in my living room before the people in my family have woken up, in the backyard. I use headphones to drown out the outside world, and I get cracking.
Sometimes writing happens when I don’t have access to a keyboard or pen and paper, for example, while I’m in the shower or while I’m driving, but I am writing when I have time and space to think.
P: Do you have any writing rituals?
JJS: My writing rituals include hemming and hawing as I open up a Google Doc where I track my writing progress. I track what I have been working on in a journal. My dissertation director, Greg Martin, called this a treadmill journal because he wanted to de-romanticize the idea of writing and illustrate how writing was work. Writing in my journal keeps me accountable and on track while writing longer works.
In my journal, I list what I was working on the last time I sat down to write, what I want to work on next, and where my ideas are headed for stories. At the bottom of my journal, I have a little love note to myself that I see each time I sit down to write. The note says, “Don’t lose heart. You can do this.” Each time I see these two sentences, I remember how optimistic I felt when I wrote these lines, and it helps me plow forward with my writing, little by little. My love note to myself helps me stay in the present as I write, and I stop worrying about the future of my writing.
P: How supportive is your local community for writers?
JJS: How coincidental you should ask, Plume. I mean your enterprise has sprung forth out of Albuquerque, and you are supporting my artistic endeavors. Many thanks, many thanks. My colleague at Central New Mexico Community College, local poet Rebecca Aronson, has created a reading series for writers, and I have read there, too.
I went to the University of New Mexico, and I graduated with a group of women writers who still meet to this day and we share our writing. My friend Dana Salvador, a poet, keeps us on track using a planner she created from scratch using an array of pens and a zeal for color coding. All these writerly women are my community.
P: What are some of your self-care practices?
JJS: This is a funny question. Taking care of myself requires that I stop juggling so many balls and I engage in a little cognitive gymnastics. One way I take care of myself is by watching my husband wash the dishes. When I feel stuck and depressed or very anxious—like I am a bundle of electrical circuits—I put on pajamas, curl in a ball, and refuse to leave the house. This is reactive, not proactive, and I don’t recommend my way of existing, but naps are part of my self-care, so is seven hours of sleep a night. Antidepressants are also helpful, and so is moisturizing my elbows.
Sometimes, I pretend like I am two people, which might be problematic for humans who dislike confusion, but disassociation works for me. I think of myself as being a person outside of me, someone I can sympathize with, like an unsuspecting child or an overworked colleague, and I survey my body and the way it feels. Then, once I determine I need self-love, I summon the compassion I am able to give to others, and then I give that compassion to myself.
Because I am someone I love, I try to consciously cultivate compassion for myself because I am hard on me. I have lots of goals, and if I want to meet them all, I have to keep moving. So I remind myself that I am a human with needs, even if I can’t always consciously recognize when I am worn thin because I have to-do lists. Long to-do lists. On my to-do list is to give compassion to myself because compassion does not come automatically.
P: What is your favorite book about writing?
JJS: My favorite book about writing is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. The chapter about creating voice in the opening chapter of a memoir is the single most valuable writing lesson for me. I love Mary Karr’s voice. She’s my literary mama. She doesn’t know it, but that’s okay. I have a special place in my heart for unrequited love.
I also love the section in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop where Stephen Koch explains that revision shouldn’t happen until a story is completely written. There’s no point in polishing a turd. It will always be a turd (my description, not his). I have read Koch’s book several times, and it wasn’t until the third read that I really understood as a writer what he was saying. I started applying the ideas in his book, not only absorbing the content. I like how Koch tells writers they have to know their story before they can tell it; they have to write the whole story before they can go back and revise it. That makes so much sense to me now (not that I still don’t occasionally go back and polish page one when I should be writing page 157).
P: What are you currently working on?
JJS: I’m currently working on a longer memoir manuscript that tells my story of managing an anxiety disorder while learning to parent. The line of suspense in the story is internal and external. Part of the central struggle in the book has to do with whether or not the protagonist will be able to fully individuate from her family of origin, so that she can properly parent her own children.
The triggering event that starts the protagonist on her journey is a death in the family. The grief makes her re-evaluate her choices. She is a human who makes mistakes, and she worries that her sadness and confusion will overwhelm, assault, and consume her children. The divide between what is possible in reality and what is possible in her mind drives the protagonist to a penultimate breakdown two-thirds through the book. The book is about learning to stay, for the most part, in the present tense, which is ironic for me since I am often stuck in the past and the future.
I am more than halfway through writing this manuscript, and I am also working on shorter pieces that I submit to literary journals, chapters from the longer manuscript, not only to keep my head in the publishing game, but also to work with editors on my writing. I like working with editors who help me re-see my narrative from different perspectives. Working with editors helps me open up a story in new ways.
Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from Albuquerque. She graduated from the University of New Mexico’s MFA program, and she has been writing for nearly as long as she has been reading.
Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; SonoraReview; Georgetown Review Literary Magazine;Brain, Child; Ascent; New Mexico English Journal; and NPR’s This American Life. She also has upcoming work that will be featured in Mutha Magazine, and the first chapter of her memoir manuscript will appear in the next issue of Cutbank. To learn more about her, check out her website.
See what I mean? You don’t want to sleep on this one! Jennifer’s work will be included in our May issue. Also! For the Plume Plus, we will be curating a special mother’s day box, with unique items you may want to gift to mom, a writerly friend, or yourself!