…I only read classics, especially 19 th and early 20th century novels. The longer the better. Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Thackery, Hardy . This was how I wanted to write – long novels, a ton of description, metaphors, and intricate plots. But I couldn’t write like that, which is why I always felt like a failure.
Jen McConnell has just had her debut collection of short stories, Welcome, Anybody, published by Press 53. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and undergraduate degree from the University of California, Irvine. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines across the country. Originally from California, she currently makes her home on the Lake Erie shore with her husband, daughter, and pugs. She is currently working on a novel.
Web page: http://www.jenmcconnell.com/
How Jen McConnell Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jen for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I don’t remember a specific moment where I decided to become a writer. But I remember very clearly when I decided I did NOT want to be a writer.
Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a kid. I picture myself being born with a book in my hand and being annoyed at the doctor for interrupting my reading. Reading and going to school were my escapes from everything unpleasant in life.
I read everything I could get my hands on. I remember in middle school going to our tiny branch library two or three times a week and having trouble selecting something because I’d read every book in the Young Adult section. That’s when I got hooked on Stephen King and Agatha Christie.
I never really thought about books being written. It sounds silly and I knew that an author wrote books, but to me, books just were. They appeared in the library (my family rarely bought books) and I gave no thought to how they arrived there.
I wrote stories in high school for English classes and enjoyed it. I wrote your average awful teenage angsty poetry but it wasn’t until college that I had some vague idea that I wanted to write. Not BE a writer but just write.
Sophomore year, I wrote an O. Henry type story and sent it into a contest. It was rejected. That’s when I thought, “Nope, not for me. I obviously have no talent and should just give up now.” So I did.
After college, I moved from southern California to Washington, D.C. and back. In between I married my college sweetheart. There was hardly enough time to read books much less write them. We constantly worried about employment and money. I dabbled a bit here and there, keeping journals, writing down ideas, but didn’t write any fiction.
When I was 25, married and living in Sacramento, CA, I decided, ok, now I am going to be a writer. I was unemployed again so I had some time. I told people I was a writer. I had a ‘big idea’ for a novel and spent months outlining the novel, writing character sketches, etc. but not actually writing any of the novel.
A year later, I got divorced and moved westward to San Francisco. I didn’t know anybody in the city but had a job and a room in an apartment. I decided two things for my new life: 1) I couldn’t call myself a writer unless I actually writing something and 2) I was going to do three things that scared me the most: play a team sport, speak in front of a group of people, and take a fiction writing class.
Volleyball was a total bust. I was as bad at team sports as a grown up as I was as a kid. I took an acting class where I discovered that yes, I am still petrified of speaking in front of people, so I kept forgetting my lines.
But that fiction writing class? The universe smiled on me for that one. It’s a long story so I will just say if it wasn’t for that class – and that teacher – I would not be a writer.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I still didn’t believe that I had any talent but within the structure of a class, I had no trouble churning out pages. By the end of a year I had a basic, and very terrible, first draft of a novel.
I also began to read contemporary writers. I am embarrassed to say it but it is true – during college and after, right up until that first fiction writing class I only read classics, especially 19 th and early 20th century novels. The longer the better. Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Thackery, Hardy . This was how I wanted to write – long novels, a ton of description, metaphors, and intricate plots. But I couldn’t write like that, which is why I always felt like a failure.
The teacher, the writer Lewis Buzbee, introduced me to the works of Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Alice Munro and – the scales falling from my eyes – Raymond Carver. I’m not comparing myself to Raymond Carver but his deceptively simple prose showed me a different way to tell a story. A way that didn’t need fancy metaphors or convoluted plots. And – another revelation – I could write short stories. I didn’t have to write novels.
I didn’t call myself a writer, however. Now that I was reading amazing contemporary writers, there was no way I could call myself that.
I studied with Lewis for another two years, until – with his encouragement and guidance – I was accepted into Goddard College’s MFA program. Again, the universe knew what it was doing. Goddard was/is a crazy place but it was exactly what I needed when I needed it.
It was toward the end of my first year that I began to call myself a writer. I realized that the definition of a writer is one who writes. It is as simple as that.
And while I still didn’t think I was any good (I had published one story at that point, but assumed it was a fluke), I never stopped writing. I thought maybe I could fool people into forgiving the quality if I overloaded them with quantity.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Of course the most influence and helpful along the way was Lewis Buzbee. It wasn’t just that he was a great teacher and mentor, but that he was also a working writer. And a great one at that.
Obviously the program at Goddard, especially two of my professors, the writers Tara Ison and Rebecca Brown. They pushed me hard enough to make me better but in an encouraging manner that made me want to keep going and not give up.
Another huge support was my boyfriend, then fiancé, then ex-fiancé who helped me financially during grad school AND provided me with so much angst material.
My writing friends from Goddard and beyond, and other friends who have always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.
My husband, Dan Doron. Besides the obvious, the best thing he does is just listens when I give my “that’s it, it’s hopeless, I can’t write, I’m giving up” rant. And he never says “I told you so” when I pick up my pen the next day.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf definitely. A Room of One’s Own was life-changing. I had read it in college, but because I didn’t think of myself as a writer, it didn’t resonate. Reading it again during grad school motivated me even more. Neither of these women did what they were ‘supposed’ to do, damn the consequences. Their courage inspires me always.
I admire and envy writers, or any artist really, that does what they need to do for their craft. In other words – be completely selfish for their art. Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. Woolf, Hemingway, Pollack – gave themselves completely to their art but they didn’t exactly live happy lives.
Recently, when I was scraping wallpaper off a bedroom wall so I could repaint it, I thought “I bet Hemingway never in his life scraped wallpaper.” I had just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain so I was thinking about Papa and the devastation that his selfishness wrecked on everyone around him. But look at his writing – his gift to all of us.
Sometimes I want to be that selfish – to live like I did during grad school – work enough just to pay rent so I can spend ten hours a day writing. But then I look at my family. Writing is like breathing to me, but life wouldn’t be worth living without them.
If that means I will never be a great writer, so be it. I have an amazingly family who support my writing. It doesn’t get better than that.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Don’t give up. You will want to, many times over. Some of your friends and family may not support that decision, seeing how crazy writing makes you but don’t give in.
Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep thinking about writing. Take breaks – sure. But if you are truly a writer, it’s not something you can abandon for long. Those words, ideas, stories will find a way to seep out.
I know it’s hard, believe me I do. But you can’t give up.
Acknowledge that your writing may never be published in the manner you think it should be. It’s not about publishing; it’s about writing.
You know that saying “Dance as if no one is watching”? Write as if no one is reading.