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Interview with Jill Christman

Writer, editor, and activist Jill Christman is the author of If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays, and two memoirs. She currently resides in Muncie, Indiana, where she teaches creative nonfiction writing and literary editing and Ball State University.

Interviewed by Tricia Cope

Inscape Journal: Can you tell us about the title of your collection?

JC: The title, If This Were Fiction, was not the original title. When the book was accepted and contracted, the title was, in fact, Life is Not a Paragraph: Essays, pulled from the E.E. Cummings poem, “since feeling is first.” But then, my husband’s mom, who is a Shakespearean literary critic, thought it sounded like the title of a writing guide, and that was not what I was after. Not at all. So I went through the book again and wrote a list of approximately 50 titles that were possibilities, essentially pulling them from phrases I liked and seeing if they had multiple resonances. In an essay called “The River Cave” the phrase “if this were fiction” jumped out at me and I realized it spoke to both the genre of essay writing with its inherent possibilities, and the way in which stories and our shaping of them can change our lives.

IJ: The epigraph to the collection is a poem by E.E. Cummings. Can you talk about its meaning and history and why you included it?

JC: Yes, the poem is both the heart of the essay collection and the structuring concept of the collection. It has narrative underpinning that is central to one of the stories I tell in the book about meeting my husband. He was a student in the MFA program at Alabama (as was I—he was a poet and I was a fiction writer), and he’s a memorizer of poems. On an early date, he said, “Would you like me to say a poem for you?” and I said, “Yes, please.” And then he recited “since feeling is first” right into my ear. I was completely undone. And so, that’s part of our story, for real. Happily, and incredibly, the Cummings poem became public domain the very year that I wanted to publish this book, and so I was able to use the whole poem at the beginning and then think about how different phrases from the poem could begin each of the three sections in the book. So, it was both a story from my marriage and a structuring device.

IJ: Tell us about your daily writing practice.

JC: Optimally, my daily writing practice is first thing in the morning, no internet. I learned this from going to my mom’s house in Washington. She has no wireless. It’s fantastic because there is no temptation—if I want to look something up, I have a list of things to look up later. The world is so full of distractions and things are just waiting to suck us down a rabbit hole. So, yeah, I like to write first thing in the morning before I’ve checked email or invited the rest of the world into my head. I do enjoy a cup of coffee—first cup of the day. And quiet. I don’t like people around (I like a dog, just no people and no noise), and I don’t write to music or anything. I like quiet because I often say my work out loud—I have to hear the sentences, and even if I’m not saying them out loud, I need to hear them in my head. During the summer it’s an hour a day for six days a week, which often grows into more. And then lately, in the thick of a busy semester, I’m at 15 minutes a day, and I report this to a partner who reports to me also, so we’re accountable.

IJ: You seem to have mastered a really vulnerable and humble way of addressing hard and even controversial topics, and you do so without preaching or skirting around issues. Can you tell me about how writing has influenced the way you deal with grief loss and fear in your life?

JC: Thank you, Tricia. And thank you for that question. It means a lot to me. The answer, I think, is that I really live through writing. Writing helps me deal with hard feelings because I know it—the process of writing—will always be there for me. Recently someone asked me a similar question: “How do you write this stuff? It’s too scary. How do you go to that dark place?” And I realized that writing does not feel like a dark place to me, no matter how hard the material. Writing feels to me—and I know this is not true for everybody—safe. Writing feels like the safest place I’ve got, because I’m aware that I can go back to trauma or loss or grief and know I’m not there, I’m here, and I now have this chance to think about it. Of course, there’s always fresh loss and grief, and I’ve done this work long enough that I know the grace of writing will shine on me. I know the tools I can use to move through the hard stuff and I use my past experiences as reference points. I know I can go through the middle and come out the other side. Also, I hope my writing creates a place where the reader can feel my vulnerability but doesn’t feel in danger being in that place—that the pain has been somehow curated enough so that you can trust I’m not going to leave you there in the middle of the trauma without anybody, like I’m going to reach out for your hand and we’re going to walk through it together. Because literature is a place where we heal our wounds—those that are our own, and those that are not our own.

IJ: One of my favorite things about the essay genre, in particular, is how it takes mundane and everyday scenes and experiences and elevates them into something really reflective and beautiful. Virginia Woolf said, “For it would seem that we write not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fiber of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver” (Orlando). Your writing feels very holistic—like the whole essence of each experience comes through in your words. I want to hear more about your process of transforming the everyday into something beautiful—even the suffering and the hard things. Is it that you narrate your life like that? Do you feel yourself sort of narrating in your mind when you look at a scene, or does the writing come later, when you sit down and reflect on an experience?

JC: I love that description of it. It does kind of fill my mind like that, and then I want to replay a situation. Sometimes I write sentences in my head as I walk and I look at things, you know, just to see if I were to try to describe such a thing, how would I do it? So, in that way, I guess I’m always practicing. I think writing reminds me to be present as much as I can with the people I’m with and the places I’m in and the books I’m reading—and to approach those things with the kind of curiosity and tenderness they deserve. So, I think writing helps in that way too, and just with the way I choose to live my life. I’m always writing through or toward questions. I leave this opportunity for surprise open. I can’t imagine outlining an essay—I would never know what to put on the page! I would have no idea. I will often have a list of things that feel somehow as if they’re going to go together someday. But the magic comes from being open to moments of surprise. That’s a question I often ask writers when I interview them: where was this moment? Because you know when you’re reading, you can kind of feel the moment of the surprise for the writer. And it’s also, of course, exhilarating for the reader—that moment when it feels not as if it were planned or manufactured, but that you got to arrive there with the writer inside the essay.

IJ: So, you’re saying that writing is the process of arriving at what you want to say, rather than the process of knowing what you want to say and then putting it onto the page?

JC: Yes, but that said, I do think that constraints can help us write really interesting things, because they can protect us, giving our minds something to attend to while whatever it is that lies beneath is bubbling up. Our minds are busy places! So, for me, it’s both of those things questions and lists—but never an outline.

IJ: Tell me more about what it means to write toward questions.

JC: I had been writing towards questions for years, but the person who helped me to understand my own process was the journalist and writer Pico Iyer. He told a story about how he starts out with a question and then he follows that question, and then, if he gets an answer, he knows he’s not done. He keeps writing. He writes until the question is unanswerable, and then he knows he’s getting there—he’s almost there. So, Iyer is the one who articulated this for me, and ever since, I’ve always thought in terms of writing toward the unanswerable. There’s a temptation to arrive at an answer or a conclusion, but I think we need to do some unlearning when it comes to the writing of essays, giving ourselves permission to write towards questions so real and true they’ll never have answers. That said, I confess it’s not uncommon for me to get to the end of an essay and sneak in a species of answer. And in those cases? It’s love. Just love.