Behind the Words: Jenni Nance

Posted by on Mar 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

1688706_10151977419457321_181682237_nJenni Nance is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of South Florida. She is the recipient of The Knocky Parker Creative Nonfiction Award and nominated for 2014’s AWP Intro Journals Award for Creative Nonfiction. Jenni teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and with the Dunedin Fine Arts Center. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Mother, Sweet: A Literary Confection and Necessary Fiction.  Spry is lucky to have published two of Jenni’s pieces, “Variations of Numbness” and “Hefty Bag.”

 

Allison: You’ve published both creative nonfiction and fiction in Spry, but you write poetry, too. And, you’re about to complete your MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of South Florida. Out of those three genres, which one first piqued your interest in writing, and which one do you have the most fun writing? 

Jenni: I believe we all begin with poetry. We begin to acquire language with the smallest unit, with morphemes. Our first spoken sentences in life were probably haiku. Listen to a preschooler’s syntax–many poets would die to tap into that kind of invention. Poetry is all over the playground, and I believe that’s where I first started trying to communicate an image. As far as what I have the most “fun” writing, I would have to say fiction from a child’s perspective. I’m not saying it would necessarily be YA fiction (because my subject matter is often dark) but I love the child narrator, or the retrospective adult looking back at her childhood. The world of the child is so myopic, her perspective so unusual, that I love trying to remember seeing the world that way. When I was a little girl, I used to stand on my head a lot. But I now realize what I loved about doing it. When I was standing on my head, the world looked new. The ceiling suddenly looked like another room, another universe. I had the same feeling climbing high into trees. I loved the freedom of seeing the world in new ways. I believe children do this best, and so, trying to return to that world of endless possibility is exciting to me as a writer. It’s good for the soul too!

 

In both “Hefty Bag” and “Variations on Numbness” I could see the influence of poetry through your use of carefully chosen words and lyrical language. How do you feel that writing in all three genres shapes your work? Has the influence of one genre over another surprised you?

I think it’s a good practice for any writer to write in all the genres. It may reveal a weakness (or a forte) for a certain area, but they are all instructively incestuous. Writing poetry teaches us concision of language and fresh imagery, which ultimately benefits our prose. Writing creative nonfiction keeps us honest and constantly reaching for the ever-shifting and elusive truth. Writing fiction, for me, is the benevolent taskmaster of the three. While you get to have “fun” in making up these characters, creating these worlds, you have to respect structure. You have to achieve a cohesion, consistency, and narrative arc that will keep your reader on the hook. You may be able to seduce or enchant your readership of poetry and creative nonfiction because readers come to those genres expecting magic, expecting to have to “figure it out,” but writing fiction requires a level of “taking care of your reader” that is, for me, daunting. I find fiction readers are far more decisive. They “quit” boring books (rightfully so) or books that are slow starters. They have no patience for flat characters, clichés, or stale dialogue–as they shouldn’t have. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am far more conscious of my fiction reader for these reasons. I guess there’s a certain customer service to writing fiction. Yes, of course, for poetry and CNF too, but like I said, I believe readers of CNF and poetry don’t mind getting lost with the writer and going on those imaginative detours with them.

 

What are some differences you’ve discovered between writing creative nonfiction and fiction that most people wouldn’t expect?

That they have more in common than one might think! Many people believe a memoirist has it made because she doesn’t have to “make up” anything. Her memory is the story. However, rendering scene and dialogue in memoir is just as demanding as it is in fiction, especially in traditional memoir. The greatest difference I would say is the stress of “fact-checking.” A memory might fly out of you, but then you have to go back and really try to remember if the truth is all there. You might impetuously write down a certain date, place, quote, but an extra layer of revision for the memoirist is being faithful to the history of the memory and honoring the people who are mentioned in that experience. They say “truth is stranger than fiction,” but I think it’s only natural for many memories to have a touch of exaggeration to them. I think a CNF writer needs to keep that impulse in check. With a great lapse in time may come a distortion, so memoirists need to truly focus on the memory and render it as accurately as possible. It’s an intellectual honesty as much as a moral responsibility. And obviously–as we all saw with writers like Frey and Mortenson–it is a litigious issue as well.

 

In “Hefty Bag” and “Variations on Numbness” you write about difficult subjects – abuse, fear, disease, watching a loved one suffer – with the lightness of touch. How did you find the balance between exploring the emotions and avoiding melodrama?

God, I can only pray that I did (avoid melodrama). I am a very sentimental person. And so I often fear my writing is too emotional. I need to keep that in check sometimes. I think there is always the fear, especially in creative nonfiction, of coming across as histrionic, whiney, or a victim. I believe the emotional risk is far steeper in writing creative nonfiction. When you write fiction, readers may not like your “story.” However, when you write creative nonfiction, the readers are really saying that they do not like “you.” After all, that’s your voice, your life, your opinions splayed out naked on the page. Now of course, I believe ALL writing is personal (I know a fiction writer takes that criticism to heart too), but you really wear it on your sleeve in creative nonfiction. You can’t take it back. You can’t hide behind the veil of fiction. You have to be ready for that feedback. And it will be personal. Every single time.

 

Your short story “Hefty Bag” opens with a vivid scene where we are immediately thrown into the urgency of this girl’s situation. How did this story come to you?

I wrote “Hefty Bag” in a Body/Illness Narratives class with my all-time favorite writing professor, Rita Ciresi. For me, that course was an endless well of creativity. Each week Ciresi would give us a timed writing prompt, and I always felt I had something to say about the body. I love writing about nature, animals, the body and its viscera, so this course was right up my alley. I conceived both “Variations on Numbness” and “Hefty Bag” in Rita’s course. You can’t help but produce in her classes. For me, the idea came when we were brainstorming about bodily functions. From there, the story just took off.

 

Every sentence in “Hefty Bag” is instrumental to the story. You didn’t leave anything out or add anything that was unnecessary. How does your editing process work? Do you tend to edit as you write, or do you revise after you write?

I don’t think I have a talent for editing at all, but I do think that my revision has improved since graduate school. Again, I have to give credit to my professor, Rita Ciresi. Rita expects–demands–clean copy, well-written prose. I think that story may be so “clean” in terms of economical writing, because I knew who my readership was initially for that story. Rita is so very good at teaching us how to write telegraphically and cutting out superfluous language. Normally, that is my struggle in writing. I am a slave to that initial creative burst, to whimsy, and I tend to overwrite. But as we all know, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s far easier to cut than to add.

 

In “Variations on Numbness,” you show off your knack for timing and structure. Each section is perfectly placed. When you were writing this piece, did the structure happen organically, or is structure something you played with when you revised?

That essay was initially called “The Stranger.” When I was telling my boyfriend about my numbness, he told me about “the strangers” teenaged boys would give themselves. I found his story so bizarre, so funny, so compelling, that the essay was born out of that single anecdote. After I wrote that first scene, I then worked backward to connect it to my own numbness and began there. The order was lucky happenstance. However, your editor, Erin Corriveau, was integral to the writing in the final draft. She encouraged me to write a couple new sections, to add more “connective tissue.” It was a wonderful experience working with her. She is a talented editor!

 

The two lines, “I am emotionally exhausted from watching this small child try to lift her big toe for what felt like two hours. And I am deeply ashamed,” stuck with me as a reader because of how candid they were. How important is it for you, as a creative nonfiction writer, to be candid in your work?

Oh, I think candor is the most important element in writing CNF. I think CNF writers must take this risk in their writing if they want their writing to communicate, to be both effective/affective. Readers come to CNF looking for this honesty, this vulnerability. It’s why I personally enjoy reading CNF. If we risk embarrassing ourselves, then so what? Some people will connect, some will criticize, and some may judge. Like in life, we cannot be all things to all readers.

 

“Variations on Numbness” contains several thematically linked accounts of situations in your life. Did you have all of these situations in mind when you began your very first draft? Or, did some of the memories surface while you wrote?

Starting with the trigger story of “The Stranger,” this essay did come out very easily. It was very much a free association as I wrote, and I enjoyed how the memories kind of pin-balled off each other. I think the structure of the small sections served this stream of consciousness style very well. Writing rarely happens for me this way. This was a happy blessing and an exciting writing experience for me.

 

Thank you for answering these questions! Now, for one last question, what authors have influenced your work?

Sherman Alexie is a big influence. No writer has ever before seized my attention and imagination the way he did, the way he continues to do so. His lyricism is stunning. I care about his characters. In writing programs, we often call writers like Alexie a “triple threat”– a writer who can write masterfully in all modes. I also look to Richard Hoffman’s writing for bravery, to Dorothy Allison’s for honoring who we are and where we come from, to Mary Karr’s for edginess, and to essayists and scholars like Joan Didion and Barbara Ehrenreich for critical thinking. And as a secondary English teacher, I am blessed to be able to teach and rediscover authors every single day. Lately, I have fallen in love with Melville and his Biblical allusions in Moby Dick. Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is really a lesson in writing memoir. As I get older, I really have become open to reading everything. All text has value, all reading can be instructive.

 

Allison Kirk received her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing with a focus in fiction from Fairfield University. She served as Fiction Co-Editor for Mason’s Road Literary Journal. A Louisiana native, Allison decided she wasn’t made for winter weather during her last blizzard-filled visit to Connecticut. She is currently working on her first novel, which takes place in her warmer home state.

2 Comments

  1. Fantastic interview. I feel like I just had a talk with this special friend of mine.

  2. Wonderful interview on the shifting landscapes of truth and candor in writing. Jenni Nance is the writer who first encouraged my interest in memoir and CNF after I’d always been a die-hard fiction and poetry fan. This interview adds to that fascinating conversation about the writer’s process and the reader’s experience of both. So interesting! Thank you.

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