Interview: Andrea Jarrell
If you are looking for a Spring Break read, go pick up I'm the One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell. It's a riveting coming of age memoir in which a mother-daughter pair escape a charismatic but dangerous man. At its core, the book is an exploration of female desire, and Jarrell's chiseled prose comes alive documenting the moments in which a young woman first learns the pleasures and liabilities of inhabiting an erotic self.
And guess what! Andrea generously agreed to do an interview with me!
Writers, the interview is chock full of great thinking about writerly routines and practices.
If anyone is in the New York area over the next couple of weeks, Andrea will be appearing at two events:
April 11 at 5:30PM, 742 10th Avenue, New York, NY
She'll be doing a New York Public library event with memoirist/poet Gayle Brandeis.
May 17th at 7:00PM, 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY
She'll be reading at WORD Bookstore with novelist Melissa Scholes Young.
I wish I could attend these--if anyone is able to go I'd love to hear about them.
Happy Spring everyone!
Cristina: Am I correct in remembering that you started your MFA as a fiction writer? What led you to the material in I'm the One Who Got Away? Was the topic of female desire always front and center or were you at some point surprised that this topic was going to be a big part of your book?
Andrea: Yes, I began as a fiction writer. Mostly, I think because I thought fiction was the only realm of writing that used creative world building, character development, and storytelling. It sounds uninformed to say that now when memoir and narrative nonfiction are a huge literary force but this was the 1990’s. I had been reading fiction all my life and that was what I gravitated toward. But even then, I was writing fiction that grew out of autobiography. Some of the same material that became my memoir.
If I’d had, all along, more examples of creative nonfiction such as Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth or Megan Stielstra’s Once I Was Cool, I might have started with it. But I’m so glad I didn’t. I’m grateful I didn’t begin trying to tell my story but rather was focused on sensory experience, character development and plot. Trying to answer: what makes a satisfying story?
I didn’t realize until I was deep into the book how much female desire was a central theme: desire as a hazard and desire as liberating. From the beginning, I definitely understood that wanting to be desired was part of my story but seeing the flipside — owning desire — was key to understanding the book’s narrative engine.
Cristina: What impact does your identity have on your writing? Are there roles you fill (for example as a parent or as a sibling) that significantly influence your art?
“Daughter” is the first identity that has influenced so much of my writing. No matter what a piece is about my mother always seems to find her way into it. That’s because for much of my life I lived in a world of two — my mother and me. Her role modeling influenced how I see the world and how I grew to be a woman. Coming into my own, making choices that were not her choices, living my life in ways that are both like hers and not like hers has inspired a lot of what I write.
The second identity is “lover/partner/wife” — obviously, there are differences between all of those roles but the lines between them can blur. I am intrigued by all kinds of intimacy. Those moments when we reveal ourselves to others, those moments when we see others either because they let us or because their actions and words unmask them. Capturing intimacy between lovers — not sex itself necessarily but an intimacy that derives from having been sexual — has been an important route for me to narrative meaning and revelation.
A third very influential identity is my role as “mother.” The experience of being a mother has been enormously important to my life as a creative person. Artists who become mothers sometimes describe the taxing effects of motherhood on their creative lives. I found the opposite to be true likely because I didn’t have an artist identity before parenthood. Having my children coincided with quitting my full-time job and also with moving to Maine where I lived in nature in a way I never had. All these factors: childbirth which opened me up to my personal physicality in new ways; freedom to write versus work an office job; and being surrounded by nature were a boon to my creativity. In addition, being a mother gave me new insights into having been mothered. It also gave me the experience of childhood all over again. As an only child I’d only known my childhood. By watching my children grow, I saw the ways in which I had been like any other kid and the ways I was different. These new understandings fed my work.
Andrea: What does it mean to you to be a working artist? Did you always take your own art seriously? Was there a moment you decided to "go pro"?
In some ways I’ve been a “pro” since graduating from college when I started working in magazine publishing in New York City and began to get a byline. I’ve been a working writer ever since but more behind the scenes writing marketing copy and trade magazine feature stories. The moment when I decided to “go for it” in terms of creative writing was in applying to MFA programs. An even more crucial turning point was when I shifted my personal work versus my client work to the front of the line when it came to my time and energy. I still spend a lot of time on client work but I think of my creative work remains my most important client.
I can’t remember a time when I did not think of myself as a writer. I’ve never been shy about calling myself a writer. But that is not the same thing as always believing that I would be successful as a writer. By that I mean, almost all my life I have had benchmarks against which I measure myself as a “good” writer or someone with any talent. The benchmarks hold steady when I have a setback or rise when I have a success. For example, when I started out getting complimented in a workshop was a big deal. Then success became getting into an MFA program, getting published, getting published in ever more selective places, getting an agent, publishing a book, getting good reviews, etc. Now my goal is to write a second book. These markers will never stop. I think it is important not to delude oneself about one’s merits but also to set goals and to relish victories when you reach them.
Cristina: Tell me about your routine as a working artist. What are your artistic habits? What do you do if you ever find yourself stuck? Talk to us about your intuition and your intuitive habits.
How is your intuitive self alive in your writing?
I am a morning writer. I like to get my coffee and go right to work often by climbing back into bed with my laptop. If I start the day by looking at my phone or getting into an extended conversation with my husband I’m toast. Or so I once thought. Rather than surrender to the feeling of a wasted day, I have learned to force myself to “begin again” even if I haven’t had the perfect uninterrupted start. Generally, I like at least three hours to write. Sometimes, if I’m writing an essay or working on a chapter I will continue until the evening with a first draft done. Depending on how well the writing has gone I either feel enormously pleased with myself or I am distracted and agitated until I can get back to the piece the next day. I am a big believer in Hemingway’s idea of quitting in the midst of a scene rather than at an endpoint. It is much easier to begin the next day when you’re in the middle rather than when the page is blank.
Getting “stuck” can mean different things to me. Within a piece, it might mean I don’t know where to go next. In that case, I go for a walk or practice yoga, which loosens up my subconscious. I once worked out a whole essay on a quiet hike with my husband. If I haven’t been writing because of work or travel and need to get a jumpstart I read several beginnings of my favorite books. That gets me in the narrative flow. I also might read some of my own published work to remind myself that I can do it. I used to think that it was counterproductive to read another person’s work at the start of my day. That somehow that interrupted my own flow but now I believe the opposite. This comes from Jane Kenyon’s advice about “have good sentences in your ears.”
If I really feel stalled and need a reboot I sign up for a workshop. Last winter, I did a Tin House one-day workshop Leigh Newman and then did an online workshop Creative Nonfiction workshop taught by Lisa Ohlen Harris. I kind of abandoned the online workshop but began working with Lisa on my own. The result has been three new essays and some of my best work to date.
Cristina: Cheryl Strayed says success in the arts is measured very differently than in other endeavors? As an artist, how do you define success for yourself? Making art often seems to me like an act of faith. What inspires you to continue doing your work?
I often think of that Ira Glass video about one’s taste as a beginning artist exceeding one’s abilities. For so many years, I could write lovely sentences but could not fashion them into a satisfying story or essay. Now I have faith that, although it might be challenging and I may be frustrated along the way, I can write a satisfying narrative. I have faith that if I keep at it I will get where I want to go. These days, I am most excited about what revision will reveal. I am at a point where I can get to a publishable piece fairly quickly on my own. I have always been an avid reviser. Yet now I’m learning to revise and get to a good place but then through working with someone like Lisa to get to an even deeper and better piece. I feel it physically when I get to the deeper gold of a piece and I love that process.
So success to me is about being able to write a deeply satisfying piece. How do I know it’s satisfying? I want these pieces to be published in venues that I admire and read alongside other writers I love. I want to hear from readers—especially readers who don’t know me— that these pieces moved them. Other forms of success (money, awards, etc.) are wonderful but I consider them frosting on the cake.
My continued inspiration is the mystery in everyday life and relationships. I am always looking for the story in the ordinary — the story that illuminates in a particularly piercing way the human experience.
Andrea: What, if anything, has writing taught you that carries over into other aspects of your life? Are there any habits or routines you keep as an artist that support you in your life in general? In what ways does pursuing your art impact your well-being?
Moving to the last part of that question first, I feel antsy, almost useless and unfulfilled if I am not writing. In many ways I am my purest self when I am writing because I forget myself. I am in flow. I also feel that way when I am practicing on my yoga mat but not to the same gratifying extent. I can’t imagine not writing because it feels so central to my wellbeing and to living a fulfilling life.
I recognize in myself that I am disciplined and grateful, and that I can find satisfaction in small pleasures. I think all of these traits are informed by my writing life. I have created a very successful business out of nothing other than my ability to write, to think creatively, to be a good listener, to pick up on the telling detail, and to understand people. All of these things inform my marketing business as well as my creative writing. I love that I have been able to support myself and my family through writing.
Also the idea that writing is a practice — that I am never done but always building on what I know to explore and get better — is a key to feeling satisfied and optimistic in my life.
Cristina: Who's work is inspiring you right now? Feel free to range wildly and not limit yourself to literary art!
Andrea: As I begin to work on a new book, I am very intrigued by blurring lines between genres. I am totally in love with the poet Beth Ann Fennelly’s genre-busting Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs
. By genre mixing, in some cases I mean fiction and nonfiction; essay and story; poetry and memoir. But other mixing is within a genre itself such as the “lyrical” and “thriller” mixing that Rene Denfeld does in her latest novel The Child Finder. Or Carmen Maria Machado’s mixing of horror and feminist and literary fiction in Her Body and Other Parties.
I am also inspired right now by Martha Cooley’s memoir in essays Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. It is making me think about how seemingly quiet observations can build heat and drama in narrative.
In my marketing life, I have the good fortune of knowing some graphic designers who are recognized as being among the most influential and brilliant today. Two whose work and writing always inspire me: Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. Michael’s latest essay collection is Now You See It. Jessica’s new book is Design: The Invention of Desire. I am also really inspired by storytelling in illustration. A few of my favorites: Wendy MacNaughton, Liana Finck, and Bryan Rea. I’ve encountered their work in various ways over the years and I love following them on Instagram for a daily jolt of their genius.