What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)
THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS: A CHILDLESS LOVE STORY started off as an essay. I wanted to write about being childless, despite having been raised in a generation and a place where motherhood was a defining step in the path of a woman’s life.
As I took pages of the essay to my critique group, the questions that came up made me realize my story was more complicated than could be fit into a short piece. I decided to write about the bigger journey that had led me to my husband, a man who did not want children, and then the journey we went on together despite having this one big difference between us. I was interested in exploring how events and decisions in my life twined together over time and formed the person I am today.
I like memoirs written from the distance of time from the events that are being written about. The narrative then reflects the author’s process of examining and reexamining the events and their impact on her over time. I think our understanding of events change and deepen in important ways as time passes.
Even though I write both fiction and non-fiction, I never doubted that this would or should be a memoir. I think part of what makes my memoir appealing to readers is that it is true, and the honesty and personal exploration helps people turn the mirror to their own selves.
All this to say, what started off as an essay turned into a five-year project!
What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?
Oh gosh. I can find many obstacles to keep me from sitting down and doing the work of writing. The garden needs tending. The laundry folding. There’s a great book to read. And my husband is fun to hang out with. In non-pandemic times I enjoy being out in the world. So, creating structure and boundaries in my writing schedule is critical. But I had the (false) idea that I needed big chunks of uninterrupted time to write. This is true in some situations, when working on some intricate part of the structure or a deep revision. But, as I worked on my memoir, I taught myself to also write and edit in the odd fifteen minutes here or there. Overcoming that obstacle is helping me now as I work on new projects and has given me a new sense of freedom in writing.
As to inner obstacles, writing memoir means being willing to hold up the mirror to oneself, to go back in time and excavate the moments that reflect the essence of the story and to try to do that with honesty and some level of objectivity. At times, this was very uncomfortable. To see the me I had been in the past, to say, “Yes, I did that.” In my memoir, I write about my own early sexual activity, about a broken friendship, a sexual assault, about leaving a marriage. I write about the longing I had for a child and how I held this longing up to my husband over and over, despite having married him with the agreement we would not have kids.
I had to avoid thinking about the people who would read it. People who know me and people who don’t. And if I did think about the people I knew and was writing about, I held deep love for them as I wrote, even when the story was conflicted.
If I felt myself having a reaction to what I was writing, I tried to recognize this as a good thing. People read to be moved, to recognize some part of themselves, or to learn something new or to step into another world. In other words, to have a reaction. So, I kept my eye on the story, the sound of sentences, the images and emotions I was trying to share, and my own reactions to the work.
How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
It is so damn cool to have a book out in the world. I was 61 when my book was released. And even though I didn’t start writing until I was in my early forties, I had no idea it would take SO LONG to get a book published. But when it happened, it seemed like just the right time. I have been able to fully take in the joy and experience the positives of the journey.
One of the joys has been doing book events and book clubs. I’ve been honored to have some very personal conversations with readers. And it has been a delight to receive notes from readers. One thing I will do more consistently as a consumer of any form of creativity is to reach out to the creator to let them know my appreciation. People put their work out into the world and they hope to get reviews (which are awesome when they are good ones). But the personal notes and connections are a delicious affirmation.
I want to also say that I didn’t expect or want to expect that I would feel differently about myself having a book published. Because publishing can be so uncertain, I really embraced the idea that having a book would not make me feel better (or worse) about myself. Though of course I think most of us who write do so because we want to share our work. So having the book published is a validation of the work. And though a joyful experience it didn’t validate me as a person.
Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?
The journey to publication can be a real test of the self. I pursued larger publishers, with an agent, and that was filled with hope and dashed hopes (though my agent was fantastic). Ultimately, I signed with an independent publisher, Forest Avenue Press.
This ended up being a better outcome than I could have imagined. I hit the jackpot with Laura Stanfill, who runs Forest Avenue Press. She is a fierce advocate for writers and literature, and she created this lovely press in 2012. Originally, she published only fiction, but then she became interested in my memoir. I’m so glad I got to work with Laura. She creates an intimate relationship with her authors by learning what they want from the publishing experience, understanding their strengths and weaknesses in terms of their ability to participate in marketing the book, and then finds a way to weave that into a beautiful journey. And apparently Laura thought publishing a memoir was a good choice because she is publishing Beth Kephart’s memoir, WIFE | DAUGHTER | SELF, in Spring of 2021.
I also want to say that the publishing process was intense and at times I was filled with anxiety about all the things I could be doing or should be doing to get word about my book out into the world. How to get those reviews? How to get the hand into the hands of booksellers? Of course Laura was doing much of this, but the author also carries a big part of the marketing role, whether you are with a big five publisher, an indie, or self-published.
I’m now one year post-publication and I wish I could have calmed myself a bit more pre-publication, and known that everything would be okay.
Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
Oh yes! These days a large part of my social network are creators. Writers, actors in local theater, and visual artists. I love seeing how all the forms of creative self-expression share common necessary ingredients: commitment to the work, authenticity, practice, willingness to fail, and a healthy sense of humor about our small place in the world.
Portland, Oregon has a deep and supportive writing community. People who lift each other up and celebrate each other’s successes. With this larger community as a backdrop, I am constantly motivated by hearing or reading the work of so many phenomenal writers.
Closer in, I’m part of a writing group with six fabulous writers. Each week we bring our pages and share our work and give feedback to each other on the writing. These are long term friendships that have supported me through both professional and personal ups and downs. I want to shout out a few of this group and their books. Joanna Rose who’s second book, A SMALL CROWD OF STRANGERS, was just released. Kate Gray a fabulous poet and novelist. Yuvi Zalkow’s second book, I ONLY CRY AT EMOTICONS will arrive in 2022. And I have ongoing conversations with other writers like Liz Prato who is a fabulous short story writer and essayist with two books out, and the novelist Scott Sparling.
I find it vital to read a lot as a part of my ongoing study and development as a writer. Talking with other writers about story is a pleasure. I suppose the same as it might be for a farmer to talk with other farmers about soil and moisture and types of seeds to plant.
As much as I enjoy my writing cohort, I am so glad to have non-writers as friends. This is the texture of life and we get to talk about other things. And anyway, everyone is creative in one way or another and I like discovering this in others.
Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?
I touched on this in an earlier question, but will add here that we are all different in how we create…that’s part of creativity – your own rules.
I’m an afternoon writer. I block out two afternoons a week for writing and then take smaller chunks of time as they come. When I’m working on a revision, I deeply immerse myself, so I may work every day. When I am working on something new, the going is slower. And, in between projects or at times of transition in my life, I’ve taken long breaks. Weeks or months. Rather than shaming myself about this, I’ve realized this is the time when my ideas “compost” into the necessary.
How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
I’m working on a novel, AT THE WHEAT LINE, which is a coming-of-age story set in 1976 during a summer harvest in rural Oregon. The 1970’s were a time when agricultural policies in the U.S. began to favor larger corporate farms. Small farmers began to feel the pressure of these changes. This pressure is a backdrop in the novel. In the forefront at this time, wheat harvests were worked by teenagers—boys running combines, girls driving trucks. Carly Lang is a truck driver on a harvest crew in the town of Springs. She’s grieving the recent death of her mother which happened under shameful circumstances that the whole town is still talking about it. A new boy joins the crew, a city boy with big ideas. Teenagers, tinder dry wheat, those big machines are fuel for an explosive summer.
In other creative news, I’m learning to write songs and play a baritone ukulele. I started in April, and the pandemic has given me time to push the learning curve. WOW am I having fun. I feel like I get better every day with the ukulele. And writing songs is a whole new form that challenges me. Plus, I’m learning how to use GarageBand. It’s crazy what cool music can be made on an Ipad!
Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
When I began writing it was a healing practice. I was in my early forties, in a career that no longer fulfilled me, and also confronting some difficult personal history. I was longing for some kind of creative expression, as a way to meet the next stage of my life. A friend suggested THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron. That book opened the door to release the creative that had always been in me. Of course, the tag line to this book includes “a spiritual practice.”
Though I haven’t considered my writing a spiritual practice, I have what might be called ecstatic moments of disappearing into the work and feeling great joy and elation from the writing and pushing myself through difficult elements of the craft or emotional elements of story.
What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
My garden would be a bit more perfect and my house a bit cleaner. And I would likely have a smaller social circle. And I think I would feel something missing. But even saying that, after beginning to write, I have learned to honor the creative in me. Like my mom who was ALWAYS learning some new craft or skill, I think I will always find a way.
Why do you write?
Writing is my medium to express myself, to explore, to learn and be challenged, and to experience community.
Jackie Shannon Hollis is the author of the memoir, This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story ( Forest Avenue Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in various literary magazines including The Sun, Rosebud, Inkwell, High Desert Journal, VoiceCatcher, Nailed, and Slice Literary. She is also a storyteller and speaker and facilitates writing workshops for people experiencing houselessness or other profound hardships. She lives with her husband in Portland, Oregon.
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