Author Interviews/Features

       

Meet Jan Epton Seale

Jan Epton Seale   
Jan Seale writes poems, short fiction, and essays. Her work is published nationally in such venues as The Yale Review, Texas Monthly, and Newsday. Her short stories, seven of which were chosen for the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project, are collected in Airlift (TCU Press). She also has six books of poetry, a book of essays, and a writing textbook. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing. Seale teaches memoir and creative writing workshops both in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where she lives, and nationally for writing groups and learning centers. This interview, conducted via email by Susan Wittig Albert, originally appeared in The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 6, No. 4, December, 2002).

Visit Jan's website.

Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 12/15/2002

You're a much-published author, Jan, and it's clear that you take your writing work seriously. When did you start to write? What, for you, is the relationship between writing and publishing your work?

Someone said that you don't have to have an unhappy childhood in order to be a writer but it helps. I began writing as soon as I could read and write, probably because I had tuberculosis as a child. Just as all my friends were going to school and exploring the world, I was sitting in bed from age five to seven, entertaining myself. I still have a few of the books I read at that time. One was a sort of coffee table book with pictures of birds and poems about them. To this day, I can turn the pages of that book, glance at the bird, and recite the poem that accompanies it, As I memorized those poems, I remember thinking: I can write something like this. And I did.

I look back on that time as a marvelous period in a child's life where words.reading, and saying, and writing them.actually saved her, kept her sane. And yet she didn't know any of this. She was only following an instinct toward something she would do and love her whole life.

Later, as a teen writing poems, I had a couple of friends who wrote poems too, so we had this pleasurable thing among us. My teachers responded appreciatively when I showed them a poem but there was no organized writing club in my school. In my love of words, I knew I was different from my classmates.but no one ever said, "Jan, I think you're going to be a writer."

I won a couple of campus writing contests in college. I was in seminars in creative writing at the University of Louisville and after I graduated with a B.A. in English, I began publishing poems. But perhaps surprisingly, I was also publishing articles on childcare. My first son was born seven months after I got my degree. and with him came articles on diapering, bedtime, telephoning the doctor. I found that absolutely ordinary ideas about mothering, common sense stuff could be sold for good money. I teamed up with an OB-Gyn who wanted the byline but not the money; we wrote a number of articles on patient-doctor relations. After a few years, I went back to school for an M.A. Mine was the first creative writing thesis in poetry at North Texas State Univ. Then I taught a year at North Texas and began to see the possibilities of publishing poems and critical articles in academic journals.

I look on writing as a calling. Some people are put on earth to pray, others to be surgeons, or caregivers, or teachers. Writers are here to write. If one writes, knowing that she is doing what she is supposed to be doing, that is the important thing about the act: then publication becomes the fine by-product that it should be. I enjoy being published because it's a way of connecting with others, but I believe I will always write, regardless of publication. I write to set my thinking in order, to figure out puzzles, to entertain myself. Sometimes writing is solace, sometimes an alleluia for the pleasure of simply existing.

In addition to working as a writer, you have taught autobiography and memoir writing. Tell us about this part of your life.

Teaching autobiographical writing came after I left the University of Texas-Pan American, where I had taught English for 12 years. When I quit, I thought I would probably focus on writing, but I found that I missed teaching. Also, I needed more income, so I developed a little "cottage industry" based on a perceived need in the place where I live.

Every year thousands of retired people winter in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. With discretionary time, they seek out activities, among them, naturally, is telling the story of their lives for their families. So I developed a month-long, weekly series called "Writing Your Life Story." I taught it mainly at the Hidalgo County Historical Museum, which welcomed the traffic as well as the subject. I also taught classes in RV parks and retirement centers.

Now I've expanded my yearly Winter Texan offerings to two workshop series, Part One and Part Two. Generally, people take Part One in January and Part Two in February. Sometimes I teach multiple classes.

I also teach one- and two-week workshops in autobiography at other sites, such as Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, West Texas A&M at Canyon in the Summer Writing Program, and at Mo Ranch near Kerrville TX. Often I give one-day workshops, and hour-long presentations to groups like genealogical or old-timers clubs.

I also teach creative writing, both locally and elsewhere. And lately I've been giving a workshop on women's wisdom called "Celebrating Women's Gifts." I've just come back from Maryland, where I presented this topic in a weekend workshop at a retreat center.

What are some of the satisfactions you gain from teaching memoir writing? Have you experienced many frustrations?

Adults, particularly older people, are ready to learn; they receive information eagerly. They may have the gifts of wisdom, compassion and patience, enabling them to hear their classmates' stories and respond helpfully. They also know how to take what they hear from others and apply it to their own stories. And they often hear themselves telling their own stories for the first time to others and may make a wonderful discovery in the process. I love to feel that I have helped bring people together to let this magic happen.

But there are frustrations. The hours together are far too brief, and time limitations in class inhibit people's freedom to tell and hear stories. How to share 70 or 80 years of one's life? Another frustration: Here in the Valley my students are not permanent residents, and when I teach away from home, I am the itinerant one. I may never know whether our time together has helped people to complete their stories.

My teaching relieves the loneliness and constant self-starting of writing. I can rise from my desk, take my lesson plans, and move out to a definite time and place. The teaching also takes me into interesting environments and allows me to study human nature.

But while my students' life stories contain fascinating facts and turns of event and often inspire and amaze me, I've not been much tempted to appropriate them in my writing. They have their stories and I have mine. I don't claim any virtue about this, but when I reflect on it I think it's probably best that it.s turned out this way. I don't mean to imply that there's a strict line between my teaching and writing. But the way the teaching influences the writing is more a general thing for me. My time with students shapes me as a person in subtle ways that will allow me to write with more feeling, from a broader experience, and with that kind of awe for the human condition that a writer needs.

You've written a handbook for memoir writers. How did that come about? You've also self-published it.could you share your thoughts on that process?

I laughingly say I wrote The Nuts-and-Bolts Guide to Writing Your Life Story when the handouts for my classes became too bulky. After years of teaching memoir writing, composition, and creative writing, I realized I.d acquired more than a few tricks in my bag. I wanted to write a book that students could use when they left the class, or as a substitute for taking the class. The other self-imposed requirements were that the examples would be drawn from older adult experiences and that this how-to book would actually be fun to read and use.

After it was published, I learned that students in freshman composition were using the technical chapters on spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Now, on the advice of a book consultant in New York, I'm in the process of splitting it into two books. One will be called An Armchair Guide to Writing Your Life Story and the other will be Glamorous Grammar. I hope to get outside publishers for these.

As for the self-publishing, that was not my first choice. (An agent shopped it for eighteen months and got two offers, but we decided against both). The self-publishing has proved satisfactory in that I keep much more of the profit from the sales than I would if I'd gone through a commercial publisher, and I control the distribution. I always have books on hand and can do anything I want to with them, including revisions. We're in the sixth printing now.I print 100 at a time with a local printer. The book goes with me to all my seminars and classes. Depending on the arrangements with the sponsors of the event, it can be a required text or a supplement.

Self-publishing has polished its halo lately, and I think it.s one of the healthier trends in publishing today, especially because it.s an answer to the mega-publishing houses which call books "products" and pay the writer poorly. (Distributors irritate me, because they gobble up another 15%, after the 40% wholesale discount, off the retail price of a book.) Self-publishing allows the writer to get on with disseminating her work, but she must have the means and the energy to promote and distribute it. That's the trade-off: you get more of the profit, but you have to work harder after publication. I dislike this aspect of self-publishing, but, I was willing to do it because I believed in the book and I needed it desperately to teach from.

Some of us are poets, others essayists, others write fiction. You seem comfortable in a variety of literary forms. Tell us about this, please.

Poetry. Whatever I write, I always return to poetry. It's the most satisfying way for me to write. I think of poetry as my mother tongue, my basic artistic language.

Short Fiction. I began to write short fiction while I was teaching at Pan Am because I was teaching creative writing and the curriculum required students to write a short story. I thought I should be writing my own, along with them, to experience what I was putting them through.

And then a beautiful thing happened: I found out early on that certain stories in my heart and mind could be told much better in prose than in poetry. So the same thing happened when I was 35 as happened when I was five, alone in bed all day with a book of poems. I read and read and then put the book down and said, "I can write one of those."

I had beginner's luck with the second short story I wrote, called "Jack of Hearts." (It's in my collection, Airlift.) The story was chosen by the PEN/Syndicated Fiction Project and published in seven major newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune and The Kansas City Star. In the decade following, seven of my stories were chosen for this project. Two were read on National Public Radio, and another is read by Ellen Burstyn on a tape from Papier-Mache Press. These are traditional stories that appeal to general readers.

I have a new manuscript of short stories that I've begun submitting. It may be hard to get them published as a collection because many of the university presses (which are able to print collections) want experimental stories for academic readers. I had to smile the other day when I received a kind rejection from a university press editor in which she declined my stories because they were "plot-driven."

By the way, I'm probably one of a very few fiction writers who is not too eager to write a novel. I have written a formula romance novel (unpublished.I wrote it on a dare), and I have the beginning of another mainstream novel that I might get around to finishing some day.

Essays. This is one genre which literally sneaked up on me! I have written columns for newspapers.Living and Other Complications for a local paper; another for the Corpus Christi Caller.and for a time I wrote an annual Fourth of July piece for the McAllen Monitor. One day I looked at my clips from these and other sources and realized that I had a book, which became Homeland.

As I get older, I seem to write more essays. For one thing, by now, I've witnessed hundreds of folk writing their memoirs, and have been privileged to read some gorgeous accounts of personal experience by my students.

It stands to reason that essay and personal experience writers just get better as they age. As our memories and mental facilities change (notice that I say "change", not "decline") with age, we learn to draw on our vast experience and to feel confident in speaking the truth of our lives through essays. As I get older, I think my will to invent.to use ideation in really fantastical ways.has waned. I'm looking on this as an opportunity to explore other ways of thinking and writing.

I'm very interested in fluid and crystal memory research, particularly as it reflects the mature mind and memory.

I'm also interested in the newly-identified "creative non-fiction" (now about ten years old). It's fascinating how much artistry can go into this kind of writing, and a growing attention is being given to the form and shape of it.

Much of my published writing, maybe 80 percent, is shaped from my life experiences. Sometimes the fun is in trying to be as honest as possible (in essays or poetry) and sometimes the pleasure is in seeking to alter it.disguise, re-do, add to, take from, mix and match.for a more satisfying experience for the reader (in fiction or poetry). Of course, everything anyone has told me, and everything and everyone I observe, are also "my" life experience. That's a pretty big reservoir for all of us to draw on when we write out of "our personal experience."

Outside of poetry, I think non-fiction is the easiest to break into print with. I am constantly urging my students to send this or that account to this or that publication. When they take me up on it, they are often happily surprised at its acceptance. My students' writing has been accepted in large-circulation magazines and anthologies. This is rewarding to them, and me.

The biggest problem for students is deciding that they can take rejection if it comes. I try to model that hurdle, telling them about the poem that was rejected 21 times before it was taken, and about the short story that came back with a big "Just a memoir" scrawled by a peptic-challenged editor across the first page.only to have it later accepted by The Yale Review as the fiction it was intended to be.

Your work was honored with an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. How did that feel?

My fellowship from the NEA was awarded in 1982, for poetry. I took that year off from teaching and just wrote. I finished a book of poems (Sharing the House, RiverSedge press), and started several other things. The fellowship was a huge affirmation of my writing and I am forever grateful to have had it. That year made me realize that I was not going to get as much writing done if I continued to teach fulltime, so I'd better begin to think how to get more writing time. Yes, it was a watershed experience.

       

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