Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Jeannine Ouellette: “I always want to be engaging with the unknown.”

Jeannine Ouellette is the author of the memoir The Part That Burns (Split/Lip Press, 2021), the children’s book Mama Moon, and several educational titles. 

Her stories and essays have appeared widely, and her work has been supported with fellowships from Millay Colony for the Arts and Brush Creek Foundation. She is the recipient of a Margarita Donnelly Prize, Curt Johnson Fiction Award, Proximity Essay Award, Masters Review Emerging Writer’s Award, two recent Pushcart nominations, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Medill School of Journalism. 

Her work has been praised by Joyce Carol Oates as “simply beautiful, precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid.” Jeannine teaches creative writing with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and is the founder and director of Elephant Rock, an independent creative writing program in Minneapolis. She earned her MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is working on her first novel.

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Hi Jeannine, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, we’re so glad to have you here with us today! You’ve received several awards and fellowships for your writing, including the Curt Johnson Fiction Award and the Proximity Essay Award. How has recognition affected your writing process?

Honestly, although I’ve won several second-place awards and been a finalist or runner-up in many contests, and have been extremely fortunate to receive fellowships from Millay Colony and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, I haven’t yet won first place or received any major grants or awards, so I don’t think of myself as having recognition!

In fact, once one of my friends commented “congrat!” under a Facebook post, when I got second place in something, maybe it was the Masters Review Fiction Contest. It was a typo, of course, but she and I joke that I won’t get a full “congrats” with the S and all until I get first place at something.

All this said, I will say that the number of silver and bronze medals (so to speak) has been affirming. It tells me I’m in the running, that my work is in conversation with the work of the winners, and I do remind myself of that when I’m feeling discouraged with the inevitable disappointments and setbacks, or just with the hard, hard work of writing.

Because of course, it is hard. Making art is not easy. It asks you to open yourself to the unknown, and that means you discover something wildly unexpected. You might even discover your world is not what you thought it was. That the people in it are not who you thought they were. That you, in fact, are not even who you thought you were. Which of course is the point. But that kind of vulnerability, combined with the omnipresent possibility of failure, cannot be easy. I don’t think it’s meant to be.

In addition to writing, you are also the founder and director of Elephant Rock, an independent creative writing program in Minneapolis. What motivated you to start this program, and what has been the most rewarding aspect of your work there?

I love teaching. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, just as I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was around nine, I started saying that: When I grow up, I will be a writer or a teacher. I didn’t realize then that those two activities most often go together, that most writers are also teachers.

So, when I grew up, I first pursued the writing part of my vision, and began publishing essays in my twenties. But of course it’s not very common to earn a sustainable living from just writing. So, during my 30s, I spent ten years as an elementary and middle-school teacher at a small art school, and I loved the process of teaching, the miracle—and it is a miracle!—of helping someone to learn something.

That decade of teaching changed me fundamentally. It also—despite that I did continue to write and publish during those years—made it impossible to get my book written. Teaching was so creative, so demanding, so all-consuming that essays were the most I could manage. So, while I loved teaching and was reluctant to leave the school, I understood at a certain point that if I didn’t prioritize my writing, it wouldn’t happen.

Once I did leave the school, I was quickly able to gain traction with my book, but I really missed the energy of a classroom, the energy of mutual striving that you feel in a situation where people gather together to learn something. It just made sense then for me to start offering classes, workshops, and retreats to writers. And what a joy that has been.

I have taught on a remote island in the middle of a big lake in Wisconsin, where the lodges and cabins were built by a Chicago lumber baron. I have taught in beach bungalows in Mexico. I have taught in historic lodges and mansions on the shores of Lake Superior, and I’ve taught in a glorious retreat center on Madeline Island. I’ve taught in coffee shops and in my living room. And, of course, with the advent of the pandemic, I created an online generative workshop called Writing in the Dark, which has run continuously since March 2020 and is one of the most vital, engrossing, inspired, rigorous, warm, creatively safe spaces I’ve ever experienced.

The writing that comes out of Writing in the Dark has appeared in a whole array of prestigious literary journals including Brevity, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Hippocampus, Entropy, Sweet Lit, and many, many more. What people say about my teaching is that it is both rigorous and extremely generous, and I think that’s true. I’m passionate and love when my students succeed.

I learn as much from teaching as from writing. It’s an essential part of my writing practice. And the Elephant Rock community showed up for me in a big way when my book came out! It’s because of Elephant Rock that my strange, hybrid memoir from a tiny micro press made a splash much larger than its own outline. I’m extremely grateful and it’s a testament to the power of the literary community and citizenship.

Until recently, Elephant Rock was just me, I was the only teacher. But recently I began adding teaching artists who develop and teach their own courses through Elephant Rock, and that’s been super exciting! I love hearing their ideas and exchanging our thoughts on pedagogy and craft, the arts of writing and teaching. It’s just beautiful.

Your work has been praised by Joyce Carol Oates as “simply beautiful, precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid.” How do you strive to achieve this level of mastery in your writing?

I was blown away when Joyce Carol Oates said that about my work. It was through one of those contests you mentioned—the Curt Johnson Award. She chose a chapter of my memoir, a story called Tumbleweeds, as the second-place winner of that contest in 2015 and I’m still not over it. And I guess the way I strive to achieve that kind of writing is by never, ever taking it for granted. Never becoming complacent.

Joy Williams said this about complacency: “The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer’s style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.” And I think that’s right. I always want to be engaging with the unknown. I always want to be in a beginner’s mind, trying new things, testing old things in new ways, stretching beyond my own limits. That’s what matters to me, because that’s what I believe art requires.

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What does your creative process look like? Can you walk us through a typical writing day for you?

I wish I could! My days are so packed, so full of demands, that there is no typical day. I work full time as a writer and writing instructor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Between that and my teaching through Elephant Rock and my large, boisterous family—which includes five grandchildren—I have very little time for my own writing.

Luckily, I’ve always been a binge writer, meaning that I do my best work when I can devote long stretches of time over a few days or weeks. So that’s what I am doing right now, writing from Port St. Joe Beach in Florida, where I’m desperately trying to finish my novel manuscript. Even though I still have work responsibilities here, I am secluded from family and friends. That’s hard for me (I’m very homesick!), but it does free up a lot of hours for my writing, and that’s been crucial.

Not only am I working on the novel, but I’ve also completed two complicated, solicited essays while here—both opportunities that I might very well have had to turn down if not for being in this remote location. And that’s kind of the story of my writing life, because I had children when I was twenty-two, so I’ve always, all along, had to find ways to fit my writing into the interstices of a very full life. The strategies and resources for doing that have shifted over time, but I just keep finding ways, because writing is who I am. It’s one of the key things that make me me. 

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

There are so many, so many I could name. I’m terrible at these questions that require just one answer. But I guess one of the writers I’d love to talk with is Marilynne Robinson. Her work is so brilliant, so strange, so steeped in something mysterious that I cannot quite name. Her relationship with language is extraordinary. She is getting at something deeply intrinsic to the human condition, and she seems utterly uncontrolled by forces related to marketing and success, even though she is, by both critical and commercial standards, very successful. I love her work. And, from interviews I’ve read with her, I’ve become fascinated with how her mind works. So, yes, I would love to sit down and chat with Marilynne Robinson.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads?

Right now I am finally reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which has been on my list for ages. I recently finished Maggie Smith’s You Could Make This Place Beautiful, and Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers. Both extraordinary books, and both exploring motherhood through very different lenses, though oddly there is overlap. I’m also listening to The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

As for favorite reads, oh my. Again, I have a hard time narrowing things. I love Jane Hamilton’s novel, A Map of the World and Jane Smiley’s collection of short stories, The Age of Grief. I love Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Justin Torres’ We the Animals, almost anything by Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. As for more recently published work, I adored Gina Frangello’s Blow Your House Down.

Which reminds me, I am a huge fan of Sharon Olds. I read a lot of poetry and just worship Olds—she’s brilliant and her work paved the way for so many of us, including me. Also Jane Hirschfield, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Margaret Atwood, oh, there are so many I could name! I could go on and on and on. 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially those just starting out on their writing journey?

I just wrote about this in a post called How to Be a Writer, in my Substack Writing in the Dark newsletter, saying, in part, the following:

We all know beyond doubt that good writing starts with reading greedily and discerningly and well beyond our own tastes—for example, in recent years I pushed myself toward dystopian fiction and have since not only discovered many works I love, but have also learned things that strengthened my own writing and improved my life (and that last part is not an exaggeration!).

We need to read poetry, too. My god, please, read poetry! Prose writers, especially, have so much to learn from the poets. We need to read the work of young writers and old writers. We need to read, in addition to the classics, the work of living writers and debut writers. And above all we need to read writers who don’t look like ourselves, whose lives haven’t looked like ours, who come from places far from where we live, and most of all, whose voices haven’t risen easily above the white male din that drowns everyone else out.

So yes, we must read truly, madly, deeply, but also, we must take great pains to decode what we read so that we can figure out exactly what those writers did to make certain passages and whole books so wild and arresting. This kind of reading, this close reading for the craft of it, is what will change us into the writers we hope to become.

Of course, we must write, too, as much as we can, day after day, showing up for the arduous work putting one word after the next, again and again and again.

But there is more to it than that, because building piles and piles of words is not enough. Building piles of words can even teach us bad habits, get us into the practice of writing lazy sentences, sentences that will never sing. So we must also write the hard way. Because while writing for pleasure and catharsis and the satisfaction of a growing word count is well and good at times, we must mostly write for the strain and difficulty and torment of it, for the relentless demands of carving meaning from a flabby, overused language that has become, in the digital age, mostly used for “content.”

Writing should feel like a wrestling match—a grueling effort that leaves us spent and bruised. This effort is how we reclaim the language, and also how we transform and progress as writers, artists, human beings. This effort is where we meet ourselves anew (and isn’t that the reason for it all?) through grasping at first desperately, and then exactingly, after the perfect verb, through the slashing of pages and pages of “process writing” that are important to wade through as part of the hunt for the actual story, but that do not belong to the actual story, and therefore also do not belong in the actual story. This sweaty effort is our chance for a wide-open and unflinching observation of our limitations on the page, and our chance to get back up, go back in there, and try harder.

This effort is where art happens—and it’s the art that matters.

Speaking of art, as writers we need to notice our surroundings with a sense of interest, wonder, and awe. We need to cultivate a searing curiosity about everything and everyone, because curiosity is the genesis of empathy. Our job as writers is to ask why, why, why, why, and be doggedly interested in the multiplicity of possibilities rather than relying too surely on what we think we know.

We need to build great tolerance for uncertainty. We need to learn to love uncertainty, and to choose it over the temptation of knowing. We need to sit quietly in the dark, even if it hurts.

And by all means we can’t obsess constantly on publication or the workings of the industry. If we want to publish, we should worry about that when the time comes. And the time comes when we’re pretty damn sure (which is as sure as we ever will be) that we’ve written something that’s ready—that’s good enough—for publication. In the meantime, it’s probably better to spend our time writing and improving the writing rather than scheming on the best strategy for breaking in.

The perfecting of the writing is an alchemical process that requires an openness to perpetual discovery and refinement. Good writing has a raw, disobedient quality, a feral disposition. That’s what allows it to leap off the page. But achieving prose with that kind of unruly abandon almost always requires an untold amount of grunt work. Good writing that breathes and even gasps on the page almost never comes from focusing on market trends, though many commercially successful books do result from doing exactly that. But a commercially successful book and a transcendent piece of writing are not the same thing. The latter may certainly become the former and it sometimes does, but more often, it does not.

This must be understood and accepted from the outset.

Ultimately, we gain the most from focusing on our writing as a practice no different from meditation—we show up, we struggle, we break through or we don’t, and then we do it again. Only over the course of months, years, decades, a lifetime, if ever, do we begin to see clearly the pattern of our own intricate unfolding within the context of not just our own life, but of everything. The whole world.

Which is, of course, the point.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Like I said, I am staying in a rental house on Port St. Joe Beach, so while my view is of the Gulf of Mexico, my workspace is more or less my laptop perched on my thighs as I hunker down on the couch with my little dog Frannie beside me. So instead of a pic of my laptop screen, I’ll show you the view that’s inspiring me during these weeks as I write my heart out toward the end of this novel I’ve been immersed in for several years.

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