Who is Nancy Jensen?
When I was three years old, I was so hungry for stories—both those I wanted to read and those I wanted to tell—that I begged my grandmother to teach me to read and write. Just a year later, though fearful of drawing attention to herself in public, and especially of doing anything that challenged established rules, this same grandmother—my very own champion—lobbied the administrative powers at the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library to grant me my own library card.
Everything I am and ever will be I owe to books—and to my grandmother, who flung open the door to that world when I was at the age of greatest impression. Always, the world of literature has seemed more vivid, more vital, more interesting, and more relevant than anything people refer to as the “real” world. I’m not talking about fantasy here—I’ve never been much interested in hobbits or robots—but rather about stories peopled by characters who might be my neighbors, even if they walk lonely roads in ancient Greece or suffer through restrained, polite conversation over tea in the sitting rooms in 18th century country houses.
Should we have the chance to meet, you’ll find I chatter easily and energetically, but, not surprisingly, I’m happiest when I at home with my pets—seven cats and a dog, all strays—living inside a book I’m either reading or writing, feeling along with the characters all their fears, joys, sorrows, and triumphs.
For more about me and my work, I invite you to my website: www.nancyjensen.org
Workshop & Teaching Philosophy
My workshop philosophy is pretty simple: as writers, our competition is in the Library of Congress, not in the Bluegrass Writers Studio. The collective goal of a workshop should be to help each writer achieve the best possible version of the work he or she wants to write. In a useful, functioning workshop, there’s plenty of room for honest, direct, and specific criticism, but no room for belittling sarcasm or empty, gushing praise—both of which are equally ineffective.
The best writers are always the most thoughtful, penetrating readers, and I believe no writer can ever become a better writer without first becoming a better reader, so I place high importance on helping students develop as sound critics who can understand, articulate, and demonstrate with evidence how a writer has achieved his or her effects.
As a student, I was lucky to have many excellent, generous teachers in both literature and writing at Indiana University, the University of Louisville, and the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College—and every day as a teacher, I strive to give students something of what my best teachers gave me.
Some of the Books I Love
I’m a little in awe of people who can spit out a list of their ten favorite writers or ten favorite books because I’ve always found requests for such lists to be as impossible to produce as answers to questions like, “Which of your pets do you love the most?” or, referring to my novel The Sisters, “Who is your favorite character?” The literature I love crosses many centuries and all the genres—fiction, poetry, drama, and the essay—and each among my beloveds is most valued, like my pets and my characters, for what sets it apart from all the others I treasure.
Still, I well understand people’s interest in such matters—and it’s an interest I share: though hard for me to answer the question myself, it’s one I can rarely resist asking of another reader. So…if you pinned me to the wall and insisted on knowing my choice for the greatest American novel, I’d say An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I would then admit to a deep and lasting affection for Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and I would deny that the fact that Dreiser and Tarkington are both Hoosiers, like I am, has anything whatever to do with my admiration for these novels. Sometimes I treat myself to a marathon reading of all six of Jane Austen’s novels, in the order in which they were written (which is not quite the same as the order in which they were published), but my “favorite” shifts between Persuasion and Mansfield Park, depending on my mood. Similarly, my mood largely determines whether I’ll name my favorite Shakespeare play as King Lear or The Tempest, but I’ll won’t waver in saying my favorite playwright is Bernard Shaw (he hated the American addition of George to his name), because no one—fiction writer, playwright, or poet—has ever written character speeches with greater intelligence and musical balance. When I am overwhelmed by the ugly noise of the world and especially of artless writing, I will settle on the floor in front of my bookcases and read aloud to myself from Yeats, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, or the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey. There may be a few who are as good, but there has never been a better essayist than George Orwell. For the richest possible immersion into a fictional world, I’ll turn to George Eliot’s Middlemarch or John Galsworthy’s The Forsythe Saga or to the novels of Thomas Hardy. From the realm of more recent writing, the books I can’t seem to shut up about are Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
The Sisters, a novel. St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
Window: Stories and Essays, Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2009.
“The Ones I Married,” The Coe Review. Vol. 36. Spring 2006.
“Teach Your Dog to Sing,” Other Voices. Vol. 6. No. 18. Spring 1993.
“Ceiling by Chagall,” The Belletrist Review. Vol. 1. No.1. Fall 1992.
“Squiggy,”The Louisville Review. Vol. 25-26. Fall/Spring 1988-1989.
“Loving Galahad,”Z Miscellaneous. Vol. 2. No. 6. November 1988.
“Sisters,” The Louisville Review. Vol. 20. 1986.
“The Gulf,” Northwest Review, Spring 2008.
“Notes of an Expatriate Daughter: Shylock in Kuala Lumpur,”The Louisville Review. Spring 2008.
“Window,” The Gihon River Review. Spring 2008.
“Last Tango,” ACM: Another Chicago Magazine. No. 46, Spring 2006.
“Forgetful Snow,” the strange fruit. December 2005.
“Photo: April 1965,” essay. Under the Sun: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction. Summer 2005.
“Blue Belt,” I to I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists. 2004.