Faculty Facts: Nancy Jensen
Bluegrass Writers Studio student Chris Dixon interviews faculty member Nancy Jensen, beginning in the style popularized by Bernard Pivot and James Lipton.
What is your favorite word?
Hmm…I’ve always loved the sound of the word ecclesiastical.
What is your least favorite word?
I don’t think I have one, not really: every word is exactly the right word sometime.
What turns you off?
What turns me off as related to writing? Any work that signals the writer has never really listened—to real people, to the heart, to the sound of great literature.
What turns you on? (Chris's note: For these two, I really, really want to rephrase them as, "What writing-related things turn you on/off?")
A voice on the page that’s so true and perfectly controlled that every other sound in the world vanishes.
What sound do you love?
What sound do you hate?
Any ringing phone. Rap. Heavy bass pounding out of unmuffled cars.
What is your favorite curse word? (Chris's note: You know what? What's your favorite dirty word? It doesn't have to be a curse word or profanity to be dirty and therefore fun.)
I’m drawn to the French word épouvantable because it expresses the idea of something frightfully appalling in a way no English word, on its own, can.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I would have loved to be an actor—a stage actor. Or a cabaret singer.
What profession would you not like to do?
I’ve been a waitress, and I definitely don’t want to do that again—or anything related to food service.
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
All the animals you’ve ever loved are here and eager to see you, and, just as you asked, they’ve been well-looked after by your grandparents and your friend Mia. Oh—and George Bernard Shaw, St. Francis, Vladimir Horowitz and Jerome Kern are looking forward to meeting you.
Here are some more questions for Nancy by student Jen Parks, the force behind Faculty Facts:
Who is your mentor?
I’ve had a few—some in writing, others in the art of surviving. Some of them have simply popped up like guardian angels for brief but crucial moments, while others have drifted in and out of my life, so I won’t single out any one by name here.
What is the best advice he/she ever gave you?
That’s difficult to pinpoint, because the best advice ultimately is absorbed and becomes so thoroughly mingled with the blood that it can’t be parsed out. Broadly speaking, though, what they all shared was the courage to tell me straight when I was deceiving myself somehow.
What is your favorite publication and why?
I assume you mean a favorite publication of my own? I was so thrilled when got my hands on the first printed copy of my book Window: Stories and Essays that I carried it around all day and even slept with it. I did the same with the first hardcover copy of The Sisters, but I’ll confess that when the trade edition was published a year later, I felt a little like I was cheating on the hardcover because I was besotted with the paperback. It felt luscious in my hand and fell open enticingly for reading—and then, too, it didn’t hurt that it had the marks of the hardcover’s success all over it, with pull-quotes from reviews and the words “The National Bestseller” banding the top.
What was the hardest lesson you've had to learn (or) What was one habit that you needed to break?
Even now I have to remind myself of these words from Alexander Pope: “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance.” I have to remind myself for two reasons. The first is that I can never trust what I’ve written if it seems to have rushed out too easily, too fluidly, if I know I haven’t really put in the work. On the other hand, though, I have to remind myself not to mistrust writing that spills out that way when I really have put in the work—in thinking, in sketching, in trying out possibilities and hitting dead ends. When I’ve done that, really done that, it’s not unusual for pages at a time to spill out faster than I can type—pages that then need very little revision. The tricky part comes in because it’s easy to deceive myself about which is the real ease, from art, and which is the prose equivalent of fool’s gold.
What makes you want to close a book and not even read past the first chapter?
Lies—any lies: in voice, character, situation, art.
By contrast, what makes you want to stay up and read "just one more chapter"?
There’s not a single, separable element that makes any book a book I can’t put down. The hardest thing about writing is to manage, masterfully, everything at once—breathing characters, stakes and motivation, perfectly-tuned sentences, freshness, the pulse of truth—and when that has all come together consistently from the first paragraph, I can’t stop reading.
Aside from writing, do you have any other talents/gifts?
Apparently I have some sort of mojo irresistible to cats.
If you could pick one writer/poet (alive or dead) you'd like to meet up with for coffee, who would it be?
Oh…George Bernard Shaw.
And what would you want to ask of him? Or hear him say?
I’d never be able to keep up with his mind, so I’d just ask anything to get him talking.
If you were ever stranded on a desert island, what three things (or books) would you hope you had with you?
I’d need cats—at least one cat. A notebook and a writing implement.
And lastly, some questions of my own:
Do you have a writing routine? If so, how does it go (e.g. do you have a target word or page count, maybe a favorite writing place or instrument)?
I have to shut off the noise—and keep it shut off continuously for days. That means no television, no radio, no music with lyrics (including instrumental versions of music with lyrics), no news in any form, no email, no telephone—and nobody else’s written words until I’m spent for the day, and only then if the story is at some great distance in time, space, and circumstance from whatever I’m working on. Poetry is safest.
Which of your characters is your favorite/least favorite?
That’s a question as impossible to answer as “Which of your pets do you love most?”
What's your writer fuel? (Coffee? Tea? Energy drinks? Water?)
Adequate sleep. And quiet.
Which book did you read and think, "I wish I'd written this"? (If any.)
That’s hard because, in order to have written someone else’s book—or even to wish it authentically—you have to wish you’d been the other person, and I don’t really wish that. I do, however, wish I could write one book as extraordinary as Middlemarch, or any piece with the power of James Joyce’s “The Dead” or any scenes with the intelligence, wit, truth, and perfect pitch of nearly any play by George Bernard Shaw.
What's one kinda-odd thing you do that helps with the writing? (Like, I use washable markers on my apartment walls...great for plotting and character notes and all kinds of other stuff.)
When I get badly stuck, I always go back to writing in longhand. And when I’m really, really stuck, I write pages and pages of what if in longhand.
You get to offer fledgling writers ONE piece of advice. What is it?
Don’t be so obsessed with publication. Take your time. Learn your craft. Don’t offer anything for publication until you’re as sure as you can possibly be at the time that you can’t make it any better than it is. And then, still, wait six months or a year to be sure you really can’t make it better. I think this has always been a problem for writers—wanting to rush toward publication, but it’s worse now since self-publishing has made it so easy to put out anything at the moment one feels the urge. It’s nice in the moment to say, “This is published,” but it’s much nicer ten, twenty, thirty years down the road to be able to look at the first work you published and find that, even as a much more experienced writer and reader, you still admire it and are proud of it. At some point we all regret and are embarrassed by things we’ve done or said—things we’ve written in emails or posted on Facebook—but that doesn’t have to be true of our writing. We can hold onto that long enough to be sure we’ll be proud to own it for all time.
Thanks Nancy! -CD
For more about Nancy, visit NancyJensen.org
Published on June 30, 2014