Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Author. Teacher. Overall cool person...
“How can we tell if our writing is crap?” That was the question I posed to Jennifer during her inspiring writing workshop: Examining the Middle Grade and Young Adult Novel in Progress. She laughed – well, guffawed really – and then said that all writers write crap. That books come out of revising our initial drafts. “I can,” she later admitted, “probably identify six to eight drafts for each story.”
This hard-working writer and teacher resides in Cumberland, Maine, with her husband, Don O’Grady. Together they have a Brady-Bunch-style family of four young adults.
What were you like as a kid?
I was the oldest in my neighborhood, so was a bit of a bandleader – always leading kids in games of some sort. I organized circuses and dance recitals. (Never having had a dance lesson, I made everything up.) At school, I was awkward (not a cool bone in my body) and often a loner. In all situations, my imagination saved me.
As a child, what did you imagine yourself becoming?
A teacher. There was never any question.
How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been teaching all my adult life. I’ve gone from teaching very young children to teaching teachers how to teach writing (say that three times fast). I’m lucky to visit classrooms and work with students of all ages regularly.
What's your favorite teaching moment?
When students, who believe they are not capable writers, discover they can compose written messages the world wants to hear.
You've taught children and now teach adults. What's the biggest difference?
There’s very little difference. I sometimes have to remind myself that adults need the same things to learn well: opportunities to reflect, to practice, to be reminded of what they’re doing well. The mistake most teachers make (myself included) is talking too much.
You combine teaching and writing and you say one enhances the other. How so?
When I write and make new discoveries, I share those insights with my students. When I work with students, I’m constantly reminded of human nature, insights that help me with characterization.
Which book of yours did you enjoy writing the most?
Working on my newest book, Paper Things, feels more like play than work. It's a story about eleven-year-old Ari who accompanies her older brother when he ages out of foster care. I would happily go on writing this book forever.
Is there a publish date for ‘Paper Things’?
The spring of 2014 from Candlewick.
Which book of yours is your favorite?
I love Small as an Elephant. I grew most as a writer while working on this novel.
Because my editor requested so much more in the way of setting with Small as an Elephant, I grew in my understanding of the importance of physical detail and how it can effectively portray emotion. Formerly, I believed that details came solely from an author's imagination, but with this book I learned to get out into the world and observe more.
What is your biggest writing challenge?
My biggest challenge is creating characters who emote. I grew up in a Yankee family where one didn’t show emotions. It took me a long time to learn to how to process feelings quietly and on my own, and now I need to learn how to let my characters' lives be messier.
What is your biggest writing joy?
My biggest joy is when I tap into a vein of truth. I know that it’s good news when I’m crying as I write.
During the workshop you mentioned that your childhood was bleak, but that you rarely pull from those experiences for your writing. Why not?
I should have said this better. Actually, I do pull from my childhood all the time, just not in a literal way. For example, I was never physically abandoned by my family, but I experienced the sense of isolation that Jack (Small as an Elephant) feels when he’s trying to make his way alone.
My early family life was filled with contradictions; there were joyful moments imbedded in that unpredictable, chaotic, often lonely time. I’m afraid that I’m not yet a strong enough writer (or person) to convey the balance of love and dysfunction that existed in my home.
I believe that in any hardship endured, there is something positive that comes from the experience. Do you think that's true?
Absolutely. I escaped difficult times by creating stories: stories with my dollhouse, stories with paper dolls, written stories, and even by recreating an entirely different family/social life when I went off to summer camp. I didn’t realize it until recently, but stories—the ability to imagine other possibilities -- has always sustained me.
Do you have any advice for teachers?
When it comes to writing, always respond to the message before the conventions. We write to be heard.
Point out what students are doing well – like anything, we learn to write better when we feel partially successful.
Do you have any advice for writers?
As you write, ask yourself, “Is it true yet? Is it true?”
Any 2013 resolutions?
To take more writing risks –that is, to ignore my highly opinionated internal editor – especially on first drafts.