Issue_27  July 2018

“Follow the meander of your own mind.” — Beth Kephart

“The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head,” Patricia Hampl writes in her Montaigne-infused The Art of the Wasted Day. “Personal essayists are adept at interrogating their own ignorance,” Phillip Lopate has said. Annie Dillard defines the essay this way: “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” 

And then there’s Leslie Jamison: “An essay doesn’t simply transcribe the world, it finds the world. It makes the world. It remakes the world. It puts a boom box right on the floor and starts playing.”

No pressure.

As my Juncture family knows, I walked away from many things a few months ago. I walked toward, and into, time. I’d worked since I was a teen. I worked hours after my son was born. I’ve worked Thanksgiving mornings and Christmas days. And as fervently as I do believe that our work shapes us, teaches us, finally makes us more capacious writers, I had run out of working steam.

In the hours of now I am greedy for the essay. Greedy to read it. Greedy to write it. Greedy to follow the meander of my own mind so that I might better know myself, which is not the narcissistic impulse you might assume it is. We know ourselves, we strengthen ourselves so that we have more to give to our world.

I’ve written about my father. I’ve written about my husband. I’ve written about a life
spent ghosting for others. I have added to my essay collections and pulled old favorites to the floor. I’ve designed an essay class, and I’ve been in conversation with essayists.

A few weeks ago I did something that my former life of deadline-stamped work would not have permitted—spent time on the Rosemont College campus with writers who had gathered for a retreat knit together by Carla Spataro. Some were already my friends, and I was so very glad to see them. Some were new to me, and I was grateful for the conversations, however quick. 

Jillian Sullivan, a New Zealander who writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages—and who built herself a straw-bale house—was among that cherished group. After she had gone on to her next stint—a holiday in the Catskills followed by teaching at the Highlights Foundation—she graciously engaged in an email conversation about an essay that she’d written called “
Building a straw-bale house—and a new life—among Central Otago’s hills.” I loved the essay and wanted to know more about its construction. Our conversation on its making follows.

Jillian’s books are mostly sold in New Zealand, but
A Guide to Creating: A Book of Soul Wisdom is available right now, via Amazon.

A conversation with Jillian Sullivan

What is an essay?

You have a subject you care about, you write about it in such a way you evoke it for the reader as if they were there with you, and you reflect on it. You ask questions of yourself—what is the meaning I bring to this? How does this affect all of us? It’s a topic you care about enough to learn something new. To weave into your narrative and your reflections this opening out of knowledge. An essay, then, is a gift to the reader of knowledge and illumination. If it’s doing its work well, it will engender compassion. 

You begin with a late autumn and a "once again" and a need for firewood that was gathered in summer—and a hearkening of the winter to come. Nearly all of the seasons, there in a single paragraph, and yet we move easily with you as the seasons blend. Was this always how and where your essay began?

I began writing without a beginning—or several beginnings, not settling, but getting things down, writing my way towards what I wanted to capture and discover. A lot of it wasn’t good enough to include. I knew that because I was bored writing it, and I said to myself it’s all right, just keep going. When I got lost I came back to my list of intentions.

I had random paragraphs, which I was at first worried about. I decided they would be my structure—like building a house of straw bales—one then another then another, and they would all tie in. But how? What would be the overarching structure that would hold it? I decided that place and weather, the sense of land and sky, was bigger than my own story, and would hold my story within it.

The intentions I set at the beginning: word count, structure, topic, what I hoped to discover, what I wanted to evoke for the reader, what I wanted to give to the reader. A mixture of grand ideas and specifics. Writing an intention at the beginning is like having a recipe to guide me.

“My intention is to write a 2000-word essay for North and South magazine that will inspire and encourage people who read it. It will be honest, evocative, and place people in the landscape here. I want to use clear writing that pushes past situation to mean something to the reader.

"I would like to explore in the essay life and climate in a small village of extreme temperatures, sustainable building, people helping each other build a home. The times in life when we must become a reluctant hero, when our previous way of life is over and we must make another life. I want to place poems in the text, juxtaposed with prose, reflecting and building on the prose, offering readers another way into the experience of life here, and of finding a home.”

You set Kingsolver, Vitruvius, and Joseph Campbell down alongside place names like Ida Burn and Hawkdun Mountain—and by not trying to explain who or what these are you seem to say, to your reader, I trust you to follow, I know you understand. You achieve intimacy, in other words. Was that a deliberate strategy? A plan?

Not so much a plan but that the essay grew organically, and I followed the words. I didn’t set out with a list of people’s quotes to include. And the one from Talbot Mundy was completely random. I picked up the book and opened it at that quote, then later reflected on it. It introduced what I had wanted to say about the joy of building and hadn’t yet found a way. When I’m stuck, or frustrated with being in my own head, I’ll open a book by a writer I admire, poetry, or non-fiction, and see where that leads me. It can help bring out what I wanted to say, or discover, all along. I believe our subconscious mind does a much better job of writing than our conscious mind. As long as we’re writing on what we deeply care about. The passion is the fuse.

You are the voice of the essay but you are a one among a many—grandmothers, grandchildren, locals, the curious, lost friends. You've written community straight into your work. You've modeled it. Why is writing always better when it is never just about one? Or is it? 

I knew most of the magazine’s target audience was urban and would not consider building a strawbale house. If I just wrote about myself doing something difficult that would be off-putting, and create a barrier between my work and the reader. I wanted to write in such a way I took the readers with me, made them feel they were capable of whatever they wanted to do as well. There has to be a gift in there for the reader. For this essay I hoped that would be courage. And I wanted to include wisdom from others I’d come across. Each quote another light on the path.

Photos. Poems. Narrative. A fearlessly seamless composition. What makes the essay form so accommodating? How does that accommodation both liberate and overwhelm?

The essay form is accommodating because it needs to be. The essay needs to be opened out, to give the writer chances to come away from their own self into the wider world. Different genres and voices give the writer those chances, and to the reader other ways of looking at the subject or theme. I don’t find it overwhelming. No more than all writing is overwhelming when it hasn’t come together. I think of the essay as closer to poetry, and laying different stanzas alongside each other, finding the most useful form.

You begin with late autumn. You end with snow—and the becoming of something other. How did you manage the alchemy of your images—or did you work to make sure that you never overmanaged—that you were as surprised as the reader?

The ending wasn’t planned. It was one of those times writing when I was so deep in the process leading up to the end that it evolved in a way that felt right. I had realized during the writing one of the themes of the essay was transformation. I looked back to see how elements fitted into this, and of course with the weather here, the land is continually transforming.

The process of writing the essay took a month. I started out with an intention and trusted in the process, that if I did the work and kept writing for the reader then what was needed to be in the essay would become clear. Intuition, trust, research. When I stayed writing on the edge of the unknown, it kept me surprised. And that’s a lot more interesting for a writer, and through that, for the reader.

A Memoir Writing Contest
Walls, sadly, are all around us. If you’ve been thinking about walls, if you’ve been writing about them—the metaphoric kinds, the physical ones—please consider entering our first memoir contest. The contest now closes on September 17, 2018. There are monetary prizes. There will be a book. All the details are here:  Click here for details. 

Chanticleer Garden Workshop
On September 22 at Chanticleer Garden, in Wayne, PA, we’ll be conducting a one-day workshop. Registration will be limited to fifteen. More information is here. Click here for more information.  

ROOTS 2018
Fall Frenchtown Workshop
Between October 14 and 19, we’ll be returning to Frenchtown, NJ, for a workshop we call "Roots." Click here for more information.  

In upcoming issues of Juncture Notes, you’ll hear from Nicole Chung whose debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, is full of happy pre-pub buzz. I’ve known Nicole for many years now; we met when she was working on this very book during her Master's degree program at Johns Hopkins. Today she’s a beloved essayist and critic and the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine, and some of the biggest literary stars—Alexander Chee, Celeste Ng, Rainbow Rowell—are eager to have you read her memoir; so am I. Later, in the fall, we’ll be featuring Jacinda Barrett, another writer with whom I’ve had the great pleasure of long literary conversations. You might know Jacinda as one of the stars of that all-consuming Netflix Original, Bloodline, or as the commanding actress in The Human Stain, or as a gorgeous Instagram photographer/writer. But I know Jacinda first and foremost as a writer of sustaining interest, as a reader who asks brilliant questions, as an Australian whose telephone voice I will always recognize at once, and as a sender of spectacular literary links. We’ll be featuring some of Jacinda’s work here and then talking about how it got made.
JUNCTURE NOTES is a labor of love. If you find this content helpful, please consider donating through PayPal to help us continue to offer the kind of in-depth reading, interviewing, and reporting that has come to define us.

Photography by William Sulit, Juncture partner

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 22 books, including six memoirs and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, the 2013 winner of a Books for a Better Life Award. A frequent speaker, panelist, and workshop leader, Beth also teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, where she won the 2015/16 Beltran Family Teaching Award. Wild Blues, a novel built out of some of the stuff of Beth's life, has just been released.

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