Interim nonfiction co-editor Steve Lausier recently had this exchange with Issue #49 featured nonfiction author Jessica Watson. Here’s what Jessica had to say about the value of participating in an MFA program, how music influences her writing, her literary influences, and more.
You play with a rhythm of intensity that feels like it’s quickening as we read along, and as each section reaches its conclusion. Did that rhythm appear in your early drafts, or was it applied later on?
Rhythm is important to me as a writer overall. I get a lot of enjoyment out of the rhythmic component of language. At times my writing is guided pretty strongly by rhythm. There were a few sections that developed in a musical way, like song lyrics popping into my head. The komorebi/light through the trees section was one of those. I also listened to taiko drumming on weeks that I worked on the piece. I hoped that the music would seep into the writing, and it helped me remember things. The quickening of the pace was something that evolved over time though.
In the early drafts, there were many elements that weren’t working, which slowed things down for readers. Some of what wasn’t working stemmed from the fact that I was deeply uncomfortable writing about personal details of my life. I made some convoluted choices in an effort to mask the personal. At times I would switch to a second-person point of view and it didn’t work with the distance already built into the form and diction. There were distracting, peripheral details about some of the group dynamics and other instruments we used. And I wasn’t explicit enough to allow readers to understand the core underlying narrative.
I wouldn’t say that the “quickening” was intentionally applied, but as I revised, readers commented that it read pretty quickly. I had an awareness that the last section (“Ma”) especially read fast because the paragraphs were shorter and the piece ends with a poem that has short lines. But I also think it sped things up for readers when I started to drop my inhibitions, and rewrote or cut sections.
In the final paragraph of the Kata section, you talk about how you couldn’t write the essay in a conventional form because it “bled beyond the edges” and you “needed an outline to hold its shape.” At what point did you decide the outline was in fact the final form the story was meant to take? And at what point in the process did you decide to add this passage?
The outline was there from the beginning. I made one attempt to write the essay in a conventional form and couldn’t do it. It was kind of defeating. At the same time, I had been recently introduced to hermit crab essays. I envisioned the essay as being organized by taiko elements, so it started as a list. The two narratives of taiko and mental health were wound around each other in my mind, so the list morphed into an outline as I followed my train of thought. The outline became a tool for me to show how thoughts were nested within thoughts.
The second draft of the essay was workshopped in my first full class workshop, in my first nonfiction class, which also happened to be in the MFA program. It had mixed reviews. I was very discouraged and had no idea how to move forward. The professor of the class was Ira Sukrungruang. We met to discuss the essay following that workshop. He was really encouraging and one of his comments was that I needed to directly address why I chose to use an outline. His feedback helped me begin to understand the importance of having a reflective voice, and showing the writer at the desk. During this class we learned that he was leaving to teach at Kenyon College. It was a great opportunity for him, but a missed opportunity for myself. There’s a lot I could have learned from him.
During this class (and since), I’ve been introduced to many alternative approaches to writing essays in addition to the hermit crab, from Jenny Boully’s The Body, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Micrograms by Nicole Walker and T. Fleishmann’s Syzygy, Beauty. Lately, I’ve been thinking about finding a way to take the essay out of the outline and turn it into something book length, a short book though, about 80 pages. I could be wrong, but I think the outline is still problematic for some people; it’s never my intention to alienate readers though.
How long did this piece take to finish? Approximately how many drafts did it go through?
Nine months and about five drafts.
You talk about how you were drawn to playing taiko by the discipline and harmony and coordination required by the drummers. What kept you at it for six years? How did playing for Fushu Daiko affect the rest of your life?
Taiko was a large part of my identity during this time. I was working towards becoming an ecologist when I discovered taiko, and chose a grad program that would allow me to stay in Miami so I could continue to play taiko. I got a lot of enjoyment out of connecting with others through music. I laugh at myself now, but at one point it gave me so much happiness that I prayed that I could find a way to make a living playing taiko. Like most of the arts and humanities, taiko groups don’t have enough funding.
Shortly after I left Fushu Daiko, I met the person who would become my husband. We connected through music and drumming. He’s a pretty amazing drummer, but he plays drum set. Our second date was a drum lesson. I roped him into going to a taiko conference one year, and we laugh to this day about him taking an “Advanced Movement for Taiko” workshop. At one point, we were all rolling around on the floor, and my husband joked afterwards that he thought about rolling right on out the room. It was a bit beyond his comfort level.
That workshop was with Young Park of RAW Taiko (Raging Asian Women). She’s amazing. We also took a polyrhythm workshop with Kenny Endo, who’s also amazing. My husband loved that workshop because he’s spent some time learning polyrhythms on drum set. Taiko is such a force for good and empowerment in women, especially. If taiko entered my life again, with the right group, it would bring me happiness. I’ll always have drumming though.
Writing about loss this deeply personal can be powerful but fraught. Did including taiko help you strike a balance between raw feeling and disciplined control?
Yes, absolutely. As the essay was initially conceived, I saw taiko and suicide/depression as opposing forces. Taiko means community and belonging. It gets you in touch with your chi or life force, a concept that’s important in Chinese medicine. The artistic director of Fushu Daiko also practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine, so that likely influenced the group’s approach to taiko.
Not only were the taiko and depression narratives intertwined in my own life, but writing about taiko also took the heat off the more personal parts. Discipline is essential to playing taiko – standing a certain way, holding your bachi a certain way, not talking in the dojo, showing deference to senior members, humility – and that balances well with raw feeling.
Are there any tips you’d like to give to other authors considering writing about their own personal loss?
Balance the personal loss with something you love. Since this essay, I’ve started another essay related to an early childhood trauma. I didn’t want it to be a sad slog though. Not that I don’t think you can find value, meaning and even hope in sadness, not at all, but I didn’t want to enter that psychic space of despair through the act of writing. Once again, the way forward was through music, specifically how much my Dad’s piano playing empowered me and connected us growing up. I listened to the songs he would play for me as I developed the essay. Because of this, I look forward to working on it.
Were there any other specific works or writers that inspired you as you worked through this piece?
The main thing that inspired me while working on this piece was taiko. I watched videos of taiko groups and listened to taiko drumming during my commutes between Orlando and Tampa to attend grad classes. Since writing this, I’ve been introduced to so many nonfiction writers who experiment with form. It’s quite possible if I was starting this essay now, I may have found another solution to the form than the outline.
Prior to your MFA, your formal education was largely based in the sciences. Where/when did writing come into your life? What can you tell us about your writing prior to pursuing your MFA?
Writing was there before the sciences, but they also overlap. My original plan in the MFA program was to write a nature book.
Out of high school, I considered going to college for creative writing. I won the CT state students’ playwright competition two years in a row. Winners got to see their plays cast and directed by folks affiliated with Oddfellows Playhouse, then have their plays performed at Wesleyan. This was one of the factors that led to a small scholarship offer at Emerson for creative writing. At the time though, I didn’t think I had anything worth writing about. In retrospect, I didn’t have the emotional maturity or confidence to write.
Writers have had a huge influence on my life though. After reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I was inspired to get a degree in Ecology. The plan was to teach biology by day and be a nature writer at night, but I found that I loved fieldwork and many aspects of research. The pursuit of a research career was all-consuming, and during that time I mostly read nonfiction books about ecology, oceanography and wildlife. Rachel Carson’s writing like The Sea Around Us, her whole sea series, along with Edwin Way Teale, Barry Lopez, and Terry Tempest Williams, were all influential in my decision to pursue undergrad, then grad studies in ecology.
I didn’t entirely recognize that it was creative writing and being immersed in nature that inspired me and drew me to that field, more so than research. I loved learning from ecologists though; the ecology classroom was my happy place. I wouldn’t have pursued it for so long if I didn’t love most things about it.
I should mention that in general, research in the hard sciences bears little resemblance to research in the humanities. I say this because sometimes the assumption is that research is research, but the research we do for creative writing, or a rhetoric and lit class for that matter, takes a completely different form than what we do in the sciences. In the hard sciences, you generally collect data that’s quantitative. You often require expensive equipment to either collect or analyze that data. You need to do field or lab work, to go to a specific location at a specific time, as by boat in the case of marine science, or scuba diving or climbing the tree canopies of a Costa Rican rainforest. Because of these factors, it’s expensive research. You uncover patterns in nature by manipulation of that data with mathematical operations and statistical programs. Creative writing is similarly exciting, because you can also uncover patterns through the discovery that occurs while writing and doing research.
How do you feel your MFA candidacy augmented your writing? What are some of the most useful tools it’s provided for you to use in your work?
I’ve begun to recognize that in order for me to write consistently, I need a certain amount of peace of mind. Many of my career choices have been unintentionally stressful ones – ecology research, public school biology teacher in Broward County, ICU nurse. Attending the MFA program took some of the stressors away that prevented me from writing.
One of the most valuable resources the MFA program has given me is an audience and writing community. MFA programs also allow for full immersion in the study of craft, which accelerates learning. In my case, being new to English department culture, I’m surrounded by people who can offer a lot of insight. I’m taking classes with really brilliant writers and grad students.
I’ve also taken my first poetry and nonfiction classes in the MFA program. I’ve only personally known a few writers in my life, and I’ve never had a writing community or mentors before. I knew nothing about literary journals because I’d had no exposure to them. I suppose eventually I might have stumbled across those resources on the web, but it would have still been myself teaching myself, myself workshopping myself.
Having a writing community and writing mentor is a game changer. It can give you a voice. By that I mean, you’re no longer invisible. There’s someone listening on the other end. Finding people that believe in your writing is life changing. Julia Koets joined our faculty this year and she’s been incredibly supportive. I also took an Illness Narratives class with Rita Ciresi and she’s encouraged me to write more about being a nurse. It’s a subject I’ve been working on finding a way into that’s relatable and palatable to readers.
Developing a sense of audience is also huge. MFA programs are a microcosm of the literary world. You won’t get every perspective on your writing, but you will get a subset. Based on feedback, you learn what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes you get conflicting feedback, and in that case you go with the people you trust most, or you trust your gut.
Who are some of your favorite writers to read for pleasure? How about for craft?
If I’m reading for pleasure, I often go back to nature writing. I recently read Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Chldhood, Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, and one of my all-time favorites, Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk.
I’ve also been enjoying reading poetry. You can read a single poem and let it sit with you while you do other things, or you can read the entire book in one sitting. Chelsea Dingman, Taneum Bambrick, Louise Gluck and Ellen Bryan Voigt are a few poets I’ve been into recently.
There are so many women writing about mental health in inspiring and empowering ways. I loved Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and I’m currently loving I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi.
As for craft, I think you can read anything and get something out of it from a craft perspective.
Any pieces you’re working on currently that you feel particularly excited about?
Yes! I’m excited about the essay about my Dad’s piano playing. It’s about childhood trauma and music as a conduit for joy. I’m also working on an essay about nurses’ bodies and patient bodies, and the intimacy between the two that occurs in caregiving. I’m basing that essay off my experience working as a bedside nurse in a multisystem intensive care unit. Mental health issues are a big theme in my writing lately, especially as they’re stigmatized in the field of health care.