Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Inquiry VIII: Jessica Dainty Johns

Today I am very excited to introduce my cousin and fellow writer, Jessica Dainty Johns.

Jessica holds an MFA in Creative Writing in the genre of fiction from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has worked with such acclaimed authors as Hester Kaplan, Rachel Kadish, and AJ Verdelle. She was a 2005 winner of the Margaret Woodruff Award for creative writing and has had fiction published online at Fiction Weekly. Jessica has taught at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and is currently teaching an interdisciplinary course entitled Adaptation from Between the Lines for Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. She is co-founder of the Kinship Writers Association. She lives, works, and writes in the greater Boston area.

EEM: Did you always want to be a writer? If no, what was your initial dream and what led you to writing later?

JDJ: I went through the standard teacher veterinarian astronaut spoutings, but I’ve always written stories. I recently went through my saved papers from grade school and reread the stories I wrote in first grade, second grade, etc. I could recognize my love for words even then, though most of them were misspelled and sloppy. I can remember getting in trouble in fourth grade for making an in-class assignment to write a story about a pumpkin too long. So although I may not have realized it, or maybe my practical side was fighting it even then, but I’d say, yes, I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

EEM: As a pre-published writer, what are some of the jobs that you do to help sustain your writing passion?

JDJ: I’ve worked in bookstores, classrooms, at swimming pools. Now, I’m lucky enough to have a supportive job that also allows me windows of time to focus on my own work. I nanny full-time, and I have been with the family for almost 3 years now. They do everything they can to work with my schedule, to allow me time to write, and to pursue teaching and writing jobs outside of their employment. I am really very lucky. I’ve also designed some courses, one on adaptation which I teach through Lesley University’s MFA for creative writing’s interdisciplinary courses. Another, on imagery, I’ve lectured at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and am currently shopping around in a modified version to other writing programs in the Boston area.
The greatest thing I’ve done is start The Kinship Writers Association with my cousin [you]. Running workshops, being in contact with agents and editors, and reading other writers’ works really helps to keep me motivated and inspired, as well as gives me no choice but to network and build my professional side of being a writer.

EEM: Which job was the most challenging or strange to you?

JDJ: The most challenging job I’ve had was working in a K-4 Behavioral and Developmental classroom. I was meant to be an assistant but because of disorganization and under staffing, I wound up being the primary kindergarten and first grade teacher, making lesson plans, designing and enforcing disciplinary structure. I found myself disagreeing with the policies the classroom often practiced when dealing with the children, but had to follow them as part of my job. It has been one of the only times in my life where I went home not liking myself on a continual basis. The children were wonderful, though, and had so many levels to them. Watching them, and the parents, and the teachers – it was like a goldmine of characters to feed the imagination, and though I haven’t used any of them yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if they show up in suggestion at some point down the road.

EEM: How did you come across this job? Actively seeking or by chance?

JDJ: I had moved home to save money after getting engaged and my mother, who has worked as a teacher for over three decades, helped me get the job. I’m not sure I could have quit anyway, as I would not have wanted to leave the classroom and children even more unprepared, but it was definitely not an option when my mother endorsed me for the position. So I was actively seeking, but not for that particular job.

EEM: What was your favorite thing about this job?

JDJ: The children and the moments when you could see them as just kids. We had children who were severely emotional disturbed, children with OCD, children who had been molested, but they were still kids. And it was great to be a part of the days where I could let them feel that way, when the policies and discipline regulations of the classroom didn’t interfere.

EEM: Least Favorite?

JDJ: The way issues were handled. They used professional crisis management (PCM), which I didn’t agree with, where the children were often physically constrained until they calmed down. The teachers were always yelling. There seemed to be no consistent positive reinforcement or reward-based discipline. It was very difficult to watch let alone be a part of.

EEM: Do your day job(s) allow you to write regularly? Or did you have to get creative to get those word counts in?

JDJ: The time is there now, at least during the school year when the kids are gone for part of the day. My use of it has gotten better and better, but as with inspiration, it comes and goes. I have large breaks on Mondays and Wednesdays when both the children are at school, and, after working out (another big part of my day), I head to the bookstore with my computer and stay there for at least two hours, though I often stay much longer. Sometimes I get ten pages, sometimes I get none. I am working on not letting myself get distracted and to only open Word on my computer (you know how that pesky internet can be) unless I need to research information for a story.

EEM: What other effects does it have on your writing?

JDJ: As I said, I am incredibly lucky to have the freedom my job affords me, but I get more and more career-ancy as the years go by. As much as I want to be published and own the title “author,” I also want to teach. I have been researching schools to pursue a Ph.D. and, in such cases, my job is a positive inspiration to motivate me forward with those separate but writing/English-related dreams.

EEM: Any fun stories from the job(s) that inspires your stories?

I have taught swim lessons for years and have been a swimmer since I was little. I am working on a novel right now that loosely involves swimming but relies on a recurring dream of breathing underwater that I have had since I was a kid. This novel also focuses on a protagonist with OCD and while I suffered severely from this during my childhood and teenage years, I will probably also draw on some instances from my work in the behavior classroom.

EEM: Have you ever based a loved protagonist or an evil villain on one of your co-workers? Wished you had?

JDJ: I haven’t but there are aspects of personality of some people that I would love to build a character around. I’ve worked with people twenty/thirty years older than I in a job I viewed as a part-time/transition job. And they were pompous and condescending and it makes me wonder why they are still there, what else they wish they could be doing. I find most of my characters are often searching for something outside of their present condition, whether it be consciously or unconsciously. I often take an abstract and try to shape it in to something concrete in a story, and that abstract may be just a suggestion or assumption on my end that my mind runs with. I am sure bits and pieces of past co-workers are all over my stories, even if I didn’t mean for them to be!

EEM: Walking toward this goal to be a writer, what is some of the hardest things you have faced?

JDJ: Keeping yourself motivated can be challenging, especially as a fiction writer who primarily writes short stories. I remember going to my first publishing panel while a student in my MFA program and having one of the panelists say something along the lines of “Memoir writers? Good for you, you’re writing at the right time. Fiction writers? Get used to it now, you probably won’t ever get published.” The waiting game is difficult. Submitting to literary magazines and journals, even when you send twenty or thirty stories out at a time, you wait 3-6 months to hear back, and if they’re all rejections, you have to start all over again. First time novelists have a better shot I think, as unpublished writers. But if I want to publish a collection, I feel there is an expectation to prove your worth beforehand. I have a story published online, and while there are many reputable online journals, I still feel the hierarchy of print v. virtual is very much present in the literary world. So though I have a collection sitting on my computer, I’m waiting until I can write in my query, “My works have appeared in X, Y, and Z.”

EEM: Is it easy to keep the inspiration going?

JDJ: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Inspiration for a story often comes to me in a single image or in a sentence or phrase. When starting a new story, I can sometimes write straight through and knock out a story in one sitting. In between those lightning bolt moments, though, when I’m just knit-picking at stories in need of revision, I can get a bit more down-hearted. However, I am now comfortable with wanting this bad enough to deal with all the waiting, all the bad drafts, all the rejections. Some days are harder than others, but I will always be a writer.

EEM: Would you change anything if you could begin your writing journey over again?

JDJ: I’m not sure I would. I started college thinking I’d go the practical route. Become a dentist so I could make enough money to write because writing is what I really wanted to do. And even though I spent my first 3 semesters of college borderline depressed before I sucked it up and admitted to myself I wouldn’t be happy unless I just did English, I still can’t regret it. Even for the simple reason that I got all my sciences and maths out of the way in my freshman year and for the next 2 years of college, I took only what I wanted to take. But I also think it showed me how important this is to me. That I couldn’t commit my life to something I didn’t love. Even now, when my job is not what I want to be doing for my life’s work, I am happy because it allows me the freedom to work toward my ultimate goal, and it does not directly conflict with what I love to do. Oh and maybe I would have told my 4th grade teacher to shut it, “I’m a writer.”
We’ll check back with you in one year and see how different your answers are! I am interested in this evolution!


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