Stories of Persistence: Interview with Jessica Barksdale

JordanInterviews, Profiles

JB018a1. How did you develop a writing practice over the years?

Mostly, writing has always made me feel more human. Once I realized this, I decided that not only did I prefer to be sane but I would have a nice product afterward. Poems, stories, novels. Writing every day brings contentment and something to work on.

2. Name 1-2 memorable risks you’ve taken over the years that felt scary but ultimately paid off in your writing practice or career.

Changing genre (from literary writing to genre writing) was scary, as there are some pretty rude assumptions out there about romance writers. But it paid off monetarily as well as in terms of craft. I learned a great deal about plot. Romance novels have to have plot! I also was introduced to a whole new readership.

About three years ago, I decided to go back for my MFA. I’d published twelve novels by then, but I was feeling stuck. Things got unstuck during my years there. I started writing literary short fiction again. I also finally stopped trying to write what I thought other people wanted me to. That was scary because I’d been well-paid for the stuff that other people wanted me to write. There isn’t a lot of dough in short stories. But I love writing them (going back to question one. Feeling good is important!).

3. What are your go-to habits for revising a work?

I miss so many messes while reading my work on the computer. So I make sure to print out (after revising a bit) the entire manuscript and then write on the hard copy. I read it in a new way when I do that. Also, I try to put things away for a bit in order to let them rest. Then when I pick them up again, my eyes are opened even more.

4. Do you seek feedback from others? Who?

I’ve been in the same writing group since 1994. We’ve had some changes, but they have been reading all my work (and all types and genres) for these long years. I have two dear friends whom I met at writing workshops that read everything as well. Sometimes, too, I do swaps with other writer friends. But I’ve been lucky with my readers.

5. How do you handle constructive critique of your work? (Get straight to work—or take time to digest? Curse the person who delivered it

I try to dive right in. I don’t want to lose the momentum. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m in a panic about it. So I will make changes and then go back to what I did later to make sure I wasn’t just messing it all up. But if I let things cool, I usually don’t go in. Sometimes, though, that feeling of not going in says something. I just received feedback on a story I pretty much knew was a goner. I liked the idea so much, but there is no way now–after the last reader chimed in–that it can be saved. I will bury it with honors and move on.

6. How do you handle personal criticism? (Do you curl up in a fetal ball? Get mad? Call a friend and weep? Ignore it?)

I feel sad. Sometimes, for about three hours, I want to stop this damn madness. And then I get back to work. I’ve cried a couple of times, but not in years. If I am not connecting with readers, then I really can only blame myself. If I want to connect with them, I have to revise.

7. What is the root of your writing practice, in other words: why do you write? What keeps you coming back to it?

It’s just so much fun. Really. I sit here and make up stuff and people want to read it. Really, it’s adult make-believe.

8. What has helped you persist the most through the challenges of a writing life (can be more than one answer)? Who has?

Something inside me wants to tell stories and present ideas. I have no idea where that comes from. So I keep trying to do it. I would likely be sitting here typing away even if no one ever published a thing. Maybe that seems a little sad, but for me, it’s how I want to spend my creative time.

9. What are you most proud of about your writing practice?

That 98 % of the time, I carry things through to the end. Maybe not the sad story I will soon bury, but mostly.

10. What would you not change at all about your writing practice? What would you change immediately if you knew how or had the means?

I would like to not have to receive editing letters to fix things. I would like to work and work and go to writing group and get feedback, but then I would want my editor to say, “Honey, that’s the best thing I’ve read in a month of Sundays. Don’t change a word!”

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Jessica Barksdale is the author of thirteen traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, How to Bake a Man, was published October 2014 by Ghostwoods Books. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at: www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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JordanStories of Persistence: Interview with Jessica Barksdale