A Conversation with Andrea Jarrell
Andrea Jarrell is a Los Angeles native who now lives in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. She holds a bachelor of arts in British and American Literature from Scripps College and an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. She graduated from the New York University Publishing Program, is an alumna of the Hedgebrook writers’ colony, and a recipient of the Martin Dibner Writing Fellowship. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Full Grown People, Brain, Child Magazine, Literary Mama, and several other publications. Her debut memoir, I'm the one who got away, explores themes of love, pain, survival, betrayal, forgiveness, and courage. Literary Mama blog editor, Rudri Bhatt Patel, corresponded via email with Jarrell about her memoir, yoga, writing, and her “continuous practice” philosophy.
Rudri Bhatt Patel: I'm the one who got away took vulnerability, courage, and the willingness to share truth on the page. Can you tell us where you found the moxie to write about difficult things?
Andrea Jarrell: For me, memoir is about trying to write deeply about the human experience through the lens of one’s personal experience. In literature, we know that the most compelling characters are not perfect, and they’re not always right. In memoir, the narrator is at least one of the main characters, so we have to be willing to reveal our humanness and be vulnerable. I think it’s important that all the raw emotion and experience of the particular story you’re telling has been processed personally before you start writing. That isn’t to say you don’t learn new things about your experience as you write, but memoir—at least to me—is not recovery, therapy, a diary, etc. I’m trying to translate my personal experience through craft into art, so I have to set aside my personal vulnerability.
RBP: Your memoir is organized in three parts. The last section is the shortest. Is the organization of your work intentional, and is it a broader comment of your identity as a child, girl, and woman?
AJ: Absolutely, yes to both questions. The book spans fifty years—basically, my life time. One of the aha moment I had that I didn’t really see at the outset was that my adult perspective in the book would not be static. So, even though the book begins when I’m an adult—that early adult perspective is still more naïve than the one at the end. Controlling the narrator’s vantage point when covering such a long period of time and not telling the story purely chronologically took some thinking about. One reviewer said, “Jarrell has composed a collage of the people she used to be, to create a portrait of the woman she is . . .” I think that is really accurate.
RBP: What is the most important aspect about being a mother and a writer for you?
AJ: Wow, that’s a big question. I think my answer has shifted over time and may continue to shift. First, I believe being a mother may have been the best thing for my writing life. I have always been a writer and always wanted to write books. But I sabotaged myself in many ways until my children were born. When my son and daughter were very small—under two—I felt an urgent drive to get on with it. To dive more deeply into my writing at last and not shy away from my strong desire to tell stories and keep getting better at doing it. Motherhood put me even more in touch with my sensory experience, with ordinary mysteries all around us, and it gave me a foil for my experience as an only child growing up in a very close relationship with my mother. Seeing my own children grow gave me new insight into what was both normal and different—which as an only child I really had no way of knowing.
RBP: You chronicle your “continuous practice” in your social media feeds. What does that mean in your writing, life, and work?
AJ: Continuous practice for me is akin to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” described in The Artist's Way and Natalie Goldberg’s daily practice in Writing Down the Bones. It’s basically a daily throat-clearing of about three pages in my smallish notebook. I use it to keep in touch with my deeper creative, spiritual self no matter what else I’m doing. I don’t use it to write stories or essays, although sometimes ideas and descriptions arise and find their way into my work. But that isn’t the intention. It has become more of a spiritual practice than a writing practice. My actual work happens on my laptop, and that’s a different kind of commitment that I also have. Most days, I write for two to three hours. If I’m super busy with work, I try to write for at least 30 minutes so that part of my brain stays alive.
RBP: How did your mom and dad view your memoir? When writing it, how did you resist censoring yourself?
AJ: My parents have both been supportive and proud of my accomplishment. Neither of them disputed my truth, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. I know the book has hurt them both in different ways. So many readers see my mother as the hero of the story, and I agree. She’s a private person though, so having aspects of her life revealed was hard, especially given how far we’ve both come. I tend not to censor, so the bigger challenge for me was to see places where I could edit for the sake of my family’s privacy while maintaining meaning and impact.
RBP: How do you define success as a writer?
AJ: Of course, we all have dream publications and goals, but success to me is that I keep writing, keep getting better, keep getting published, and keep appealing to readers. If I can write and others want to read what I write, I feel like the success will take care of itself.
RBP: How has your yoga practice influenced your writing?
AJ: There is so much synergy between the two. Coming to my mat each day without expectation is easier than coming to the page each day without expectation and pressure. Yoga gives me a physical way to practice patience, fall out and start again, work hard and progress—lessons I really do apply to my writing. It’s also just so great to feel alive in my body. When I’m in the flow either on my mat or while writing, I feel most alive.
RBP: What is on your bookshelf right now?
AJ: I recently read and loved Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, Karen E. Bender’s collections The New Order and Refund. I’m reading Amy Hempel’s Sing to It and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’m looking forward to Rene Denfeld’s new novel The Butterfly Girl.
RBP: You’ve written and published fiction. What do you like about writing fiction? And is your process different for writing nonfiction versus stories?
AJ: For a few years now, I have felt like my sweet spot has been creative nonfiction. I approach my essays like short stories—with scene and dialogue and Flannery O’Connor’s “continuous thread of revelation” that gets at an emotional truth or experience versus an intellectual idea. My original idea for a second book was to write a story-like collection that is nonfiction. I started reading a ton of short fiction again, and my “essays” became even more story-like. At a certain point, I began using real experiences as a jumping-off point to go somewhere new outside of my experience. Writing fiction again feels both more challenging and freeing.
RBP: Who are some of your writing heroes?
AJ: I have so many for different reasons but mostly writers I’ve studied for the short story form and for creative nonfiction, especially Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth first showed me the way to merge what I knew about writing fiction with telling my own story. Other idols: Dani Shapiro, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Hempel. And as I mentioned before, I am in love with Karen E. Bender’s new short story collection, The New Order. Her metaphors for human feeling are so original. They take my breath away.
RBP: What is the most important element of a writing practice?
AJ: Everyone could answer in their own way, but I have three really simple answers: read, write and revise. Reading great writers, seeing what they’re doing and trying to understand how they are doing it is the first step. Then writing and getting the work to the best place I can on my own. Then testing it out with other trusted and experienced readers, writers, and/or editors. Then revising until I’m satisfied, and the work is published.