Jill Christman is a professor of creative writing at Ball State University and senior editor of the literary journal River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. She is the author of three books: Darkroom: A Family Exposure, Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, and If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays. If This Were Fiction, now available from University of Nebraska Press, is a collection of essays that asks how we can be brave enough to love in a world full of loss. Profiles Editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper caught up with Christman over Zoom and discussed how she crafts magical essays, along with her tips for gaining writing inspiration and her feelings about parenting. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: I adored If This Were Fiction. It was so generous and hilarious and heartbreaking. I kept fluctuating between being awed by your craft as a writer and crushed by how much I related to your experience. Your daughter, Ella, grows up over the course of the book. I hear she is leaving for college this summer. How does it feel to have these two loves—book and child—going out into the big wide world?
Jill Christman: It feels great to have the book going out because I have some control over that process, you know? Everything I really need with If This Were Fiction has pretty much already happened. Writers I respect deeply have read it and resonated with it, and if that’s all that happens, hallelujah. Writing and publishing these essays has been a joy. With Ella, of course, my hopes are so much higher and deeper—and can never really be met. I want her to be happy and safe. I want her to have meaningful work and do good things for the world. I want her to love and be loved. And I want all of these things forever. And that’s not something I get to control, is it?
BAT: If only we could guarantee such things for our children! How do we try, though? How do we parent toward those big goals?
JC: I wish I knew! When my kids were small, I was always trying to read the right books, gather the right data, and then make and execute the perfect plan—but my kids were always surprising me, coming up with things that weren’t in the books I was reading. Now, with my kids and at my keyboard, I usually end up winging it with whatever feels right at the time. For a while, every essay I wrote, when I got to the really true thing at the end, it was love. Just love. I feel like if I had a goal for both motherhood and writing, that would be it. Love. I want my children to feel love and give love, and I want my essays to do the same thing, I think. That feels true to me.
BAT: What does it mean to ‘get to the really true thing at the end’? Can you say more about that?
JC: We all know when we’ve lied to ourselves in an essay, right? We close the computer, we’re like, “There, we’ve done it,” and then in the night we’re like, “Ugghhh! No, we didn’t!” Happens to me every single time. For example, in the essay, “Naked Underneath My Clothes,” I thought that was gonna be a funny essay—my skirt fell off while I was teaching, and there was a smarty-pants kid, and she was just delighted that my skirt had fallen off. The essay was supposed to be me being OK with having been humiliated in class.
I ended the essay, and I even read excerpts at a public reading. Afterward, I felt terrible. People laughed, but I felt awful because it was not a good essay. I hadn’t honestly looked at what my role had been in the story. There was Curls [Christman’s student]. She was 19 years old, and she was saying in front of me that if you didn’t wear a bra and got raped, it was your fault. I didn’t help her. That’s what the essay became about. I needed to learn to pay more attention to what was happening in the room and listen. That part of the essay took me ten years. It took that long to dig down through those layers to find what was really true. I say to my students now, “You’ve got to dig like a wolverine.”
BAT: Who is the digging for? Does moving through those layers make it a better piece for the reader even though she doesn’t see the digging process?
JC: Definitely for the reader. Let’s be perfectly clear—writing has saved my life—but when I’m writing an essay I intend to publish, I am trying to build readers a space to enter and have their own experience. That space can’t be full of bullshit. If it were, you would go in and say, “This space is full of bullshit! I don’t want to hang out in here.”
BAT: How do you know if the space is full of bullshit?
JC: You just know, right? I heard Pico Iyer talk at a nonfiction conference years ago and he said something that has stuck with me. He said that when he’s writing an essay and he arrives at an answer, he knows that he hasn’t finished the essay yet. He isn’t finished until he writes himself into a question that has no answer. So, similarly, I ask myself, “OK, could I have known the answer even before I wrote this essay?” My goal in an essay is to write an unanswerable question—like, “How do you raise a happy, loving, kind human when you’re making it up as you go along?” [laughs]
BAT: In If This Were Fiction, you write, “To make art out of anecdote, we have to look closely. We have to look past what we’ve grown comfortable with seeing, beyond the easy representations we allow to stand in for the real deal.” What will help me to do that, to look closely, beyond the easy representations?
JC: Years ago, I was trying to write a specific essay—an editor had solicited this essay, which was very new to me back then. He asked me to write an essay for an anthology on the subject of money. I had nothing. But Ella was about to lose her first tooth, so I started thinking about the tooth fairy. It wasn’t working. Then Ella’s tooth fell out. I took her tooth, and went up to my office (which I don’t usually use, for the record—I write in bed or somewhere else, so let’s not pretend like I have some clean, neat space where I do my work. That would be a lie.). I told myself I had only one job: write the tooth. I set a timer and didn’t permit myself to do anything else for 30 minutes. I held that tooth up to my eyeball and studied it. I touched the tooth. By the time my 30 minutes were up, I was sitting there with the tooth in my hand, weeping. Have you done this? If you look really closely at a baby tooth, it’s a disaster! You can see where the adult tooth has come up and eaten away at the baby tooth, and there’s blood that won’t wash away. I realized I had been trying to create this perfect tooth fairy experience for Ella, but in a real way that I could hold in my hand, adulthood would come and decimate childhood, and I couldn’t protect her from it. So you might try that. You might try sitting with whatever the tooth is for whatever you’re writing and see what you discover.
BAT: You also write that “we have to locate patterns and connections we didn’t know were there.” What does this mean, and how do we do this?
JC: I work with photographs (and other artifacts) a lot. I love photographs. My first memoir is called Darkroom: A Family Exposure. The philosopher Roland Barthes was important to me when I was writing that book. In Camera Lucida, Barthes talks about the studium and the punctum. The studium is the thing that draws us to the photograph, the subject, but the punctum is the thing that pricks us, the thing that pokes through. He has a famous photo that is a picture of him, but in the background, you can see his maid standing in the doorway half in shadow. For him, that’s the punctum. So when I look, I try to find my punctum—not the obvious thing, not the description of the thing, but whatever gets me either in my head or my heart or both.
Research can also be great for looking more closely because you learn new things, but also because you find language and metaphors you didn’t know existed. “The Avocado” [an essay in If This Were Fiction] is a great example of that; I learned about volcanoes and leaf-cutter ants and that helped me dig into what I was trying to say about how our bodies carry grief. Again, you really have to follow your gut. If you get fascinated by the leaf-cutter ants and the way their leaves look like sails, then good, you’ve done your job. Also, many avocados were cut and consumed in the writing of that essay!
BAT: The combination of essays in If This Were Fiction strengthens the individual pieces. Themes and characters are echoed, developed, and deepened as the reader moves from essay to essay. How did you accomplish this?
JC: Thank you! I started by organizing around the poem, “since feeling is first,” by E. E. Cummings. That was the poem my very romantic and young not-yet-husband had the good sense to actually say into my ear when we were first dating. [Read If This Were Fiction for the whole juicy story!]
BAT: So hot!
JC: It really was. Also, later I got to marry him, and he is a very good editor. He was the hot guy from my lit class who said the thing in my ear, and then also the wonderful partner and father and poet and co-editor. He’s really good at paring things down, so he helped me take out what didn’t need to be there in the collection.
BAT: What a fabulous quality in a partner—a companion, editor, and writer all in one!
JC: Pretty great. People say you shouldn’t have two writers in a relationship, but ours has really worked out. [laughs] In terms of structure, I’m also big on the rule of threes. Since the Cummings poem can kind of be broken into three chunks, and of course three is the beginning, the middle, and the end, that felt right. I also kept returning to the idea of making a mixtape. You don’t want three long songs in a row. I also tried to mix tone and experiment with different forms, so you don’t feel like you are reading the same essay over and over. Moving forward, I’m going to experiment with form even more. Structure helps me get into new places in the material.
BAT: I think the book really has satisfying variation in form.
JC: Thank you. Literary Mama has been such an important magazine for me, by the way. Way back when, it was such a gift to have the editors of Literary Mama choose one of my early essays. At the time , motherhood was this little pocket of experience that we were told wasn’t for literature, and Literary Mama absolutely gave me community and permission to write about motherhood in a way that the larger writing world was not ready for at the time.
BAT: Do you see that shifting now?
JC: I think it’s shifting, I do. I hope it’s changing. To relegate a whole category of experience that everyone has? If you’re not a mother, you had one! I’ve had agents say to me that motherhood is overwritten, “played out.” That’s ridiculous. I don’t believe that for any subject. I don’t even believe that for fly-fishing, gentlemen. And, of course, motherhood is an endlessly interesting, rich experience. We’re just so deep in the patriarchy.
BAT: I agree that these narratives have been marginalized. What’s so maddening is that there are all these themes in parenting (impermanence, imperfection, lack of control, interdependence, the primacy of the body) that directly contradict the messages of the patriarchy. So the patriarchy is both a barrier to and a reason for us to be writing about parenthood.
JC: I’m with you. I agree totally. And at a time when I couldn’t fully hold that for myself, Literary Mama helped me see it.
BAT: What do you read these days if you’re struggling with your mothering or your writing?
JC: Well, I’m just going to share the stack by my bed with you because I’m always struggling with my writing! First, I have my friend Jody Keisner’s collection, Under My Bed and Other Essays, about violence and fear and mothering daughters. I like to read nonfiction that brings research in. I aspire to that, so I just read The Kissing Bug by Daisy Hernandez—about the kissing bug disease. Probably my favorite book I’ve read in the last few months is Tell Me Everything, by Erika Krouse. This is a must-read. I do a lot of work with gender-based sexual violence, and I did not think any writer could pull off what Krouse pulls off here. It’s brilliant. I also have This Jade World by my friend Ira Sukrungruang. The last one is called Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day, and it is by another wonderful friend, Sonya Huber. I actually followed her into a bathroom at a conference when both of our children were one. I was like, “You are amazing and I must know you.” Every time she writes something, I read it.
BAT: That’s so silly and inspiring that you followed Huber into the bathroom! And now she’s reviewing your book. In her review for Brevity, she wrote, “You will feel yourself lucky and chosen . . . it feels, as always with the magic Jill creates, as though she has chosen you.” I, too, felt chosen as I read your book, and I was struck by how you wrote choice into your own story: the passage about choosing your husband, or the passage about choosing to go and knock on the door of the boy who sexually abused you. Could you talk a little about choice and its role in your life?
JC: It took me time to understand how many choices I had. I was so conditioned to make people happy, so when someone chose me for whatever reason, be it street harassment, or a date, or an A on a paper, I’d think, “Oh, I’ve been chosen, I should go along with this. I should feel glad.” But that is not real, and not true, and it gets you into all kinds of trouble. I think that’s one of the things I wrote myself to: realizing how much agency I have in the world. We really have to come into the center of ourselves and think, “What is it that I choose?”
BAT: Do you feel like you’ve had to choose between mothering and writing?
JC: All that talk about how motherhood hurts your writing, and every child is a book you’ve lost? I don’t believe in any of that. Do I work really hard and try to do both things? Yes. But motherhood has been incredible for my writing because there is nothing in this world that has so demonstrated for me the stakes of what we’re dealing with. For me, motherhood makes it so that everything I do really matters.