By Daniel Ford
My friend, former co-worker, and fellow blogger Heather Kuka sent me an email a couple of weeks ago with the name of one of her writer friends and links to her published works. Heather tends to have great taste in literature and music, so when she recommends something or someone, I listen.
As usual, I wasn’t disappointed. I couldn’t email Sean Tuohy fast enough after reading the first line of Jacqueline Kirkpatrick’s entry in the literary journal Mason’s Road.
“At five I was abandoned on a doorstep in a trailer park just outside of Albany.”
That’s the kind of writing that gets you out of bed in the morning and reminds you that great writers make whatever writing process you have worth it.
Eager to hear more, I dashed off an email to Kirkpatrick, who was equally as excited to answer my questions about her life, writing career, and how she gets her work published.
Daniel Ford: Did you know at an early age that you wanted to be a writer, or was it something you grew into? Who were your inspirations?
Jacqueline Kirkpatrick: I was raised by two people that read every night. After dinner to falling asleep they both would read. To bond with them I had to read their stories. So I was raised by westerns. Mostly Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry. I think that to get their attention I had to do that. Around eight, I started writing silly stories about Native Americans, cowboys, and the wives left behind by men who were lawmen or outlaws. When I was about 10 my father got sick and it was around then I became more introverted and began to journal. I have about 22 years accounted for in very detailed journal entries. It was a coping mechanism then, and I still use it to process what I’m going through.
And while L’Amour, and McMurtry began my journey as a reader and writer, it was definitely Parker, Plath and Sexton that gave me the shove I needed to explore myself. They were these bad ass chicks writing about what they wanted, felt, needed, and hated. That openness really shook me. The rawness in which they wrote inspired me not only to write more expressively, but to also find more experiences to write about. And you can’t go and find more experiences without someone handing you Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. So I began reading Dharma Bums and my then my heart exploded.
DF: Your entry with literary journal Mason’s Road describes how you were left on a doorstep in a trailer park near Albany at 5 years old. How did that moment, and the others you honestly detail in the piece, shape you as a person and as a writer?
JK: As a person, they shaped everything. My every action, decision, or lack of both, are directly taken from my memories and experiences. I’d like to say I learn from my mistakes but sometimes it takes two, or three, or 16 times for me to understand that I’m fucking up again and again. I think, for me, and many other writers that I know, writing is an organizational tool for our secrets. Organizing the memories, and the moments, help me to see where I am, and how I got here. I just want to work out my shit and do it as honestly as possible. It’s awesome if a reader can dig it, but I always start selfishly. It’s a high to write something down and be like, whoa, I get it now. Mind blown.
DF: Your writing is deeply personal. Was that your way of dealing with things that were happening to you? Why the impulse to be so honest in your non-fiction and poetry?
JK: Absolutely. My father died when I was a teenager, my mother went into a nursing home when I was in my early twenties, my friends were not sure how to help me, and neither was I. The only thing I could talk to was this other version of myself. The person no one meets. She’s my favorite listener.
DF: What’s it like being an MFA Creative Writing student? What kinds of things do you work on and what’s your writing process like? Do you listen to music while you write, or do you need complete quiet? Do you do any outlining?
JK: Prior to entering the program I was like Dickinson’s second cousin. Everything was boxed up tight in an attic. I was terrified of people reading my work. I was so scared they’d hear things, or see things, or know things about me that they could use against me. I have disgusting amounts of trust issues and it only felt like I was writing the weapons that would ultimately be used to kill me. But then, one day I just got really tired of my 9 to 5. I just wanted to sit around and talk about Kerouac, or Poe, or if my character was believable so I said “fuck it.” I applied to the program. Got in. and began to share.
I started writing fiction. I think, again, it was a defense mechanism to separate Jacqueline from the stories I needed to tell. But I’m a terrible liar and my classmates soon began to know that my fictional characters were all based on me. So I began to write non-fiction. And that’s become a new love of mine because I have these crazy layers of memory, and regret, and life things that I need to get rid of before I’m good. Or at the very least, okay.
I write all the time. At work during my 9 to 5, before class 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., notes and tiny poems during class 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and sometimes all night if I’m alone. I think that writers, whether they are typing or putting a pen to paper or a napkin, are always writing. The wheels never stop. Stories are crashing into one another all the time.
I need music to write. If it’s silent I’m distracted by my own thoughts.My brain is really, really unpredictable when left to its own devices. Music definitely focuses me. I have setlists on my Spotify for stories I’m writing. If I’m writing fiction, one of the first things I ask myself is what would the character listen to? And I make that playlist. When writing non-fiction I have my own pile of tunes to go through pending on mood and memory. If I’m writing about living in Baja for a month I know I need The Tobassco Donkeys, The Old 97s, Lyle Lovett, and Sublime. When I write about my mother and father I need George Jones, Patsy Cline, or Ray Price. Memories were made while those songs played. To bring me back, it’s vital to have them or the story isn’t true for me.
Oh, outlines. I should outline. I want to. But I don’t. I think it’s something that I’ll need to start doing as I’m writing longer pieces, but as of now…I’m keeping that little technique in my back pocket.
DF: How do you go about getting your work published?
JK: I am such a crazypants about this. It’s stupid because I spent 17 years holed up inside myself, not letting anyone read anything, and now I’m all out and about submitting. Because I love reading, I think the best process for me in getting published has been following up on what I love to read. If I love a piece someone wrote I go to their website (if they have one) and see where else they were published. I make a list of those places and then I start stalking. I read what is being published, and I try to see, and sometimes feel if my piece would work there. Sometimes I think no. Sometimes yes. And I hit submit. And if I really love the journal, regardless of if I think a piece will fit, I take the chance. It’s exciting. There is a weird rush I get after every time I do it. I love it.
Another super big part of this whole process is networking. Tell everyone you know you’re a writer. Send pieces to friends. Ask for help editing. Get involved locally with writer’s groups, organizations for writers, or just start small and go to a reading. Listen. Say hi to someone else that’s there. Chances are they are a writer, or love to read, and both are amazing to have in your corner.
DF: What do you read religiously? Do you read on the Internet, do you have a stack of books on your nightstand, or do you have a Kindle? What are some of your favorite authors, writers, or columnists?
JK: I read as much as I can. Being back in school I actually read less, but what I’m reading now is more focused on what I want to do. Rather than rereading The Bell Jar or Tristessa for the 800th time, I’m reading work by folks who are in the pool that will become my competition. It would be a disservice to myself to not know what’s out there.
I read the most on the Internet. Mostly journals, and sites like this with interviews with other writers, as I want to stay current and perhaps get some inspiration. Being a writer can be so lonely because we’re fueling ourselves on our own self-made fires. So, sometimes it’s nice, and really comforting, to find some warmth at someone else’s fire for a while. My favorite authors are dead. It’s sad. But they are. I like the old school. However, I do have very big soft spots on my heart for Dave Eggers, Nick Flynn, Melissa Febos, Mary Carr, and Sparrow.
DF: What is your best advice for young, up-and-coming writers like yourself?
JK: Immediately I want to say: read. Because that’s what I’m told all the time. From sixth grade to yesterday the advice is always, read. So, I don’t want to waste my advice on something you’re going to hear forever and ever. My advice is said best by Sam Cooke: don’t fight it, feel it.
For years I worried that x, y, or z would read my work and judge it, or worse, judge me. I was constantly having anxiety that the reader wouldn’t get it. But now, fuck it. It’s who you are. It’s what you are. The only way it’s going to be home to you, and I firmly believe your writing is your home, is if you feel it. Be raw. Be honest. Be yourself. And when you hate yourself, tell yourself that you do. That’s okay too.
DF: Name one random fact about yourself.
JK: Every fall I go to multiple county fairs just to see the demolition derby. It’s amazing. Go. Go to the demolition derby and you’ll understand.
You can find more of Jaqueline Kirkpatrick’s work through the following links: