Featured Author: Jessie Lynn McMains
Jessie Lynn McMains
Why do you write? What purpose does writing serve for you currently?
I write because I can't not write. I know, every writer says that there is nothing else they can do, that it's the only thing they're good at. I don't mean it literally—there are other things I can do and have done, even other things I'm good at. I just mean that I don't feel like I chose to be a writer, and I think most writers feel the same way. It chooses us, we do it because we have to. Even though writing sometimes drives me crazy, I’d be even crazier if I didn’t write.
And I write because I'm haunted. I get haunted by a person, place, or thing (often something from my past, but other times from my present, or my imagination). Or I get an idea, or read a string of words, or see something that sticks with me. And whatever it is—a memory from my past, a topic I'm currently obsessed with, something interesting I saw on my way to the post office—will haunt me until I get it down in words. To quote Sandra Cisneros: "I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much."
How do you usually start a poem, story, etc?
Whenever I get hit by something—a memory, an idea, an image, a phrase, a character—I write it down. If it sparks something further, such as the seed of a story or a poem, I make notes about it. I make notes about it and I also stew over it for days or weeks or months—sometimes years!—before I turn it into a full-fledged piece of writing. I often have the entire piece nearly finished in my head but only a few notes about it actually written down. I usually know when the time is right to turn my notes and thoughts into an actual piece of writing. I get a little shiver of recognition, and think now is the time, and then I sit down and bang out the first draft. I once said that the weeks or months of thinking about a piece and jotting down notes are like falling in love, and the act of writing the first draft is like consummating the relationship.
One interesting thing is that sometimes I get an idea and know right away that it needs to be a short story, or a poem, or an essay, or whatever else, but other times I don’t know what form it will take until I sit down to write it. Right now, for instance, I have this awesome idea for a story, and I have a lot of the plot points and characters mapped out in my head, but I don’t know yet if it’s going to be a full-length novel, a novella, or a play.
My process is a little different when I have committed to writing something and have a specific deadline. When that’s the case, I can’t wait for that “now is the time” moment, so I map out a much more traditional outline for the piece, and I make it happen.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
When I get so sick of it I can’t stand to look at it anymore. I’m kidding, sort of. I don’t ever think my pieces are finished. I could edit them to death, and have done so before. I’m not of the “first thought, best thought” school of thought, I believe in editing, but I also believe there’s such a thing as over-editing. I try not to edit things to the point where I’ve erased the original spark that prompted me to write them in the first place. So I guess I’d say that I decide a piece is finished when I’ve edited it several times and have gotten to the point where I feel like I’m as satisfied with it as I can be, without having over-edited/completely rewritten it. The only way I’ll edit things further after that is if someone else is working with me on edits, in which case I will go back in and change things based on their suggestions.
What writers/artists are influencing you right now?
Writers: Phillip B. Williams, Fatimah Asghar, Eileen Myles, Lucille Clifton, E. Kristin Anderson, Misha Brandon Speck, Sarah Ruhl, Anna Joy Springer, Sofia Samatar, Kat Howard, Francesca Lia Block, Audre Lorde, Joan Didion, Mary Gaitskill, Myriam Gurba, James Baldwin, Nathaniel Kennon Perkins, Misty Skaggs; also I’ve been watching a lot of videos of slam poets because I want to step up my spoken word game—some of my current favorites include Elizabeth Acevedo, Melissa Newman-Evans, and Melissa Lozada-Oliva
Visual artists/music/etc.: Stellar Leuna, Adams Carvalho, Beyoncé, Matana Roberts, Courtney Love, Liz Phair, the film Kill Your Darlings, the tarot (I’m currently reading The Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin, which is a book about using the tarot as a tool for art/creativity), outer space, mythology
What do you want people to know about your work?
That I swear a lot and write about sex a lot, and I don't do either of those things to try and shock or offend, but when I purposefully leave them out of my writing, my words ring false, like I’m writing in someone else's voice. That's not to say that everything I write has swear words in it, or that I always mention sex—but if sex and swearing want to go into a story or poem or whatever and I cut them out to make it “safe for work,” you can tell that something is missing and it’s sort of bland.
That I write about a lot of rough and potentially triggering things—sex, drugs and alcohol, trauma, mental illness, etc.—but once again, I don’t do it to shock or trigger, I do it because those intense/difficult topics often lead to some of my best writing. I've had people tell me my writing is dark, or sad, and at times it is, but I think I usually have some small sliver of hope or beauty, or even humor, hidden in even my darkest pieces. I've also been accused of romanticizing things that shouldn't be romanticized, or advocating for things that are "bad," and... Well, okay, I do have the tendency to romanticize things. But I think, if you've lived something, it's your right to process it however you see fit, and for me that often means romanticizing it. As far as advocating for things that are "bad," I think that some people think if you don’t have a clear moralistic statement against something, that means you’re for it. I’m more interested in presenting an experience—be it my own, or a character’s—in shades of gray (not 50 Shades of Grey though, never that). Saying: it is what it is, draw your own conclusions. Take drug use, for example. When I write a story or poem or essay that involves drug use, I never say: “All drugs are evil and anyone who touches them will ruin their lives irrevocably,” but I also never say: “Drugs are great! Go out and do all of the drugs, kids!”
Finally, I want people to know that my primary motivation to write is the hope that someone like my younger self will find my writing and connect with it, and maybe feel less alone because of it, or feel like their existence is okay. I write for the wild, troublemaking, witchy queer punk grrrls. That’s not to say that you have to identify as a witch or a punk to get something out of my writing; and I definitely have fans of all genders, sexual orientations, and ages. But my target audience is grrrls like me. I try to write the kind of stuff that, had I stumbled upon it in my teens or early twenties, would have made me say: “Fuck yes, this is everything.”
What question do you wish I asked you?
I wish you’d asked me what I think about the uses of pop culture in literature. By “pop culture” I mean stuff that’s outside the academy and outside the world of “high art,” stuff that might even be kind of ephemeral in terms of how long it’s around/people are into it. I mean music, film, television, fashion, comics, books that aren’t considered “literature,” zines, everything. (I include punk or any other subcultural stuff in the category of “pop culture.”) I’m bringing this up because I reference pop culture and/or use it to inspire my writing quite often, and I had a writing professor who criticized me for it. She said that it made my stories too specific to a time and place, and therefore they wouldn’t stand the test of time. I disagree. I think that as long as something is described well enough in context, it doesn’t matter if you “get” the reference, doesn’t matter if you’ve ever heard of the specific actor or band or whatever prior to reading about it. Not to mention, it can be fun to read about someone/thing you know nothing about and then go and research it. Can you imagine if someone had told Jack Kerouac not to mention so much jazz, or any specific musicians, in his novels? If they’d said to him: “Fifty years from now, no one’s gonna know who that cat is, so you better leave that part out?” That would have taken away so much of the specificity that roots his work in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which is part of what is great about reading his stuff. When I first read On The Road, I had no idea who Slim Gaillard was, but then I looked for stuff by Slim Gaillard and became a fan, you know?
The other criticism I’ve seen of using pop culture in literature comes from some of the old guard who still make distinctions between “high” and “low” culture, who think that bringing pop culture into your writing/art sullies it somehow. But that’s changing. There are a lot of us these days who are blurring the lines between the two, who reference pop culture in our work, and who are very open about our pop cultural muses. I think that’s important, because it’s a false dichotomy, and if something speaks to you it shouldn’t matter whether it’s a song by a boy band, a song by a punk band, or a symphony.