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6527212 September 03, 2010

Talented Weirdo: Joshilyn Jackson

"Oh Lord! Are you asking if I am a weirdo? Hell yes, I'm a weirdo."

If a tree falls in the forest but nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  And if talent exists but nobody notices it, is it real?

Author Joshilyn Jackson admits to being a weirdo. That's interesting.  I'm a weirdo, too!  I've been called weird quite a few times.  I've even been called psycho despite not having any documented mental illnesses.  I've done crazy shit, made goofy decisions, taken wrong roads, been hurt, hurt others, had a different perspective, and barked up the wrong tree more times than I care to admit. I've had to take unconventional actions to get myself past unexpected situations; some I never asked for and others I brought upon myself. You get the idea.

I'm probably just like you.

Aberration Nation started with a focus on what it means to be human, and how we're all aberrations of someone else's definition of normal.  I miss that discussion.  Lately, I've thinking about how I might bring that back to some extent.  I'm currently finishing a novel called DUST that thematically focuses on how religion can define the norm, and how sometimes that definition has absolutely nothing to do with the deepest mysteries of the Universe.

I'm excited about completing my fourth novel (and fifth book). Over the last three weeks, I've oscillated between feeling intense optimism about my writing career and the drowning feeling that I'll end up writing thirty novels that will all turn to dust before they're embraced.

According to Joshilyn, "You have to have talent, and after that you have to have discipline, and after THAT you have to have perseverance. But it can be done."

I know I have discipline and perseverance. I hope I have talent. Some days I feel like a weirdo for having such a peephole focus in my life, but that small open hole keeps me going.  It pulled me forward past all those wrong roads and trees. It enabled me to view the world in ways that kept me interested in staying here at times when I felt giving up my very life might be the best medicine. It gives me light when I'm lost. It shows me that weirdness, failure, and pain are all breathtakingly beautiful after all.

Despite all my professional accomplishments, I bring home a failing grade every day.  I don't enjoy cooking so I can't cook.  I usually ruin clothes in the washer so my husband has been doing the our laundry for the last 17 years.  I'm terrible at money management.  I'm not as good a friend as I should be. I struggle against a sweet, doormat mentality daily. According to my mother, I suck at being her daughter. I was never good at relationships until I met my husband, the only man who could ever put up with me and laugh about it.

And that's just the G-rated list I'm willing to share on the Internet. 

No matter how hard I peer through that peephole, no matter how many books I write, I'll always be a weirdo.  I'll always be human, and as strange and lonely as it feels sometimes,  I can't stop it.

What do my shortcomings and my peephole have to do with Joshilyn Jackson?  Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.  A few of the things she shares here strike a major chord with me.  She says that, "It’s worth noting I did all this from rural Georgia with no connections to NYC publishing. I just wrote the best books I could write and never said die."

I'm a little nobody girl from Louisiana who happened to fall off the turnip truck into Philly.  I've never had ties to NYC publishing.  I've persevered through four literary agents.  I've now written five books, two of which have been published.  I currently have two novels and a nonfiction book proposal circulating in New York, and will soon have a third novel out there.

If you think I'm giving up now, you're psycho. Despite any aberrations, faults and issues I may have, I won't forsake that peephole. It keeps showing me who I am and who I can be. If Joshilyn can do it, so can I.

Watch out cynical world, here I come.  Even if it takes thirty novels.

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an author? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. From the time I was old enough to hold a crayon and make letters, I was writing stories, making picture books. I eventually wanted people other than my mom to read what I was writing, so I started trying to write things that were polished and crafted and good. I failed. I practiced, read everything I could get my hands on. Mostly I read actual books, not how to books, and I read them like a writer. I read them to see how the author did what he or she was doing. If I cried, I tore the scene apart to figure out why. I read to understand pace and tension and character and show don’t tell. I read the classics, of course, but I concentrated on reading people who were publishing currently. I started sending stuff out. And I got a hundred million gazillion rejections and cried and went under my bed and picked my hair out, and then I came out and lathered, rinsed, repeated.

I am SO lucky. After years of this, a publisher got excited about my work, and they did all they could to get the word out that my books were worth reading. I was lucky enough to find a readership who agreed with them. I’m shocked as hell, and hugely grateful to the readers and booksellers and editors and colleagues who all have supported me and given me this job I always wanted.

It’s worth noting I did all this from rural Georgia with no connections to NYC publishing. I just wrote the best books I could write and never said die.

You have to have talent, and after that you have to have discipline, and after THAT you have to have perseverance. But it can be done.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Every day. I am an organic writer. I never know what is going to happen next when I write a book. I only know the characters. Very well. I don’t start until I know each one down to the chewy pink middles of their black and burned up, or gray and greasy, or red and raw hearts. So I get surprised daily. It’s how I know a book is working, when it starts going almost without me, and I have to run to keep up with it.

Writing Backseat Saints, my biggest aha moment came when I realized the whole book was structured – plot, character, even geographically – exactly like a three card tarot read. Rose has her cards read by an airport gypsy right at the start. The cards represent past, present and future, and I realized I needed Rose to almost have three voices to tell it. It starts in Texas, in the present, and in the middle of the country. She has to travel east, back to Alabama and through her own past, and then she goes west, sailing over Texas, all the way to California and a possible future. Going west, in our country, is meaningful The west is the future. It’s where pioneers go. It’s hopeful to go west. Once I realized this structure, the whole book shifted, and things I'd been seeing edgewise suddenly made all kinds of sense. I love days like that.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

Expression. Response. For me, writing is my half of a conversation with a story. The reader has the other half, later, with the story alone, and I don’t get to be part of that conversation, same way the reader doesn’t get to be part of mine. But we are both friends with the book (I hope!) and that connects us in a weird, pleasing, bizarre way.

I don't believe in writer's block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you just keep pumping, the water will eventually start to run. Do you ever run out of things to say, or do you experience an endless river? What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t believe in it either. It is like an under-the-bed monster. If you believe in it, it will manifest and pluck your eyeballs right out of your head. I firmly and decisively deny it exists. So there.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Oh Lord! Are you asking if I am a weirdo? Hell yes, I'm a weirdo. But that’s okay, because I married a big weirdo, and together he and I have produced more little weirdos, and it turns out everyone I like at all is some kind of major league weirdo, too. At this stage of my life, I have begun to suspect that aberrations are actually the norm.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Not at the time, no. Later, I can look back on a book and see the personal connections much more clearly, see how much I invested of myself. At the time I am writing though. I am very involved with world building and theme and character and place and craft.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I am so lucky. I have parents who did their best to foster that in me. I married a man who is the same way. I had, for the most part, wonderful teachers who mentored me. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy teaching, when I get the chance. I want to pay that back to the universe. It’s a big karmic debt. Because of course I have had it the other way, too. I had a miserable, twisted, small, hateful professor once who was so afraid that one of her students would surpass her! She spent a large amount of her time and energy trying to undermine anyone she felt was talented. And I had another professor who fostered and mentored male students wonderfully, but hated women, saw us as sex objects and belittled us even as he grabbed our butts. You just have to gravitate to the people who support you and support them back.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

Of course there is a difference – in fact, I am not even sure they are close relatives. All humans are creative to some degree or another. In the same way that we are rational in some degree or another.

Talent is just what we are good at, and talent doesn’t have to even be creative.  I have a talent for following recipes. I can make things look like the picture. My husband has a creative talent for cooking. He can smell spices and make a dish better. I am a creative person, and I have a creative talent for writing novels and acting. These are strongly related in my head, and they (or it--it feels the same) is my ONLY creative talent. If I try to play an instrument, the poor thing always ends up sounding like it is in pain. I can’t draw. I can’t dance, etc. etc.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Be kinder every time. Because I am human and petty and awful and flawed, and I want to be good. I think goodness, kindness, is how we manifest love. Goodness, kindness, is all that matters in the long run. Talent is nice. Creativity is fun. But Love wins.

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