Thursday, October 7, 2010

Q & A with Jen Knox, Senior Editor here at Our Stories

Jen Knox earned her MFA from Bennington's Writing Seminars and works as a fiction editor here at Our Stories and a Creative Writing Professor at San Antonio Community College. Some of her publication credits include Eclectic Flash, Flashquake, Foundling Review, The Houston Literary Journal, Metazen, Midwest Literary Magazine, Short Story America, Slow Trains, SLAB, Superstition Review, and Quiz & Quill. Forthcoming work will appear in Annalemma Magazine. 

Jen grew up in Ohio and lives in Texas. Her second book, To Begin Again, is forthcoming in 2011. Jen is currently (and perhaps will always be) working on a novel entitled Absurd Hunger. For more information, or to read an excerpt, please visit:

Here's a short Q & A we've had with Jen recently about writing and in particular about Musical Chairs.

 Q: Jen, first, let me say how happy I am for your success with Musical Chairs. I think a lot of our readers and writers would be interested in knowing more about the process you went through in writing it. Did its shape and dominant images evolve organically? What kind of dominant impression do you think the text ends up conveying?

A: The shape and structure of Musical Chairs is episodic, as I think is the case with many memoirs. This resulted, for me, because there were certain images from my past that seemed to mark major transitions in my life—these images did surface organically, yes, and they were the scenes that fed the rest of the story. They were also the scenes that I remembered most vividly from my past. Musical Chairs opens with a scene in which I begin to suffer panic attacks, which were insanely difficult to depict. I actually spent many hours meditating on that time, attempting to find an accurate way to portray the very real and intense fear one feels when suffering from a panic disorder.

The story itself evolved from there. What confused and intrigued me about my own affliction was that panic arrived in my life at a seemingly uneventful time. My days then consisted of waking up early, working at a bookstore for eight hours, going to college at night and studying. I was reconciling with my family, dating the man who would later become my husband, and I was wholly content. Yet there I was, panicking in the midst of this peaceful, quiet life. So, as we writers do, I began to write to examine this strange occurrence. I began to write an essay that explored the nature of panic disorders, and soon, I became consumed with finding the causation. Because I was minoring in psychology, I spent this time poring over various psychological theories in an attempt to self-diagnose. (This didn't work. I eventually found a very competent therapist and began to meditate, which, along with patience and time, did remedy my ailment.) Although my panic began to fade, slowly, over the next few years, my curiosity about its nature did not wane.

The episodes that make up my story emerged as a result of this psychological curiosity, as I revisited my rather tumultuous past as an awkwardly shy child who ran away from home, became a stripper, and abused alcohol for many years, and I revisited these times to try and figure out what combination of things led the illogical fear I felt so many years later. In this way, my entire memoir was a sort of investigation into the nature of panic, trying to find a sort of personal equation for it.

As for the latter part of the question, I can honestly say that my intention seems to hit and miss with readers. As the writer, the impression I want to convey is not "Here's my survival story," or even, "Hey, look at me!" But, the word memoir sometimes works to invite readers to respond to the writer, rather than the writer's story. My story, I believe, is an exploratory tale, a woman's desire to figure out the nature of her own anxiety, then to retrace her family's behavior and the sociological input that led to this anxiety. Judging from the varied reviews and response I have received, some readers relate to the psychological aspects of the text whereas others (even those who like the book) just see it as a survival tale, a cautionary tale about runaways or a commentary on class. My original goal was not to share what I survived but to share a little insight into the nature of trauma and how it affects the mind as well as a person's ability to adapt and change. But the story definitely lends itself to other conversations.The beautiful thing about serious readers is that they will always bring personal experience to the stories they read (I know I do), so I'm heartened by the range and depth of reader responses.

Q: Margaret Dawe of Wichita State's MFA faculty once told me never to let family members read your work. What are your thoughts on the writer's relationship as a member of a family? How do we fit in?

A: I'm a firm believer that no one should read my work as I'm writing it, at least not until I have a solid draft.  Outside influence too early tends to stifle my writing. At the same time, once I had a completed draft of Musical Chairs, and I was thinking about pursuing publication, I felt obligated to share what I had written with my family. My reasoning was two-fold. First, I wanted to tell my story as accurately as possible, and I didn't wholly trust my memory to be accurate. Some of the details in my book were actually supplied by my family members.  As an aside, I was also worried there might be points of contention, things I remembered that my family remembered differently.  This is where it can get tricky, and why Dawe might have advised as she did. In fact, there was a point of contention between my father and me about one specific detail, a piece of dialog I included. He didn't remember saying a very crucial line in the story. I remembered him saying the words so vividly that I couldn't compromise the line.  As a result, I included a short digression that explained our contention in the text: "My father and I would argue over what he said..." which not only solved the problem, it also gave him a voice in my work.  

The second reason I wanted to share my work with my parents before publishing came down to the fact that I wanted to respect their privacy. I asked both of my parents if there were any details about their lives that they didn't want me to share, and lucky for me, there were none. This is a personal call, and I realize that telling a family story is not always such a well-received venture. But I felt it was important to honor all those people I identified with actual names (aliases don't work so well when one is writing about his or her parents). For those I did not have the opportunity to ask permission, I changed specific names and locations to protect their identities. The personal stakes are much higher in memoir than in fiction, and the backlash can be fierce, so it's my opinion that a writer should share the manuscript with anyone who is exposed by the work. If not, protect identities. If you're not willing to do either, my best advice is to hire a good lawyer and brace yourself for the personal backlash. 

Musical Chairs @


Want Chyi said...

Dear Jen,

Thank you for sharing your experiences and discussing how writing has helped you make sense of them. As someone who has struggled with creative nonfiction, I applaud your courage. I loved learning about your motivation for writing your memoir and your thoughts on the ethics involved in doing so. These are considerations that I believe every writer (fiction or non) should always be a aware of, and you express them beautifully.

I'm excited to read your memoir and learn more about you.

Jen Knox said...

Thank you, Want.

I will say, the criticism is a bit tougher to take (I mean, it's personal!), but creative nonfiction is also a uniquely rewarding venture. That said, I'm sticking to fiction for a while now.

(RE: Your Bio) A Wrinkle in Time was one of the first books I remember falling in love with as a kid... that one, Nancy Drew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Anything with some semblance of mystery.

We're destined to be friends.

Want Chyi said...

Awww...thanks, Jen!

My first nonfiction professor critisized me for using second person in a personal essay, and it hurt horribly. (I took her criticism as an accusation of cowardice.) She was right of course: What's the point of writing about yourself if you're going to hide behind form?

That's why I think creative nonfiction writers are brave. Though I've always felt my fiction is thinly veiled autobiography, it is so hard to own the "I".

I'm thrilled you love Narnia and "A Wrinkle in Time"! I remember thinking Turkish Delight had to be the most amazing treat ever, and was a little disappointed when I finally ate some at age 20, and found out it didn't involve chocolate.