Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe — which won Stanford University’s 2016 Saroyan Prize for International Writing — as well as the memoirs The Bridge to Take When Things Gets Serious and Miss New York Has Everything. She is also the author of the poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and elsewhere. She teaches in the writing programs at Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham University and co-directs the summer writing festival at Chautauqua Institution. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net
So, Why did you become a writer?
I couldn’t do much else. I wanted to be a pianist but I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t do math. I couldn’t dissect frogs in science, those sad beating hearts. I had trouble with worms, even. The only thing that made sense to me early on was moving words around on a page. Also, I was adopted and an only child and lonely. I talked to my dog, a poodle named Tina II, a lot. I read Tina II my poems. I painted her nails red. I wrapped her ears in sponge rollers. Tina II was a patient audience. She wasn’t much of a critic.
Out of all the genres you could have chosen, why did you choose creative non-fiction?
It just happened. I grew up writing poems. I was working class, so telling people I wanted to be a writer wouldn’t fly. I told people I wanted to be Barbara Walters. I could type pretty fast. I knew a little shorthand. So I figured I could be a journalist.
In working-class circles, Barbara Walters was almost respectable. She seemed to work a little. She sat next to Walter Cronkite. She had nice suits. She was o.k. looking, not too pretty.
I’d see her in person in a restaurant, many years later when I was a flight attendant on a layover in Rome, and beautiful Italian men lined up to bring her roses. She was beautiful, untouchable. I didn’t know that growing up.
I knew typing fast was a gift. Shorthand was practical. It meant I could always find work. My grandmother told people I was training to be a secretary. Close enough.
I went to college on scholarship for journalism, but I took every poetry class I could because I loved poems best. I had a wonderful poetry teacher, Berwyn Moore, who ended up being the poet laureate of Erie County for years. She gave me my first real books of poetry to read. She brought living poets to campus. She tolerated me. I’ve never said how grateful I am to her so I’ll say it here. Thank you, Berwyn, for never punching me in the face and for encouraging me instead.
Still, I figured poems were a side business and so I worked for The Erie Daily Times. They put me on the Love Story beat, where I got to write about how people met and fell in love. I’d write the stories, then I’d write poems about the same people, the same love stories. It always felt like a two-fer.
Later I lucked out again and went to graduate school for poetry, on scholarship because I would never have been able to afford it otherwise. Again I had some great teachers, Ed Ochester especially, who tolerated me for a while.
Then I bobbled around in the world a bit – I became a flight attendant for seven years and so. At some point, my poems started falling apart. The lines started getting longer and longer. I thought, I can’t write poems any more. I thought, I don’t even understand poems any more. I thought, I went to graduate school for poetry and now I’m a failure.
It wasn’t totally true. It was just that the poems were morphing into something else. They were becoming a hybrid. A little journalism, a little poetry, a little something else. The poems were becoming essays, but I didn’t know it at first. It would take me a while to figure out what was happening.
I still type about 90 words a minute. I still use a little shorthand. It confuses my students when I lapse into shorthand on their papers. All those squiggles and lines that read like words to me.
Nonfiction requires a great deal of fact checking and research, how do you begin? Where do you start?
I begin with memory, with moments. Something I wonder about, something I don’t understand. And then I check out everything I can check out. I Google. I go through old photographs. I interview people. I go through records, documents. One of the first rules of journalism is “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” You have to find two separate streams of information, two separate sources, to prove that your own mother loves you. And so it goes. The things I can’t check through research, I do my best with them. I try to be as honest and true as I can. I know memory is a slippery thing. Or slippy thing, if you’re a Pittsburgher. I do what I can with what I have. Then I try to live with that.
What are the upsides and downsides of being an author?
There is nothing I’d rather do than write. There’s nothing harder to find space for in life than writing. It’s hard to carve space for anything artistic in our world. Harry Crews, one of my favorite writers, used to say that the world doesn’t want you to write. The world wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy all day. I think it’s hard to justify the time and effort writing takes. It’s hard to say no to cotton candy, the zoo, time with beautiful friends and neighbors, etc. in the name of writing. But it’s essential.
I’m a miserable person if I’m not writing. I consider writing a kind of public service. It makes me an easier person to be around.
What is your favorite part about the writing/publishing process?
I like revising a lot. Pulling something solid out of the fog. Finding a shape to things. Understanding something that seemed impossible to understand. That’s cool.
Because your memoirs are based on real life events, is there a process of permissions you must get before being able to publish?
No, but I do try to clear things with people who are closest to me. I want the people I love to stay with me in this life. People who aren’t close to me, I try to handle their stories as delicately as I can. I try to take only what I need. I follow the basic rules: don’t write things that aren’t true, don’t write out of malice. That’s important.
Anne Lamott, in BIRD BY BIRD, writes: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I believe that. I try to live with the fact that I believe that.
People are mad at me sometimes. My mother used to say when I was growing up, “You have to grow a thicker skin.” She’d say, “People see you coming.”
I’m trying. I’m trying.
How do you determine which scenes should or shouldn’t go into your books?
I like Elmore Leonard’s advice. “I take out the boring parts.” I hope I take out the boring parts.
Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you cope?
There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Some writing days are better than others. Some days I’m lazier than others. Most days, I’m lazy. It’s really mostly “put butt in chair, get to work.” Writing’s hard. Some days I’ll do anything to avoid it. I’ll vacuum. I’ll pay bills. I’ll clean my daughter’s fish tank. It’s that desperate. It’s a struggle just to get to the desk sometimes. I try to fight that and just get down to it.
As strange as this may be to ask, what does your writing space look like? Is there anything you absolutely need before you can sit down and write? ←Assuming you don’t stand, of course!
Oh man. I have two kids, multiple jobs. My husband’s a writer, too. Most of our writing gets done at our dining room table, with our kids milling around. Sometimes I write in my office on campus, which is a lovely, peaceable space I’m grateful for, but most of the times, the process is pretty wild. When I get a blip of space, I write. Wherever, whatever and so on. There is a nice coffee shop, Biddle’s Escape, that I like a lot. Except they have pinball machines there. That can get weird.
You also teach writing at the Univ of Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham. What led you to do teaching?
The desire to make a living doing something that brings me joy. I’m lucky.
Is there anything about writing life you think is misperceived by the public?
Most of the writers I know don’t look great in berets. The ones who do wear berets are usually jerks. Also, some of us drink but we’re not clichés. Writing is hard work. You can’t do hard work if you’re drunk in a café all day long. Also, unless we’re Stephen King, most of us have day jobs. Most of those day jobs have nothing to do with writing. There isn’t a lot of money in writing.
What resources would be most useful to beginning writers who want to focus on nonfiction?
The best advice I can offer is to read. A lot. Read books that are like the books you want to write. Joe Strummer, bless him, used to say, “no input, no output.” He was in a band called The Clash. Maybe some folks have heard of him. I hope so. Another guy, the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado, used to say all a writer needed to do was pay attention. Pay attention to the world, then write down what you see and hear and taste and smell and feel. Yes. That.
Other little, random questions I’d like to ask :
Where’s the oddest place you’ve ever written a book?
I’ve written drafts of poems on the jumpseat of an airplane or in the belly of a double-decker plane called an L1011. I was a flight attendant. Writing poems on a jumpseat was against the rules. Writing poems in the belly of an L1011 was against the rules. I am not a flight attendant any more, so it’s o.k. to tell you these rule-breaking things. I sometimes write about flying, though.
If you could chat with any other author who ever lived, who would it be? What would the two of you do?
Hemingway. We would drink white wine and eat oysters and watch people and not talk too much. We wouldn’t talk about writing, not ever. Isn’t it pretty to think so.
What would you like readers to take away from reading your books?
I would love them to find something familiar there, some connection. Writing is such lonely business. Living is, too. I’d love them to say, “Hey, it was kind of like that for me, too.” I’d love them to say, “This makes me feel less alone.” I’d love them to say, “Hey, let’s have a beer.”
Lori, thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to interview you for Write On!
Curious about who Lori Jakiela is or her books? Find out more by going to http://www.lorijakiela.net/