It is no exaggeration to say that every time Jill Christman publishes an essay, I immediately bookmark it on my computer to save for my next free morning. I like to read her essays after a slow breakfast, while sipping coffee. It’s important that I wait for a free morning (this is me at my most patient) because I always, always cry when reading Christman’s essays. My tears are usually about 65% wonder and 45% bittersweet, and when I reread the essay a few hours later in the afternoon, I will cry again, and the ratio of tears will change, the percentage of wonder increasing with some joy slipping in. I cannot recommend her writing enough. I was delighted when Robbie Maakestad, one of our senior essays editors, agreed to interview her for the magazine.
Jill Christman is a 2020 NEA Prose Fellow and the author of If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays (2022) and two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure (winner of the AWP Prize for CNF) and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood. Her essays have appeared in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Longreads, and O, The Oprah Magazine. A senior editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and executive producer of the podcast Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence, she teaches creative nonfiction writing and literary editing at Ball State University.
— The Eds.
The Rumpus: Previously you’ve published two book-length memoirs, but If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays is your first collection of essays: can you speak to the difference between what it was like to write book-length narratives vs. writing a collection of essays?
Jill Christman: When I wrote Darkroom: A Family Exposure, as an MFA student (in fiction!) at the University of Alabama, I had wonderfully supportive professors because there was no nonfiction program there in the late 90s, and to my knowledge, mine was the first memoir accepted as a thesis at Alabama. I can’t really compare to later books, because Darkroom was the book I had to write first. I had no idea what I was doing, which is evident in the book, in both cringe-worthy and I think really exciting ways, because it’s pretty clear in Darkroom that I was making my way to both a life and a book. I mean, that book wrote me, you know?
After I wrote Darkroom, I planned to never write nonfiction ever again, because I was purportedly a fiction writer. I figured writing a memoir was a thing I would do one time, get it over with, and move on. I wasn’t writing essays at that point, but here’s a hot tip for the young people in academia. Do you know why I became an essayist? To get tenure. My husband [poet Mark Neely] said to me one morning, as we were approaching my first tenure review, “You’re going to get fired.” I was working on another big book, a memoir, one involving extensive research, and there was no way I could do it on the academic timeline. It wasn’t going to happen. And so it was at that point I thought, “Okay, I need to figure out what this thing called an essay is, and start writing them.” And so that’s what I did. I started writing essays, thinking that it was a stop-gap career move, and then I fell in love. I realized that my brain works like an essay—in questions—and so I never stopped writing essays, but I published them individually, and I wasn’t that concerned at the time about publishing them as a collection. In fact, for over a decade, I never tried. I just kept thinking, “I’ll write memoirs as books and essays as things to publish in magazines and journals, and that seems like a good way to always be writing, and always be getting things into the world and keep my job.” And this strategy worked.
So I finished writing the big memoir about five years ago, and because the world of publishing is forever surprising me, that book is still unpublished, but I extracted my second book, Borrowed Babies, from the larger memoir during editing. Borrowed Babies is short—essentially, a really long essay. About then, I decided to put together a collection—because essays have become so important to me as a writer, reader, and teacher—and I was beyond thrilled to find a home with the American Lives series at the University of Nebraska Press. Now I’m writing yet another memoir, more essays, and even (shhh!) a novel. I’m the most unfaithful writer ever. I will cheat on a project with another project again and again. It’s scandalous.
Rumpus: In writing these three books, what was the timeline? Did it take longer to assemble the collection of essays, or to write the memoirs?
Christman: The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how silly the whole concept of time is in relation to writing and how long it takes to write a book. Darkroom gave me such a false impression of the writing life. It took me three years to write it in grad school from start to finish, and then it won the AWP Award in Nonfiction and was published. My first book. The first place I sent it. So then I thought that’s how the world worked. So cute.
Blue Baby Blue—the memoir nobody wants to publish (although potential publishers should contact me as soon as they’re finished reading this interview because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written)—took me twelve years to write. Twelve. An essay can take me anywhere from a week to ten years. I’m actually a pretty fast writer, but I’m a very slow finisher, because—I think this is a good thing about me, and I hope this is evident in my essays—I don’t send out an essay until I feel as if I have said the truest thing I can say. I often get to the end and think, “I haven’t done it. This is bullshit.” Either the question wasn’t the right question, or I didn’t push it hard enough, or I wasn’t able to bring it to a place that brought me to new meaning. These essays go to a place to rest while I figure it out.
“Naked Underneath Our Clothes” is a good example of this: the incident of that essay happened over a decade in the past, but I didn’t finish the essay until a couple of years ago. I had written the essay with the intention of being funny—spoiler alert: my skirt fell off in class. This anecdote made a great writing conference cocktail party story. Other teachers loved it. The horror! But after I read the essay publicly—at my own school—not long after I’d finished it the first time, I felt terrible. People had laughed, but I felt as if I’d somehow betrayed my students. So I went back to it, and that’s when I realized that I had missed an opportunity to help my class in a fundamental way. Teaching that day, I had pushed back against some harmful victim blaming—but not in a useful way. What I needed to do was talk to those students about what had brought them to the place where they would blame a victim. That was my job. And so once I realized that, it brought together the rest of the essay. So there’s both the work of generating the essay and the work of finishing the essay. There’s the work that we have to do on ourselves to go places we might be afraid to go.
Putting If This Were Fiction together was such a joy because I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to make a book out of these essays,” and it really is a love story to myself. How was I going to get past the trauma of my childhood and early adulthood to a place where I could love and be loved, to a place where I could bring children into the world, and then we could all move forward as a family? Once I realized that in my head, I used my favorite love poem by E. E. Cummings, “since feeling is first” (which just happened to enter public domain January 2022—just in time!), to structure the collection. In life, Mark wooed me with that poem [see “Life’s Not a Paragraph”]. That’s a true thing about our lives that also became a structural thing. Also, Mark is a brilliant editor, which is the greatest kind of person to have living in your house. So once I did the basics of arranging the collection, Mark was like: “No, not this essay. No, not this one either. Yes! Perfect. Wait, there’s a hole here. Fill it. No, yes, no. . .” So first he was the romantic young man who brought the poem into my life, and then he was the ruthless editor, which is a pretty nice combination in a marriage!
Rumpus: Were there any of these essays that you wrote solely for this book?
Christman: Yes. For example, “The Lucky Ones.” I want to be careful about how I say this, because I adore my mother. She’s very patient with her memoirist daughter and I’m a much more protective parent than she was when I was a kid. To a fault. How can I accept the way in which I was raised, and the consequences, and also raise my own kids in a way that a) protects them from harm, and b) doesn’t permanently damage them?
I also wrote “Aiskhyne” especially for the book—and I was already thinking about the collection when I wrote “Spinning.” I published that one first as a True Story, but always knew “Spinning” would be the final essay in If This Were Fiction because of the way everything comes full circle. So those are some new ones, but mostly, making the collection was an act of curation and synthesis.
Rumpus: The organization seems to create one larger narrative across the essays, which makes the collection read cohesively.
Christman: I worked hard on the collection as a book, and so did Mark, but because the driving force of essaying for me is making meaning out of connections, so much of what I was working with already touched the same questions and obsessions, and came together fairly organically.
Rumpus: Early on in If This Were Fiction, the narrator mentions how grad school colleagues accused her of “therapy writing.” Similarly, criticism of the essay form often centers on “navel gazing.” In both cases, the criticism seems to hinge on the reader feeling the writer has focused too intimately or deeply on the self. And yet, in your essay “Going Back to Plum Island,” the narrator says that writing her first memoir “saved my life.” Can you talk about the balance between writing for one’s own self and writing for others, about balancing art and personal healing in nonfiction?
Christman: That’s a core question for me. I write about this, in “Naked Underneath Our Clothes”: the dismissal of personal nonfiction as “navel gazing” has never made sense to me. This is not Professor Christman twenty-five years into nonfiction writing and teaching; this was grad-school me, thinking, “How is it possible that when I try to say something true—which is really hard—that’s more ‘navel gazing’ than the stuff you’re making up?” I think people level the navel-gazing charge less and less, and this is progress because it always struck me as a failure of imagination and intellect on the part of the critics. I remember thinking: “Is that all you’ve got? You can’t come up with a critique that actually means something? Then we’d have something to talk about.” It’s a dangerous thing to try to draw lines between art and life too firmly, because an essential function of art in human society is to make space for empathy. Healing, then, is also a function of art, so to say that we should be trying to avoid that strikes me not only as silly, but also as dangerous.
As I unpack in “Naked Underneath Our Clothes,” it was early in my career that I realized I couldn’t continue to protect my ego by lying and saying that writing Darkroom had done nothing for me, when I knew that finding a way to tell my story had saved my life. That lie, I realized, could hurt young writers who were trying to make their own way.
When you think about something as hard as you need to think about something in order to make it into a memoir, of course that’s going to be healing! Writing Darkroom, I felt as if I were shining a light into the dark corners of my brain in a deeper way than talk therapy, for all its benefits, had ever managed. I was my own most knowledgeable and most probing therapist. Of course, there’s a line between what I might do in a personal journal and an essay: you wouldn’t want to encounter an undigested pile of my feelings on the page. So there is a translation process in making a place for a reader—and that takes practice. Anyone, no matter who they are or how different they are from me, should be able to step into one of my essays and have an experience even though their life circumstances are completely different than mine. As writers, our job is to transform anecdote into something meaningful to a reader. In any case, we need to stop saying “navel gazing,” because to look inside oneself in order to look outside oneself, and to use that as a lens to deepen our experience, and therefore our reader’s experience of the world, is not “navel gazing.”
Rumpus: When I finished reading this collection, I found myself noting two ideas that hold up the collection: the first is fear (of the past and of the future), and the second is the joy that comes in living. Would you agree with this twofold assessment of the book’s themes? And can you speak to how those two ideas work together in this collection?
Christman: I thought you were going to say “fear and love”—but the deepest joy comes from love. So joy and love walk together hand in hand. The things that wake me up in the night—and I wake up in the night a lot—have to do with one of those two things. As soon as you become a parent, people say “Oh, parenting ruins your writing,” but I disagree. Parenting made me a much better writer, because everything matters so much more. Climate change matters more, politics matter more, unvisited trauma matters more, making art matters more. Every decision we make. There isn’t anything that doesn’t matter more because we need to try to do the best we can within our families and outward into the world. If This Were Fiction is about making a family. I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who are surprised by all the joy that’s in the book given all the trauma that’s also there. Which makes me happy, but also surprises me because I don’t know how else to do it. I have to examine the hard stuff, but also move toward the good stuff, which, of course, is love. For a while there I was laughing at myself every time I wrote an essay. The only thing I could find that was true was love. I was like, “How lucky is it that I’ve been able to make this life that I have! How extraordinary!” What grace has come into my life, especially given my tough start [see Darkroom] and then the battery of unhealthy and self-destructive choices I made as a young adult. That I could go from that point to being an overprotective mother kind of does seem amazing.
Rumpus: It’s so true that life with kids gains significance. And it’s not just the big things in life, but also the little things. To that end, throughout the book you masterfully craft suspense in scene by slowing down and digging into little moments from life—seeing a sloth in a tree overhead, approaching a door to knock, offering an avocado peel to ants, encountering a doppelganger on an exercise bike (I could go on because these moments are everywhere in this book). You breathe air into these brief moments, inflating them into powerful explorations of what it means to be human. As an essayist, how have you learned which moments in your life to explore, and which moments contain deep truth to be mined?
Rumpus: And practically at a craft level, how do you create such delicious tension across these moments?
Christman: Practicing deep curiosity and close observation is fundamental to writing essays. We need only to look at our small children to teach us these lessons.
There’s a great introduction in the Judith Kitchen and Mary Palmer Jones flash nonfiction anthology, In Short, where Bernard Cooper writes that short nonfiction requires “an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.” That’s my goal in every length of nonfiction. Those moments from If This Were Fiction are the moments that chose me because they got lodged in my brain and wouldn’t let go. I don’t sit down and think, Okay, I want to write about grief: What am I going to use? Instead, I remember sitting on that hard single bed in San José, cutting that avocado open, and feeling the loneliest I’d ever felt in my life. So these moments that require me to investigate them as a writer are already in my mind. Some of them come from deep memory, and some of them are more immediate. In “The Googly Eye,” I wrote the details of that essay down right after they happened. I knew that the story was going to matter as soon as I asked my daughter Ella why she’d put the googly eye up her nose, and she said, “Because I thought it would be different.” And I was like, “Alright, Yoda. Alright.” So I wrote down all the details of the lunch we were having. It took a while for an essay to grow out of those notes. I like my essays to be as accurate as possible.
Now, on the other hand, you have an essay like “The Avocado.” I was at the kitchen island in a friend’s house, and we were making a salad, and he handed me an avocado. In that moment, it was as if I left the swirl of the dinner party and got sucked through a portal I’d accessed through the avocado. It was so powerful, and let me tell you, many avocados were consumed in the writing of that essay! I had to keep cutting them open and looking at the color. I believe in mining memory using stuff that you can get your hands on in the present, so I obviously couldn’t have the avocado that I had back in that Costa Rican hostel, but I could have as many avocados as I wanted from the grocery down the street.
As for the doppelgänger in the spin class? My long-dead fiancé I couldn’t look away from? Well. I’m not convinced it wasn’t him. It looked exactly like him—and after that one day, he never came back.
Rumpus: It reminds me of Elissa Washuta’s “White City.” A brilliant essay about all these moments from the narrator’s life that are grounded at these specific places, and then she also merges in encounters with past versions of herself.
Christman: Yes! I love this moment in “White City”: “I stopped seeing Future Elissa, but other people tell me, ‘I saw your doppelgänger!’ One friend kept seeing her along Madison. ‘Was that you?’ people ask, and I never say the truth, which is maybe.”
So much of essaying has to do with navigation of time. You have the now-self, and then you have the past-self and the tension between those cells frequently drives the essayistic momentum. For example, “The Googly Eye” would lose intensity if it weren’t for the way in which Ella’s note about why she put the googly eye up her nose accessed a whole history of mine—which creates the essay’s driving tension. Often my essays start with a line of dialogue that gets stuck in my head, an image, or a question that is dogging me. It’s usually one of those three things. It’s never an idea. I don’t have any ideas before I have essays. That’s the truth.
Rumpus: It’d be a lot harder to fit things around an idea than to expand a moment or an image into an idea.
Christman: Yeah, I’ve tried to do it before, and either my ideas are not very good or they’re just not the right idea; it has never worked for me. It seems like it would be an efficient way to write an essay, right? But essaying only works by bringing curiosity into close observation toward the question that guides my thinking.
Also, I’ve never finished an essay that in any way resembled what I thought it was going to be when I started writing. If I knew where I was going, it wouldn’t be an essay. That’s the joy of the essay. You simply cannot know where you’re going or you’re not writing an essay. It’s very frustrating to students, I think. Because with fiction you can be like, “Okay. I know how this thing is going to end. Now let me figure out where to start.” I can even outline fiction. It changes, of course, and it’s wonderful when characters misbehave, but still, it’s possible to have at least an illusion of where we’re all headed together in fiction. But I can’t outline an essay. I might have scenes that I suspect will stick to each other. For example, I’m writing an essay about how I talk to strangers in elevators much to the mortification of my entire family, but somehow the essay draft also picked up the story of my last conference pre-COVID, then Skylab, then the parties we had the summer Skylab was falling, then spiders spinning their webs on Skylab, and Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web is in there now too. Everything trying to coexist in the same essay.
Often I find myself returning to moments in life where I surprised myself. For instance, in “The Avocado” there’s a moment where I’m sitting on the couch, Google Map the intersection where my fiancé died, and start to sob. That’s followed quickly by the realization that he died when he was hungry because they were headed to dinner. I couldn’t have had that thought except from the perspective of being a mother. That’s not something I cared about when I was twenty, right?
I have an exercise where I ask my students to make lists of animals and vegetables and minerals, and then they have to choose one of each to write about—then they have to thread the three together, which is essentially what I do in “The Avocado” (the leafcutter ants, the avocado, and the volcano). In the weaving, the essay comes to be about the way the female body carries grief. But I didn’t go into writing it with that idea in mind.
Rumpus: Beyond “The Avocado,” throughout your essay collection there’s a linkage between the body and memory, whether in regard to sexual assault and trauma, a bodily grief concerning a lost fiancé, a projector screen to the face and ongoing fear, or even reminiscing about seeing a googly eye stuck up inside your child’s nose. Why do you think these material (body) and immaterial (memory) constructs coordinate together so well to create essayistic exploration?
Christman: Writing “The Avocado,” I held one avocado or another in my hand throughout the process. Bessel van der Kolk, a brilliant psychologist whose work I’ve followed since I was young and whose most recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, is an international bestseller, reminds us that the body remembers what the mind cannot. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, that’s the way I’m wired. I came of age holding memory in my body in a place where others couldn’t see it, and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to open all that up. The essay has been a way for me to go after what I can feel inside my body. I don’t push things down. I feel the feelings. For much of my writing life, I’ve been like a magician pulling handkerchiefs from my mouth, clearing my throat, and telling my story. It’s always felt so connected to me and I’m able to move easily between the body and the mind. That’s the space in which I do my work.
Rumpus: Throughout this collection many of your essays grapple with surviving sexual violence. What advice do you have for survivors interested in essaying their own stories?
Christman: I hope that my work can give others who have hard stories that they have not been able to tell permission, and perhaps even strategies, to tell their own stories. If I boil down what readers and students ask from me, it comes down to two questions: 1) Can I say this? (My answer is “Yes.”), and 2) How do I say it? (My answer is, “Return to an image, or a moment. What point in the story feels like a safe place for you to enter?”) When I was writing Darkroom, I learned this: We don’t need to touch every dark memory in order to turn on a light. Your essay doesn’t have to be a catalog of every hard place. You can find the thing that gives you access and open that up. One of the ways is to find something small. An avocado. A sloth. A day trip. There’s no formula.
I thought at a certain point I would find a way to write trauma, and then I could return to that method and use it. Again and again. But that’s silly. You need to figure out what part of you is going to be to tell each story of trauma and then determine how it is that you’re going to help yourself feel safe. There are also physical strategies. You have to take care of yourself extra when you’re writing hard stuff. You have to get exercise. You have to get away from your computer. You have to get outside. You have to spend time with people who love you. All of that is a really important part of that process.
Rumpus: This collection is also about motherhood. A year ago I became a parent for the first time myself, so this collection resonated as these essays explore the joys, fears, and beauty that parenting entails. What writing advice do you have for parents in regard to how to write about their children?
Christman: I felt more permission to write my children when they were little. I actually write about this in an essay titled “Chewing Bandaids” in Joy Castro’s terrific anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (also published by the University of Nebraska Press). My essay in that collection explores the idea that I’m writing to my parents and those who raised me. I never have had any qualms about saying what I need to say. I come from a family of artists, and they gave me lots of permission to do that, but also they’d made their own beds, right? I’ve always been clear about that. But writing our kids is different. They didn’t ask to have a mother who’s a memoirist and an essayist. I always want to respect their privacy—but there’s a big difference between privacy and secrets. I thought about this hard when my son Henry was a baby. So I wrote about my kids when they were little before I could ask them if I could write about them, and I felt okay about that, although I certainly avoided things that would later be embarrassing to them, but as they’ve gotten older, I’ve started asking them if I can write about them. A good example is in “The Baby and the Alligator.” The end of that essay is about my daughter, Ella, in a pretty deep way, so I let her read it before I published it. Sometimes I ask, and one of my kids says some version of “Please don’t”—or “Mom. No.”—and then I don’t.
Rumpus: What advice do you have for parents in regard to balancing work, writing, and parenting?
Christman: You don’t? There’s no balancing. There’s living, and when there’s teaching and writing and kids and love in that life, that’s pretty great. I hear people talk about work-life balance. Let me be clear. I have never had a work-life balance. I really haven’t. I mean I work when I can. I write when I can. I’m a mother all the time. I can’t pull these things apart—and for that, I’m grateful.
But I’m guessing that’s not the answer you’re looking for? When we had babies and toddlers who needed constant care, we used to hire a babysitter on weekends to be with the kids downstairs while Mark and I wrote upstairs. That was perfect because we didn’t want to leave them, but we also had our own space to think. Being married to another writer has been a gift, because I know how important it is to him to have his writing time, and he knows how important it is to me.
I have to write in the morning. So I write first thing after everybody goes off to school, or I’m not going to write that day. When the kids were little I had to get up at five and write before they woke up. Sorry, but that’s the truth. As a family, we ate dinner together every night. I always put the kids first, and if other things didn’t happen, they didn’t happen, but they usually did happen. I’ve noticed it becoming popular in the writing world (maybe just in the Twitter-verse?) to say that the need to write every day is a myth and a scam—but for me, if I don’t write at least fifteen minutes a day, I lose the thread of what I’m trying to do. I have to schedule writing time as I do a workout or class prep, because the writing is the first thing that will fall away, and it’s also the thing that keeps me sane, alive, engaged—and employed.
Rumpus: On pg. 66, in the essay “Life’s Not a Paragraph,” there’s a powerful line: “Love is an art. Love takes practice.” Do you see any correlation then between love and writing essays?
Christman: Yes! They both are a practice. Flannery O’Connor, right? We need to practice “the habit of art.” Right? I think that’s also love. At any point in our lives we can choose to not attend to it. We can choose to not be curious. We can choose not to pay attention. We can do this with our children. We can do this with our work. We can do this with our students. We can do this with love. Writing essays is part of the practice of love for me, because it requires that I look closely at the relationships I have in my life, and my relationship with myself and my relationship to love and loving other people. In that way love and writing are woven together, right? In that particular scene I was trying not to be an utter fool. It was two o’clock in the morning and I wanted to go over to Mark’s house, but there was no way to start a relationship at that hour. Looking back, I think, Good job, young self. Waiting until morning was a good choice. I could have acted completely on impulse. I was practically made of impulse at the time, and I didn’t do it. I waited a whole six hours. And it worked out. We’ve been happily married for almost twenty years. We have two kids. And now that I’ve written this book, we have this artifact for our family to look at and see how it all began. Is that a work-life balance?
Author photo courtesy of author