THIS MONTH JAYNE JAUDON FERRER AGREED TO TALK WITH US ABOUT HER WRITING LIFE.
Hi Jayne, why don't you tell us a little about yourself?
I'm a native Floridian, but have loved the Great Smoky Mountains since I was a child and was delighted when we finally got to move to Greenville, South Carolina, ten years ago. Now I get to look at the mountains every day and can be in them in less than half an hour!
I've been a wordsmith of one kind or another ever since I graduated from college. I've had three books published, and all three are available right now, at regular and online bookstores everywhere, in new editions from Loyola Press. They are gift books about motherhood entitled Dancing with My Daughter, A Mother of Sons, and A New Mother's Prayers. Dancing with My Daughter is brand new; the other two -- which feature several new poems in this edition-- were previously published by Pocket Books.
When I'm not writing or doing "mom" things (my sons are 20, 15, and 14), I love to read, watch old movies, and have friends over for dinner and conversation. I love to travel when the opportunity arises, but otherwise, I'm pretty much a homebody.
To read excerpts from the books, learn more about me, and see pictures of my family and my pet llamas, readers can visit my website at http://www.jaynejaudonferrer.com/.
Q. How long have you been writing stories/poetry? What made you put that first story/poem down on paper?
I honestly can't remember life without reading and writing; I've been doing both since I was four. My earliest memories are of sitting on the floor next to my mother as she sewed, writing letters as she called them out to me. The first specific story I remember writing was one called "Jet, the Race Horse," which I wrote in first grade. (Yes, I still have it!) I don't know that I could tell you what "made" me start writing; it's as much a part of me as breathing. I just always have. Interestingly, I wrote stories--not poetry--all the way through elementary and middle school. A poetry project assigned by my 9th grade English teacher unleashed something in me, though, and I was completely smitten. Thank you, Mrs. Knight!
Q. What was the first story/poem? Where was it published? How long did it take? What was the process? How easy was it finding a publisher?
My first book was a collection of poems I wrote when my first child was born. At the time, I was working as a freelancer and had put together a collection of short stories written by chaplains who served in Viet Nam. I'd done a magazine article on chaplains and was so intrigued that I decided to put a book together. I took the proposal for that book to a writers conference, met with an agent, and pitched it. The agent had no interest at all in my proposal, but we "clicked" right off the bat and she liked my writing style. She asked if I had something else to show her and I really didn't, but told her I'd see if I could come up with something to send her. It was my husband who suggested that I send the poems. Having my son had unleashed a torrent of creativity and I had written one poem after another in an effort to process and capture the fascination and fatigue of those early months of motherhood. Those were just personal musings, though; publishing them had never crossed my mind. But once my husband suggested it, the idea intrigued me, so I gathered them up and sent them to the agent. She really loved them and told me if I'd come up with a way to tie them together into a book and do a proposal, she was sure she could sell it. The second publisher she approached offered me a contract; that was Pocket Books. They did a huge print run, which is unusual for poetry, and the book sold out. Pocket produced a second edition when they published my second book, and now Loyola Press has published a third edition. My little collection of musings about motherhood has now sold well over 50,000 copies and generates letters from mothers all over the world!
Q. Where do you get your ideas?
Oh, goodness, they come flying in from all directions! A little old man crossing a street, a comment from my pastor during a sermon, sunbeams filtering down through the trees on our road...if I'm in a receptive mood, I can be inundated. I try to always keep something to write on close at hand, because I never know when a word or image is going to trigger something in my brain.
Q. What do you think about self-publishing?
Truthfully? I think it's having a negative impact on the book industry. Up until recently, getting a book published meant you had to satisfy the standards and judgement of broad cross-section of professionals. That's not the case anymore, so a lot of inferior books are finding their way into print. There are certainly exceptions but, in my experience, most people who self-publish choose that route because a) they want more control over their work than publishers are willing to allow, or b) they haven't found a publisher willing to accept their work. In all honesty, I don't know any of us who don't benefit from a good editor or an objective opinion. Readers don't seem to care whether a book is self-published or not, but booksellers and media usually do. Promoting a book is a full-time job even with a major publisher backing you; I can't understand why any author committed to a serious, long-term career would want to go it alone.
Q. Who’s your favorite author and why?
My favorite author is still Louisa May Alcott. I love her sense of humor, her passion, and the way she portrays family life. Little Women is a special favorite, of course, but I've enjoyed all of Louisa's books and was thrilled when a new manuscript was discovered a few years back. I wish they'd find a hundred more!
Q. How did you deal with rejection letters, if you received any?
If a writer isn't receiving rejection letters, she isn't submitting any work! That's just part of the business. My husband thinks writing is a brutal profession; he assures me that pouring heart and soul into something that no one may ever want to publish--and getting rejection after rejection after rejection en route to that tiny possibility of success--is an insane way to make a living. I won't say I'm not affected when an article I thought was perfect for a publication is declined, but I'm more like, "Sigh. Oh, well, now where shall I send it?" than angry or depressed. Researching markets takes up time that I'd rather use for writing, so it's a pain to have to interrupt my work to find another potential publisher for something I hoped I'd already placed. One technique I started at the very beginning of my career is to attempt my loftiest goals first, i.e. start with the biggest, most glamorous, or highest-paying publications first and then work your way down. Getting rejected by Good Housekeeping is a lot more fun than getting rejected by "Redneck Weekly"!
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of writing poetry?
Having a good ear and a good sense of rhythm are vital. When I work with children, I stress that, even when a poem doesn't rhyme, it has to have a rhythm that "feels" right. Even in free verse, the flow of a poem is every bit as essential as the words. Unless it's intended that way, a poem shoudn't sound awkward or uneven when it's read. It should roll off the tongue naturally. Freshness is another important element. The world is overrun with mediocre poetry; if one can't find a new twist, or offer an alternative perspective, there's no point in adding to the glut.
Q. Do you use any set formula?
I don't. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I just dive in. Sometimes I use rhyme, sometimes I don't. Sometimes one genre seems the perfect form for expressing a thought, sometimes not. I kicked around one phrase for six or seven years, trying to make it work. It inspired half a dozen unfinished poems, an unfinished short story, and a complete musical before I finally fleshed it out to my satisfaction in -- full circle! -- a finished poem. Basically, I go with whatever keeps the muse happy.
Q. Do you have a favorite link you’d like to share?
Info Trak, the Internet resource for periodicals that I access through my public library, is a phenomenal site. The link would be different in every state, but I assume every state's library system offers access to the information. Being able to research--from my desk at home!-- coverage of virtually any topic in virtually every magazine published is incredibly convenient and has saved me hours of time.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
Getting lost in a good book is my favorite escape, but I love old MGM movies, too. Give me Esther Williams, Sonja Henie, Katherine Hepburn, or Gene Kelly, and I am in heaven! Music relaxes me, too. Depending on my mood, I love everything from Vivaldi to rap.
Q. What does your family feel about your writing?
My husband wishes I wouldn't do so much of it in the middle of the night, but other than that, they're all tremendously supportive. My youngest son has my books on his night stand and occasionally, he'll quote a passage to me if it's apropos to the conversation. I love that!
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
Reading a good book inspires me; seeing another author do well always makes me want to achieve more and be the best I can be. As far as specific individuals who inspire me, that would probably my friends and family. Their encouragement and admiration is both humbling and motivating.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
I just send a new poetry book manuscript to my editor, and I'm looking for a publisher for two picture book manuscripts. I'm about halfway through a novel--kind of an Erma Bombeck meets Mitford meets Julia Child thing--that I hope to have completed by Christmas, and I'm working on a novel for middle-grade readers that was inspired by a historic street I got to drive down every day last year as I took my children to school.
Q. How do you handle Writer’s Block?
Usually by turning my attention to reading someone else's work. As I said earlier, good writing always inspires me. Writer's block is not nearly the problem that "time block" is--I fight interruptions much more a failure to produce ideas!
Q. What is most frustrating about writing poetry? Most rewarding?
The most frustrating thing about writing poetry is finding an appropriate place to publish it. Most journals and zines are one extreme or the other--trite and amateurish, or obscure and profane. Publications that are targeted at women who are generally happy with life, love their families, and are willing to admit they eat carbs and have shopped at Wal-Mart, are few and far between--and those usually don't publish poetry! When I do manage to get my poems in front of those women, though, the absolute most rewarding thing is when they tell me my words touch their heart. Reading to a group of women and hearing them laugh, or cry, or sigh, as a poem resonates with them is deeply satisfying.
Q. Do you have any kind of writing schedule?
I try, but the truth is, with children still at home and in school, my schedule pretty much revolves around theirs. This year, one's in band and another's in ROTC, so I have a couple days a week that I can work from 9 til 5. It's glorious! I'm really not a morning person, though; in the summers, I send my body clock into a tailspin by writing all night and sleeping half the day.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer? What’s the worst?
The advice I constantly repeat to myself is "Put your butt in the chair and WRITE!" That originated from an editor I heard at a writer's conference in Florida some twenty years ago in the more socially correct mantra of "Write every day!" I've adapted it to be a bit more stern and to the point, because I can find a hundred and ten reasons a day why I can't get started on whatever project I'm supposed to be working on. Especially when you have books in print that you're trying to promote, it is difficult to stay focused on producing new material.
The worst advice came from a writer I heard at that same conference (it was the first big conference I ever attended) who said, "You can't worry about what other people think." His point was that we shouldn't let potential criticism keep us from writing what we want to. While I don't disagree entirely, I think most of us have to be sensitive--at least, to a certain degree--about offending people. I'm very active in my church, and my children's schools, and my community, for example; writing a book laced with graphic sex and obscenities--no matter how good it was--would create a lot of discomfort. I hardly feel repressed at being unable to write steamy novels, but I do have to stop and think a while if I feel led to use a profane word in a poem. Sometimes, I decide it needs to be there and I leave it. Other times, I search for a less-offensive alternative, but I see that as a challenge rather than a stifling of my creativity.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first poem, what would your advice be?
Get a good thesaurus and start expanding your vocabulary. Poetry is all about distillation--about getting to the heart of things. To do that, you must use words that convey exactly the nuance you intend. The more words you know for "happy," for example, the better your chance of hitting your intention on the head.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Read, read, read, read, read. Anything. Everything. The more styles you see, the more information you gather, the better writer you become. Even reading bad writing is helpful. And, remember, inspiration can come from some very unexpected sources!
Q. Any last comments or advice?
Please give poetry a chance! It's such a perfect option for people who like to read but don't have much time for it. I'll be the first one to agree that finding a "poetry soulmate" requires effort, but I promise you there is someone out there whose work you will love, whose poems will make you feel good all over, and when you find that writer, your efforts will have been worthwhile.
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