SHERRIL JAFFE: permission to write

(Evan Karp)

Sherril Jaffe is a tenured professor of creative writing at Sonoma State University and the author of 9 books, the latest of which – Expiration Date – is to be released at the end of this month. She is the winner of a PEN Award and the recipient of a 2010 MacDowell Fellowship. One of the first people I met in the Bay Area, Sherril is a dear friend of mine; our conversation took place at her house, after one of our monthly dinners. I did not edit anything out. This interview was conducted in conjunction with a profile for SF Weekly, to be published soon.

Evan Karp: I usually start with the question: What makes somebody a writer?

Sherril Jaffe: What makes somebody a writer? A writer is a person who writes.

EK: Alright, so that’s cut and dry.

SJ: Yeah. But also if you’re visited by [laughs] a finger of God [laughs]

EK: So you bring God into it on line 1 [both laugh]. Fair enough. If we’re talking about God I guess that’s where he/she/it belongs. Um.

SJ: It’s sort of like the way you’re born, I think—a lot of people believe that anybody can be a writer; I don’t personally believe that. I think a lot of people can write, and do write, but it depends what you mean by a writer. If that’s your primary thing it’s sort of like you’re, you know, you’ll always be Caucasian. You’re born that, if you are.

EK: Right. OK.

SJ: It’s sort of the thing you are.

EK: Good answer. Yeah. When did you start writing? I mean obviously you considered yourself a writer, so … when did you know that you were a writer?

SJ: Well, they tried to stop me from writing when I was, even before I could write they tried to stop me. In fact a doctor, an eye doctor said to my parents that I should never be allowed to learn to read and write because my eyesight was so bad, and later they went to another doctor who said, She’s nearsighted, and eventually she can wear glasses. And she can go to school, she can learn to write. So maybe it was just the sense of I have to show them that made me become a writer at age 3, before I could even write my name.

EK: Wow.

SJ: But I think, when I was in fourth grade I was called down to the principal’s office. I was terrified because only the bad kids were called down to visit the principal, so shaking I walked in, and she sat me down—this was Mrs. Troker—and she said, because I was such a fine writer I was invited to write like an editorial for the school newspaper, or something, and I sat there looking blank and she said, Well, think of a stone that’s dropped into a pond, and the ripples go out and out and out, and that’s what I want you to write from. And I think she introduced me to my first idea of a metaphor. Even though of course I knew metaphors, without knowing that I knew them because metaphor is the DNA of existence [laughs, both laugh].

But there, consciously—suddenly I was conscious of the idea of a metaphor, and I was self-identified as a writer from that moment, and my teacher, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Zermulen, said that I could do anything I wanted; I could be a writer, I could be an actor—she probably said actress, in those days [laughs]—or, I could be a visual artist. And for years I thought, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. So I think I’m able to be an actor by being a professor. Because I’m only acting the role of a professor. But [laughs] so that uses up that talent of mine. But the writer has been something I’ve done ever since, and always felt that’s why I’m here. And we’re—when I am most myself and most inside my life is when I’m inside my imagination, often a cabin in the woods alone, writing.

EK: When did you write creatively kind of independent of school tasks or assignments when you were younger, like did you notice when you started doing that?

SJ: Well I always would do that, and write long polemical poems trying to convince my parents that I was this or that, I think, and um, would always, would always was, you know thought of myself as a writer and took creative writing classes when I was at university, and then um always wanted to be around writers, and it’s been consistent my whole life. I’ve never done anything else. I thought maybe I could be a waitress some day, but I’ve never really tried that.

EK: Not yet.

SJ: Not yet [both laugh].

EK: Still got plenty of time [laughing]. Um, ok, so … your first book came out in …

SJ: Let’s see, it must have been … 1970.

EK: Yeah.

SJ: Yeah.

EK: And that’s Scars?

SJ: Scars Make Your Body More Interesting. Which people always mis-remember the title, and believe that the book is actually called Scars Make Your Body More Beautiful, because people … it’s a mistake that is commonly made, and I guess most people think that interesting is beautiful and interesting are interchangeable in some way? Maybe they are to me. But I don’t think they are to the general public. It’s funny how people always misremember that title. But of course it’s just a metaphor for the idea that whatever happens to you is your material, kind of, and that you can’t, maybe—without suffering we have no depth. This is a problem for a mother, because when you have children you’d never want them to suffer, but if they don’t suffer they’ll have no depth. But there’s no problem because there’s no way to stop them from suffering [laughs].

EK: Right. Right. And so how old were you when you published that?

SJ: I was like 29. And it was reviewed in Ms. And some people say it was like the writers under 30 kind of phenomenon.

EK: And so it was kind of a big deal in a way.

SJ: Yeah.

EK: Yeah. … And so when did you get married? When on the timeline is that?

SJ: Get married to who? Which? [laughs]

EK: Oh no! OK. The first marriage.

SJ: The first marriage I was married when the book came out; I had married a poet, I married a creative writing teacher of mine. And—

EK: Was he much older than you?

SJ: He was much older than me and … and, you know, but I was in love with poetry and with the world of poets and writers, and so I was in love with him. But it didn’t last, and … one thing that was happening that let me know that the marriage was no good was that I felt that my fingers were paralyzed, and I couldn’t write. Because writing, literature, is a path to illuminating the truth, and I couldn’t say the truth, which was that there was something rotten in the marriage. I couldn’t admit the truth and so I couldn’t write, because I can’t write while trying to avoid the truth. And my fingers literally felt paralyzed. So as soon as the marriage broke up, I was able to write again.

EK: How long were you in that marriage?

SJ: I was married 7 years.

EK: Wow.

SJ: Yeah. Long years. And then I was single for a year. And then I met another writer and married him [laughs].

EK: And so when was that, if that was in 1970 …

SJ: So it was in 19— when did I marry Alan? The end of 79.

EK: OK. So you were early in your marriage when you came out with your first book?

SJ: Yeah. It was published by Black Sparrow Press which was a very famous press at the time, and interestingly enough the publisher of Black Sparrow Press who retired, who sold the press, his name is John Martin, and he lives up in Hillsburg I think or Windsor, and he is getting on in years and I recently saw a woman whose husband is a doctor, who had recently treated John Martin and I was very gratified to hear that he said I was one of the best writers, living writers. So he always believed in me, and would publish any book—he published 6 of my books and would have continued, only I decided I wanted to go to a bigger publisher or a different kind of publisher, so I bailed, but. His belief in me meant everything to me, and gave me total permission to do whatever I wanted; I could write whatever I wanted, and he would publish it. And also, because he believed in me, you know, I was able to believe in myself. And sort of like—I think that all writers need to find permission. Either you get it by publishing; you get it, you know, by—people usually start out in writing workshops, and then they have a deadline, and that gives them permission to write, and then when they graduate if they publish, you continue to get permission. And so my job throughout life has been to continue to try to get some permission, to continue to write because that’s the main thing that I want to do.

EK: Yeah. I was asking about the dates earlier because I was wondering about how you found time and managed to write when you had kids and when you were raising a family and if it was hard—

SJ: Well if you look at those books—

EK: to find permission then.

SJ: Yeah. I mean having kids, having little kids, is very hard. But if you look at those books you’ll see: the Black Sparrow Books, they all have short chapters. And maybe that has something to do with, you know, trying to find time in order to work and to focus. Now that I’m more into writing long novels—not long novels, but novels that are longer than very short pieces or short stories that are 5,000 words rather than, you know, 250 words … I need more time. I need time to focus. That’s why I work as a teacher, I’m a professor, and mainly for the summers, so that I … I find that it’s very hard for me to hold a whole novel in my head and work on it while teaching, and so as soon as I’m let out and, you know, the big key comes and unlocks the gate [laughs], and I’m set free from my duties, you know then I feel like I can put everything into focus.

Last summer I was privileged to have a MacDowell Fellowship, which was the best circumstance in the world because I had complete permission to write and everything was taken care of for me so I could write for 5 weeks, having my own private writing studio and not having to worry about food or anything else.

EK: You got pretty much a whole book out of that 5 weeks, didn’t you?

SJ: I wrote like a maniac. 9 hours a day in my cabin; I was deliriously happy and I wrote a 60,000 word novel. And that book will be expanded next summer, and will go through a whole complete … go to the next level, a complete draft. But [it was because] I could focus on it. Also, I think, I mean it’s mysterious to me how I was able to work like that, although I have terrific stamina and energy and ability to focus, and sort of when I write I go into a trance.

But also I think it was because I was not able to write for the last year and a half before that because my husband died and I was a grieving widow, and did not want to make any use out of my grief, did not want to take notes. And my usual point of view is that our lives are given to us as material for art, and that is the purpose of our lives, and yet I couldn’t. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t take notes, and I had to figure out a new way of writing because I had always worked in the house with my husband nearby, keeping me—giving me permission by believing in me – I was his favorite writer – and by just keeping me grounded so I could go off into my study and go deeply into any terrifying place because I was safe because he was holding me, keeping me grounded. So I had to figure out a new way to work … without him on the planet. And MacDowell did that for me, and I’m hoping that next summer if I don’t go to a colony that I’ll still be able to do it.

EK: I was going to ask you because some people—I once took a creative writing class that somebody, the teacher was arguing that all art comes out of sadness and grief, and—

SJ: I don’t believe that at all!

EK: I don’t either.

SJ: A life, I mean—that would mean that if art has to do with revealing reality or illuminating what is true or what is real, then that would mean that the only thing that was real was sadness and I don’t … I don’t believe that at all, it’s too … narrow.

EK: At least—maybe just that we can only—it takes that sadness in order to see through whatever illusions we have that are maybe necessary to get through our lives, you know. I don’t think that she was arguing, or that she would have agreed with the statement All life is sadness and that’s why all art comes out of sadness, but she definitely made the argument that—it was a Faulkner class and she was specifically talking about how when Faulkner went though all of these damaging life situations it was only then that he was able to kind of buck up and do his serious writing. But I didn’t think that you would agree with that.

SJ: I think life gives everybody a lot of everything, and in different doses at different times. And writing can redeem what is chaotic in life, and give it form and give it, transform it into something of value. But I don’t think it’s only sadness; it’s everything. You know, I always wondered if, you know, what does happily ever after mean? And I tried to—I’ve tried to approach that. Because that’s also, you know—it’s not just sadness, but what is joy? We need to know that too. Because I think art gives us our lives back to us in a way that we can’t really experience them in the present moment, but through art we can; our lives are returned to us. And I don’t just mean our lives, the lives of the authors who use their autobiographical material, I mean any reader who can feel his or her experience through art and actually have it in a way that you can’t quite have it as you’re living it.

EK: Yeah. I like … so in your new book, Expiration Date, I like how—I feel like you deal with that in a way because the mother is experiencing this kind of renewed joy in life, at an old age, when she wouldn’t expect it, and her daughter is actually kind of having the crisis, and doesn’t understand how the mother can be so happy, and so—and doesn’t know what to think about that, I think, more than anything.

SJ: Yeah.

EK: Yeah. I don’t know, what was it like writing that book? Especially with an older mother now, you know.

SJ: Well part of my intention I think was to reveal that when we look ahead in life, at all of the things that are going to happen to us perhaps, we have an imagination of what they will be like: what will it be like to be 30; what will it be like to be 40; what will it be like to be 50; what will it be like to be a parent; what will it be like to be a published author, or anything; what will it be like to have anything happen? And we imagine it in a certain way. When it actually happens, it’s never the way—it’s never exactly the way we imagine. But I feel like if you imagine that by the time you’re 50 you’re going to be washed up, you—it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I wanted to say, I wanted to explore in the book that things are not going to happen the way you think they are, so you should keep your mind open. Because if you decide I’m old or I’m stupid or I’m … a failure, then you kind of limit yourself. And I don’t see any point in imposing any limitations on your own experience.

EK: Clearly you’ve found permission somewhere. What’s your new permission? How do you—what enables you to keep your mind open and to …

SJ: What gives me permission, now? You know it slips away. You have it … well, Expiration Date just got 3 really strong reviews—pre-publication reviews. And that has given me tremendous permission to believe in myself as a writer. And that will go a long way. And being given a MacDowell Fellowship gave me tremendous permission. And that also enabled me to write, you know, a whole draft of a book. Permission is very important.

EK: Yes, I asked because it seemed to me to tie in directly with keeping yourself open, and in a sense, instead of just not restricting yourself to saying I’m stupid or I’m going to be washed up at 50, you know you could take that further and say Well I’m going to write an amazing book this year, and then self-fulfill that prophecy.

SJ: Absolutely [chuckles].

EK: I don’t know if that’s something that requires permission to actually really believe. That you can imagine yourself into some sort of being or into some …

SJ: It’s hard to juggle, I mean. I had a lot of early success I guess, in the sense of literary respect, and that permission has allowed me to believe in myself maybe. I think it’s harder if you send out work endlessly and you only get rejection; it would be hard to maintain permission to keep going at that point. But—and I think that’s what stops a lot of people from sending work out, is because they’re afraid of being rejected. Although all writers are rejected a lot, and have to learn how to deal with it. And if you never send work out and never apply for anything, there’s no chance you’ll ever get anything. So, I figure, you know, this is it, this is life; you might as well try for what you want to do. And I know for me, writing is happiness, and so I had to figure out all kinds of tricks to make sure that it will happen for me, because I know the permission I got from those last reviews, you know, will peter out [laughs], and I’ll need more permission from some other place. So I’ll send out stories; I’ll send out manuscripts, you know not worrying about—and as soon as I send them out I forget about them, and when I get something good come back then I can milk that permission for quite a while. So people, I think people write, you know—some people think they’re writing for fame, or money, and I write to maintain permission, so I can keep doing it.

EK: That’s awesome. I guess we could keep going; that’d be a great place to end it though.

SJ: That’s enough. Yeah.

[2 minutes later]

SJ: The metaphysical reasons I wrote the book … were that, I mean, you write because you need to write and your subject matter chooses you. You have to be open to realizing what is your subject matter, and at that time I was writing that book I had had a troubled relationship with my mother for my whole life, and I didn’t want that to continue. Even though she was getting old, as everyone else was, including me, while waiting for this relationship to get better, and so I wrote the book using my mother’s experience and writing her as a character and imagining that I was inside her mind, having her thoughts. So now it’s very odd because my mother is losing her memory, and she does not remember a lot of the incidents that I based chapters of the novel on. And now, just as she’s fading away and her own memory is fading away, these things are becoming eternal … because of the book. So in a metaphysical way, my mother becomes kind of immortal and internal through having been captured in literature. But is it really her? Of course. I’ve never actually gone into my mother’s head to examine her thoughts; I’ve only imagined them. And it’s funny because there are two main characters: one loosely based on me and one loosely based on my mother, and everyone prefers the mother figure and I don’t take it personally, because after all they’re both me. And of course people don’t think this, they think one is my mother and one is me, but they’re both me. I wrote it all. I imagined all the thoughts … [laughs] … and the observations of each character. So it’s fine if they prefer one character over the other—they’re both different aspects of me.

EK: Yeah.

SJ: Cause, and it’s—it’s a narrow slice of my mother. It is not the whole mother. It is a slice. But I wanted to kind of redeem my relationship with my mother and I feel that another reason we’re all on earth is to perfect our human relationships, and a lot of people have troubled relationships with people in their families especially. And I don’t want to live my life or have anyone in my life die thinking our relationship was not complete or not fulfilled or not purified in some way. And so that was like my private agenda for writing the book, was to kind of … normalize my relationship with my mother—to be able to love my mother in a pure way, beyond all the whatever, the past. All the old grudges or memories or things from the past. to get beyond all that. And to kind of redeem our lives.

EK: And she read the book, right?

SJ: No!

EK: No?

SJ: She hasn’t read it yet. And the question is whether—but she knows about it. She’s read the reviews. And she’s excited about it, as is her boyfriend who is also a character [both laugh]. And they’ve read the reviews so they have a rough idea of the plot, and I don’t even know if my mother will be capable of actually reading the book. She was always a great reader all her life, but whether she can actually read the book anymore, because she’s starting to lose her memory, I don’t know—it will be interesting to see. This is going to be a big event, when she actually reads it.

EK: Get that woman a book. A copy.

SJ: Well, as soon as it comes out. It’s going to be interesting. … But I often have metaphysical reasons for writing, and I’ve written a lot of stories in which my husband, my late husband was a character. Or stories based on stories from his childhood. Because for one thing was, when I fell in love with him, I thought Well—I met him when I was 33, but I didn’t have, I wasn’t able to share his life with him up until that time. So I quizzed him about every detail of his life, and then I wrote it into novels and stories so that—and putting my own life in there, mixing it up with his—it’s a kind of alchemy of being able to be together with him inside of his childhood.

EK: In the past.

SJ: So. But that is like … you know. I think that writing has a lot of side effects, and people say Well writing is therapeutic, or whatever. The main idea is to make art, but it does have all these different things that it does. It can, you know, redeem relationships and allow you to be with somebody through art in a way—sort of like the Grecian Urn thing forever. You know the Keats poem. So I use it as a metaphysical tool.

EK: Yeah. Wow. What’s your next book about, do you know?

SJ: Oh absolutely.

EK: Yeah you do, don’t you? You have it planned out.

SJ: Well, I mean the book that I’m working on is The Reversal. And that, well … my subject matter was grief, because of my husband’s death, but I did not want to write—or capitalize on a widow’s stories. I didn’t want to, I mean the best person on grief I think is Roland Barthes, who wrote a book with observations about after his mother died. And I think that he gets grief in a way that I don’t find anyone else getting it. But I didn’t want to, I felt like my own grief from my husband was kind of sacred; I didn’t want to use it for anything. But I had a big lump of grief, and that was my only subject matter. So I found a plot—well one thing is I often find plots from news stories, and this was a news story about two young women who went off to college, and there was a van accident and one was killed and the other one was in a coma and they mixed up their identities. And this was not discovered for 55 days, so I wrote a novel based on this, with the point of view character being the grieving mother, and another point of view character being the grateful mother, and the other character being the boy in the coma. So—I made it a boy instead of a girl because I have two daughters, and I didn’t want to imagine a daughter dying as thoroughly as you need to do in order to write, make fiction. Because I think writing does change the world, and make things happen, and I just, I couldn’t—that was not a subject that I wanted to do. So I made it a boy. And also, so that’s my novel. There’s a reversal in the middle of the novel where the boy wakes up, and they realize the mistake they made. Then the grieving mother becomes the grateful mother, and the grateful mother becomes the grieving mother. Because I myself would never want to read a book that was only from the point of view of a grieving mother. So the grieving mother is always balanced by the grateful mother. This has something to do with your idea of joy and sadness. Both are going on simultaneously.

EK: Wow. That’s really smart. … … We’ve been speaking with Sherril Jaffe … [both laugh]