Jan Worth-Nelson’s essay “Afflicted” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 19, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I have the Midwest in my bones. I am an Ohio native. My mother told me I was conceived on a Saturday night in Cleveland, Ohio, when the racket from a nearby bowling alley/bar was keeping my preacher father awake when he should have been resting up for Sunday services. I grew up in Canton, Akron, Coshocton County and Wooster, Ohio. I fled to California right after graduating from Kent State University, later spent time in Polynesia, but came back to the Midwest at 30 – establishing myself in Flint, Michigan, and have been here ever since. The Midwest has deeply influenced my writing – my senses are full of it. I love the old Rust Belt cities; Flint is full of ghosts and despair but also a wild kind of hope, just like the Ohio cities of my youth. As I write this I’m hearing a train signal at a nearby crossing — two long, one short, one long, as always – that’s one of the mournful songs of the Midwest I listen for and which I find a reassuring message of order in the world. I like knowing the chickadee and nuthatch, the silver maple and cedar. The ruins and the starting again.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
See above. Well, first, people’s struggles are so raw. So many people wish they were elsewhere – there’s a tension in the air. But second, there’s this ongoing loveliness, competing with and arguing with our despairs. There is water and the color green envelopes us in the humid summers. Fireflies and bats at sunset. Then the additional contrasts – the riotous autumns and stark monochromes of winter, when the appearance of a single red cardinal can change a whole day. It’s so melodramatic and interesting.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
I just wrote an essay about two years I spent as a teenager in Akron, Ohio, when my parents were miserable…it was in the 60s and we lived in the shadow of the rubber plants just before the whole industry collapsed. I vividly remember the stink of the place, and its ruination. Big old brick factories and everything kind of greasy and noisy and anxious. And now I’ve lived 30 years in Flint, where there are signs all around us of the decimations of the auto industry, but also of people going on living in remarkable, stubborn, creative ways. I like the sprouts coming out of the ashes.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I’m probably most inspired by micro-moments – a single woodpecker, a beat-up dock on a polluted lake, a Petoskey stone, a deserted house, a shaft of late afternoon light. I have been oppressed and fearful of the dark for years, but lately I’m finding it rather more lovely, and that’s changing my writing. For years I wrote almost exclusively out of unhappiness, but I’m happier now, and that’s challenged my M.O. Can a person write well out of happiness? Still finding out. As my essay in this issue of Midwestern Gothic describes, I was sick for six months last year and I’m still getting better. So I’m especially grateful for each day when I can breathe the air and walk in the world in peace. I write crosslegged on my laptop in Lazyboys and rockers; I sit at a table in a yellow room. I try to get to that table at least once a day. Once I start, something almost always happens.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
When somebody accepts it, I guess. I revise everything all the time. Well, there is that moment when I get “done” with what seems like a solid draft and I ask my husband to read it to me, and it sounds good. And then I get a good night’s sleep that night.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Well, even though my own writing is full of excess and compound sentences, I love Raymond Carver’s short stories. My first favorite was Nadine Gordimer – I ran across her stories when I was a page in a little Carnegie library in Coshocton, Ohio in the 60s – and I remember thinking I wanted to write like that. I think Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” is the most beautiful villanelle ever written. I am blown away by Philip Larkin’s “High Windows.” And let’s face it, The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense was and is breathtaking.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. I want to make peace with my allergies, spend time with my husband, enjoy life, and keep writing. I’d like to have a full-length poetry collection published some time – don’t’ know if it will happen. Whatever, I’m not done yet.
Where can we find more information about you?
I have a relatively untended website, janworth.com.