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Jen Ippensen’s piece “Centennial Seamstress” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I grew up in the country outside a little unincorporated town called Worms, Nebraska. I remember doing a census during elementary school, and if I recall correctly, the population was 26. Although I’ve also lived in cities, as an adult, I’ve lived and worked in several small towns throughout Nebraska. What strikes me is what’s missing: things like anonymity, conveniences, and diversity associated with more populated places. I spend a lot of time thinking about what people in these circumstances endure, what they long for, and what they discover when they branch out.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Growing up in the Midwest, I think I’ve always had some awareness of the instinctive politeness developed in those from middle America, including myself, but as I’ve become more observant, I’ve found there’s a lot more to being Midwestern Nice than that. Sometimes when I’m with people from other places, I notice that I read a room differently than they do. Midwesterners, if we choose to be, are attuned to the subtle vibrations that stretch out on a tension-filled string between two tight-lipped smiles, the messages exchanged through a glance, a turned shoulder, the touch of a hand. So much is communicated through what isn’t said. I suppose we’re often considered passive aggressive. But what’s interesting to me is that we bite our tongues and repress our desires—until we don’t. Stories bubble up in tiny, seemingly-benign interactions and, of course, in those moments when the dam breaks.
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?
Those moments—images, feelings, events—that lodge themselves deep within let us know we have something to explore, something to discover, something to say. If I consider an experience that’s stuck with me or sink into a moment that’s been on my mind, I might find a truth to investigate, reveal a story to tell. In this way, memories are exceptionally important.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I’m inspired by all kinds of things: what I read, see, hear. I make notes and deposit potential ideas in the back of my mind where I like to let them roll around for a while. I tend to do a lot of thinking and feeling before I do much actual writing. Then, when I sit down to write, the computer can paralyze. If I’m feeling too judgmental about my work, I turn to writing longhand. I like the way it feels, scratching words out on paper, and for some reason it frees me from the self-imposed pressure of getting it right.
When I’m struggling with a problem in a story, I try to wrap myself around the character or situation as I’m falling asleep, and sometimes I’ll wake in the night with a solution rapping on my brain. I love to write late at night or even in the middle of the night when my schedule allows it. If I’m having a hard time writing, I also turn to water: shower, bath, swimming pool, whatever I can find. My children recently invested in a fairly sizable tank for their goldfish, so now I have the continuous sound of the filter waterfall trickling into the tank. It’s nice. I wake to that sound and it makes me feel like maybe I can make words happen. Once I get something down, I revise and revise and revise. Occasionally, it’s tinkering, but much of the time my revisions are so extensive a final draft looks nothing like the first draft. I have to write my way to understanding my characters and their situations, write my way to understanding what it is I’m trying to say. For me, that usually takes a lot of words and a lot of time.
My writing group is also extremely important. They challenge, support, motivate, and inspire me. When I’m with them, it feels like home. I believe writers need to spend time with other writers to maintain both our creative energy and our sanity.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I wish I knew how to tell when a piece of writing is finished. I could probably revise forever, or at least second guess myself forever. But when I think a story is close to finished, it helps to set it aside and come back to it later, sometimes much later. If I find myself wanting to read it aloud, that’s a good sign.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
It’s impossible for me to choose one favorite author. I’ve loved so many writers and books at different times in my life. And I turn to different authors, books, stories, poems, plays, or essays for different reasons. That being said, I admire pretty much everything about Lorrie Moore and I especially love Birds of America: the characters, language, humor, heart. When I read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior I was captivated by the details; I approached detailing in a whole new way after reading that collection. When I think about strong voice, I always think of Quincy Troupe’s poetry collection Transcircularities because the first time I read it I kept turning to my husband and saying “listen to this.” I was the same way with Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me. I just had to read some of those words out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time with Stuart Dybek’s “Nighthawks,” especially the “Transport” section where he incorporates so many literary devices; it’s magical. I could go on and on. Some of the work I’ve seen published online lately is incredible too: “Annihilation” by Celia Bell (Virginia Quarterly Review) and “All of Us Animals” by Annie Frazier (Longleaf Review) come to mind because it feels like every word works so hard.
What’s next for you?
I have a number of short stories that need revision attention and some new ideas I’m wanting to explore soon.
Where can we find more information about you?
You can check out my website www.jenippensen.com and follow me on Twitter @jippensen.