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Interview with author Jennifer Culkin


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I am more fascinated than ever with creative nonfiction. Whether it’s memoir, a collection of personal essays, or creative journalism, the narratives of people’s lives inspire and inform me in ways that straightforward biography simply doesn’t.

Recently I read an amazing collection of personal essays by local author, Jennifer Culkin. Her book, A Final Arc of Sky, recounts her experiences as a critical care nurse and life-flight medic within the framework of her life as a working mother with multiple sclerosis. I found the depth of her narrative astounding and truly appreciated the intimacy of her essays because they illuminated a lifestyle I’ll never be privy to myself.

Today I offer an interview I recently conducted with Jennifer; we chatted quite a bit about the writing life in general, and what follows are insights into her world that readers of the Writer’s Rainbow blog are sure to glean something from.

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An Interview with author Jennifer Culkin, author of the memoir, A Final Arc of Sky

Writer’s Rainbow: What is the greatest pleasure you take from writing?

Jennifer Culkin: It feels like a form of wrestling to me—muscular, up-close engagement with feelings, ideas and language.  When I sit down, I usually have something sitting in my gut that has arrested my attention in some way, but I don’t know exactly what there is to say about it.  I write in part to discover—with as much precision and specificity as I can—what there is to say about it.  Tremendously satisfying.  It hits any number of sweet spots.

WR: Do you have a particular weakness in your skill set or process that continues to hound you as a writer?

JC: Oh, there are a lot of things.  The worst is that when a deadline is coming up I’m a horrible procrastinator, and ultimately that’s as painful as ripping out fingernails.  But I don’t know how to change that about myself.  I’ve tried all sorts of schedules and mind-games but the writer in me seems to be a balky teenager who wants to sleep late.  Sigh. And I’m a slow writer.  That’ll never change. 

I’d also like to write a novel, but I’m not a great plotter.  I do think I have potential to improve in that area—it could be fun to make the effort to improve in that area.  And I’m sick of my own tics as a writer.  If I’m boring myself, I’m boring the reader.

WR: You’re a busy working mom. Are you an everyday writer, or do you just write when you can fit it into your schedule?

JC: When I work at the hospital, my day starts at 4:30 AM and I don’t get home until about 9:15 PM; work is a fast trot/total immersion for twelve hours and there generally isn’t a minute available on those days, unless I were to try to jam something into a notebook at lunch. 

Usually I do a desultory crossword puzzle at lunch and luxuriate in the sensation of sitting down.  But those long days enable me to work 2-3 days per week instead of 4-5.  I do write something every day I don’t work—whatever I feel like writing unless I’m under a deadline.  When no deadline is looming, I amuse myself.

WR: What’s your favorite writing “situation”—where and when do you like to work best, and with what tools?

JC: I’m a computer girl.  I love the glowing blue-blank page, the tactile click of the keys, and my process is completely dependent on the ability to edit as I go.  I don’t know what will happen if the end of the world comes and the lights go out permanently.  Or if MS worsens to the point I can’t type.  I dread that day.  But I suppose I’d adapt, like people do.  

I have an office-loft that overlooks the living room in my home, and because of the office chair and adjustable computer screen it’s physically the most comfortable place to write for hours—my neck and shoulders thank me.  But the informality of the laptop in other locales also has its little siren call.  Once I’m engaged with what I’m writing—once I’ve achieved escape velocity—I can do it anywhere with any amount of background noise.  Right now I’m sort of half watching the Tour de France.  Boys on bikes!

WR: Describe any writing rituals you might have.

JC: I always feel like writing first thing in the morning, so most days I do, right after I make the killer cup of coffee.  When I’m working on something serious, I put on these old black corduroy pants that have an elastic waistband and I sit down in my loft.  If I’m stuck or feeling particularly procrastinatory, I either journal about it so I can bitch to myself or I deal myself out three Tarot cards and divine my future.

WR: Do you ever play music while you write?

JC: I did it once—listened to Green Day’s American Idiot on my MP3 player while I worked on the “Night Vision” chapter of the book.  It was fun—almost addictive fun—but the voice in the chapter took on punk overtones.

WR: You’re an avid cyclist. Do you ever lose yourself in thoughts about writing while trekking around on your bike?

JC: I love riding because I can think about everything in the universe while my legs are busy.  The feel-good neurotransmitters start to flow and take the edge off everyday anxiety. 

I’ve also noticed that my physical abilities transiently improve when I engage in vigorous exercise.  The physical and biochemical changes that occur during exercise must make nerve impulse transmission more efficient across those damaged areas in my brain and spinal cord.  

It’s also my chance to listen to music as much as I want.  Mudhoney, anyone?  The straight life baby/has taken its toll/confined your mind and/stolen your souuullll…yup, it’ll get you up a hill.

WR: Your book, A Final Arc of Sky, is a memoir about your life as a critical care and life-flight nurse. However, you also interweave in the narrative your discovery of what would be the eventual diagnosis of MS.

I’m interested in the intersection where nursing, writing and multiple sclerosis meet: how does encountering each of these facets of your life inform the others in this trinity? Does nursing inform writing, does writing inform self-care for the MS, does the MS inform you as a nurse?

JC: Hmm, a complicated question.

Physically, for me at this stage, MS is like carrying around a 20-pound backpack all the time.  I’m not so severely impacted that I can’t do things I want to do, but my energy is extremely finite.  It goes, it goes!  It always goes before I’m ready for it to go.  My energy is like the caboose of the train I ran to catch, disappearing into the distance.  And once it goes my neurologic symptoms—dizziness, balance issues, tremor/fine-motor impairment, spasticity, deficits in memory and information processing—get worse, sometimes a lot worse.  Too tired for too long and I’m setting myself up for a flare—that happens about twice a year at present.  

So I have to husband my energy.  I can push myself—I’m the sort who will push herself—but sometimes that backfires.  It’s not always the right answer.  Critical-care nursing in my current setting is demanding physically, intellectually and emotionally, so I know two days a week I’m going to have to go all out for 12 hours, 17 if you count the commute. 

On one hand, I think it improves my endurance in the big picture, like cycling does.  My natural inclination as a person is to put out a huge, focused effort followed by sloth.  This is why 12-hour shifts in an intense specialty appeals to me.  In college and grad school, I was the type who wrote 30-page papers the day before they were due.  But now that sort of effort is often too much for me. 

I manage by working part-time.  I manage by having low domestic standards and expectations of myself.  We’re talking cracked paint and weeds.  I manage by living in the now.  I don’t know what my abilities will be later in the day, next week or next year.  I judge minute to minute what I can do and screw the rest, frankly.  When I truly CAN’T throw my leg over my bike or start an IV anymore, when it’s an absolute, then I will at least know I did it when I could.

Artistically, nursing uses a whole different area of my brain as opposed to writing.  It’s immediate, scientific-analytical, highly social, and cracks along at record speed.  Writing is both a physical and an emotional release from that.  It’s sedentary, solitary, ruminative and painstaking—I can give myself all the time in the world to sort it out and get it right. 

The way they balance each other is almost exquisite.  When I write I’m sitting down, physically resting, and I get a chance to think about what I’ve done.  A chance to think about all the little things that I noticed while I was taking care of patients, and while I was living life, but had no time to dwell on.  And writing is a safe place to explore my feelings about MS. 

My circle of family and friends is supportive, very supportive, but they have their own problems and in my estimation they shouldn’t have to worry about mine any more than I can help.  I don’t want to whine to them.  So I can have my unadulterated say about MS in a journal and it bothers nobody.

WR: You like to journal and it was your journaling that helped bring this book into existence. What piece of advice would you give to the would-be author who is considering a practice of journaling?

JC: You only have to please yourself when you’re journaling.  That’s the beauty of it.  Whatever your practice is, it should feel good—organic–to you. 

 If you have to force yourself to journal, then it might not be the right thing for you, or so says my sulky inner teenager.  Your journal should be a place of release and rest.  I have a lot of writer friends, and everyone’s idea of journaling seems to be different, which is great.  Some people only journal by hand, some people draw in their journals, some people collect tactile bits of life and stick them in their journals.  Some jot down cryptic phrases and ideas for development later.

My own journal is a place of focused play.  Extensive focused play, all in Word documents with weird little titles that clue me in to what I wrote about.  I zero in on something that intrigues me, bothers me, sticks with me in some way, and I tend to explore and develop the theme. 

I love tinkering with the craft of writing, with the language, punctuation and construction—it feels satisfying to do that, and in fact, that is how I become engaged each day in whatever I’m writing, I start by tinkering with what I’ve already written.  So my journal tends to be dense, to read like a piece I might publish, but I can be no-holds-barred honest and the pressure is completely off. 

I don’t journal with the idea that I’ll use any of it, but then I’ll find myself working on something and I’ll realize oh, I’ve already written about that.  I tell a story to myself in my journal, and sometimes I can then tell others the same story, or modify some of it for use.  

Writing is art, and art is not linear.  A journal isn’t linear, either.  So if your natural tendencies as a writer are anything like mine, this style of journaling might be useful to you.  It is time-consuming, though, without any certainty of payoff in the real world.

And a word about e-mails: I have some lovely, talented writer friends who are generous with their ears and their time, and I sometimes exchange pretty extensive e-mails with them.  This is one way I procrastinate, true, but sometimes there is good stuff in these e-mails and I can use it later.  Maybe you’re like me, and you can, too.

And one more thing. I talk myself through stuck places with journaling.  When I write, I have three documents open: the piece I’m working on, a document called “Outtakes” for phrases and paragraphs that need to come out in the short-term but that sometimes find a place later on, and a document called “Notes”.  “Notes” is for talking to myself and figuring out why I’m stuck.  Sometimes I’ll get on a jag in “Notes” and realize I’m not stuck anymore; I can cut and paste a whole section back into the piece and keep going.

WR: You won the Rona Jaffe prize last August for your memoir. Describe that experience.

JC: I was at work, having a busy day in the Emergency Department Observation Unit.  I checked my voicemail at lunch on June 30th last year and there was a message from Beth McCabe of the Rona Jaffe Foundation asking me to return her call.  It was 3pm here, and they’re on the East Coast, so it was too late to call her back, but I figured then I had won.  They never call if you lose; they send a thin letter. 

That was a moment of pure elation.  And over the next several months the Rona Jaffe Foundation was so good to the six of us who won.  They did their utmost to publicize and showcase us and our work, and I’m still using the $25,000 to supplement my income so I can work part-time instead of full-time.  The money is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

WR: What are you working on now?

JC: At this point, I’m a little fatigued, and I’m trying to figure out what might cohere into a second book.  I write most days as I always have, but I’m in a phase where nothing is linear and nothing seems to be adding up. There’s good compost, but no garden yet!

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