In the Spotlight: Jen Manuel
I'm excited to finally introduce Jen Manuel in a Spotlight this month. Recently, her short stories have been breaking in lit mags across the country like the white crests of so many Pacific Ocean waves. This September marks her second year as a TA for The Story Intensive — we feel very fortunate to have her on our team.
In this excerpt, you'll see why Jen's writing is so captivating. She writes about people and places with roughness and beauty, and her images can be both astonishing and matter-of-fact at once. Her language is alive with contrast, and her writing holds this evenly. For example, I love the richness in this description of the women in the boat: "Their stern faces, with those cheeks like rising loaves of bread, amorphous and soft-edged, split open with laughter."
For the past several years Jen has worked as a schoolteacher in the most northern and western corners of British Columbia. A lot of her writing explores life at these remote edges, often focusing on the Aboriginal student/non-Aboriginal teacher relationship, which she sees as fruitful yet ultimately flawed. Some of these stories have appeared in PRISM international, The Fiddlehead, Room Magazine, and Little Fiction, and will form part of Jen's collection, "The Morning Bell Brings the Brokenhearted". Jen was as a finalist in this year's Western Magazine Awards for her short story, Urchin.
Handwriting or computer?
Both at the same time. I adapted something I learned at a workshop with Lynda Barry. I use the computer for getting the linear sentences down, and I keep a notepad beside me where I scribble images, random words, phrases as they pop in my head; sometimes I might suddenly play a word association game.
Page count or time count?
Sentence count. Three sentences this morning always becomes more. Even going to the store, I’ll commit to writing one sentence in my head.
First drafts or revision?
Revision. I love the excitement of first drafts, but I love the puzzling out of revisions, the sculpting, the taking a little off here, adding there. I often find the process of discovery more exciting during the revision stage than during the first draft stage.
Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?
Used to be solo, but I've started to exchange with partners more often.
Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?
Quiet or music. If it’s music, I like to match music to the story. Right now I’m editing my novel about a woman who has lived alone in a remote medical outpost for forty years, and I listen to nothing but The National for its somber voice and Nick Drake for his solemnity.
How long have you been writing? How long have you known you wanted to be a writer?
My mother, Lynn Manuel, was a children’s author, and she was always talking about writing with me as a child, encouraging me to write stories, and so I grew up with an assumption that writing is inseparable from living. Nevertheless, I didn’t start writing with significant intensity or consistency until four years ago, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. At that point I poured everything I could into getting published while she was sick, and when I was called to Vancouver almost four years ago because her condition had worsened, I was able to walk into the hospice with my first short story in Room Magazine having just arrived in the mail. Since her passing, I have put all my energies into writing. It is how I feel her with me. Recently I told this story to an author I admire, and she'd had a similar experience with writing and an unwell family member, and it made me think it’s not an uncommon experience to be propelled deeper into our writing by such events in life.
How do you make time for your writing practice? How do you handle resistance?
For a long time, when I was a single mother with three young children, I had to get up at 5:30 every morning so that I could have quiet time to write. I have a lot more time now, though I still like that quiet time in the mornings. I also became quite proficient at writing in my head while walking the kids to school, etc.
Whenever I feel any resistance to writing, I know it means that I’ve got myself stuck at a very shallow level of working with the language, the sentences, the words. It means I have lost a sense of the heartwood of the story, that elusive yet vital piece of the narrative that hints at its aboutness. I then ask myself, “Why am I telling you this?” The answer always draws out the authentic parts of the story for me, as well as the honest, fresh language I need to express those authentic parts. Also, I find that once I start answering that question, I get really fired up and passionate about the telling of the story, and that brings me back to the joy of writing.
Lastly, it’s the sentence-count approach I mentioned above. If I really don’t feel like writing, I can at least get excited about a commitment to write only one really good sentence. To be honest though, I rarely encounter resistance anymore. It is very much like physical exercise — the more you do it, the less resistance to doing it you feel; in fact, you not only start to look forward to the next workout, but you also start to crave that sensation of exerting your muscles as hard as you can.
All this and I read Steven Pressfield’s work on resistance!
Tell us about your experience with Story Is a State of Mind. How it has changed your relationship to writing?
Two months prior to starting Story Is a State of Mind, I said to another writer: “It’s like I have no sense of control when writing; worse yet, I don’t even know what is to be controlled.” Sure, I knew from reading many books on writing what a third-person POV was, or what it meant to “show, don’t tell.” By I was still frustrated by my lack of awareness and understanding and intentionality. If somebody had said to me, for example, “some of your dialogue felt flat,” I would nod politely and knowingly as if I understood. But I didn’t understand. What did that mean? How could I change that? How could I craft it — control it — next time? It was SSM that changed all that. I finally started to know why I was doing something, the process for doing it, and how to practice it. These are three legs that support the path to mastery. In any endeavour.
Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today
This is from a short story called "Glass Balloons". Originally a much shorter version was published in Room Magazine in 2010, but it’s become a Mysterious Middle Draft after I decided to significantly lengthen the story (from 1500 to 5000 words), taking it in new directions. Speaks to the fact that “published” doesn’t always mean “done.”
This story is set in Kyuquot, a tiny community where I lived on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. It can only be reached by boat or by plane. Schoolteacher Miss Royston has just moved to the community when she goes with four women to comb the beaches for glass balls, the fishing floats that make their way from Japan. These glass balls can circle in the ocean currents for ten years before settling on the Kyuquot shores, and the people revere the balls for their long journeys. Along the way, Miss Royston is shown the cemetery on Mission Island, where the women each bring strips of stories of fallen sisters and brothers and husbands and children, and they weave them together like cedar hats. Stories of singing and of dancing and of filling jars with jam, of drumming, and of laughing and of stirring fish head soup, of hanging and of burning and of falling from great heights, of drinking and of shooting and of drowning and of drowning and of drowning in cold darkness. The Kyuquot people spend many hours beachcombing. On a funny note, the story’s concept of “wrestling” for the glass treasures came after discovering that women will, in good fun, shove each other out of the way if they spot a ball. On a serious note, the story was borne from my belief that this is how people who know the tragedy of sinking spend much of their lives: in search of those things that find a way to their shores across watery depths of darkness and drowned voices.
Excerpt from Glass Balloons, by Jen Manuel
On the first day of school, Miss Royston journeys to nameless shores to wrestle glass balloons from other women. Alone she hikes down the abandoned logging road from her house on the hill beside the Kyuquot School, searching for movement in the cedar boughs above and in the dark brambled arches below, until she reaches the Houpsitas Reserve: twenty-five houses the colours of salmon and sky woven into the rainforest on a Pacific shore of northwest Vancouver Island, its edges stitched to the rest of the world by air and water and satellite signals.
Children dump their bicycles and scatter to hide. They watch their new teacher from behind propane tanks and between thistles growing out of the cracked hulls of rotting boats. Next to the garbage bins at the end of the cement dock, two boys snicker as Miss Royston squeezes herself into a small skiff between four Nuu-chah-nulth women whose weight settles the hull deep into the water. The boys’ auntie, Sophie Florence, starts the motor and lets it warm up.
“Aren’t the children going?” asks Miss Royston.
None of the women speak to her. Or nod at her. Or even look at her. Shoulder to shoulder they sit facing the stern, quiet and unmoving and without expression, their eyelids half sinking, unblinking, their mouths straight as rulers. “Nice day.” Miss Royston drums her knees with her fingers. Clears her throat. “Tide’s pretty low,” she says. “You can see the bottom,” by which she means the juice bottle, the broken chain, the bicycle, the garden spade, the electric frying pan.
Sophie Florence drives the skiff towards the mouth of the cove, which separates the Houpsitas Reserve from Walters Island. On one side of the narrow passage there is a tall sea stack, and beside that a small outcrop of sharp black boulders with a few trees. In the middle of this outcrop somebody has driven a wood cross, about three feet tall, into the ground.
As they move through the passage, the motor stalls. Sophie Florence untangles long ribbons of kelp from the propeller and yanks at the starter cord, rocking the skiff so that the briny water nearly cascades over the gunwale. The women jostle against one another as the skiff wobbles and drifts alongside rocks and hills of purple starfish.
“You got a man yet?” One of the women asks.
“Me?” Miss Royston looks sideways at the woman called Lizzie Joe.
Lizzie raises her eyebrows. “A man? You mean back home?” Lizzie wrinkles her nose.
Miss Royston thinks for a moment. In the distance, the cove sparkles like a blue plate of broken glass in the morning sun. She asks, “You mean from here? Well, no. No. I only moved here a week ago.”
From the bow Margaret Sam calls out: “Well? What’s taking you so long?”
There is a wild eruption of whoops and cackles. The women throw their heads back and slap their thighs. Their stern faces, with those cheeks like rising loaves of bread, amorphous and soft-edged, split open with laughter.
“Real nutty, Sister!” Sophie Florence shrieks, her glasses pushed lopsided as she wipes away the wet corners of her eyes.
“Haw-ess!” Gina says, clutching her belly. “You’ll scare Magoo away!”
Miss Royston looks at Sophie Florence. “Magoo?”
Sophie Florence flaps her hand. “It’s just what she calls all the teachers.”
The motor has started up again, and they pick up speed, moving along the remote coastline and across the swells of open ocean towards a triangle of small islands. Miss Royston pulls wind-blown strands of hair from her mouth.
“How long you going to stay here for?” Gina shouts against the wind.
“I don’t know,” Miss Royston shouts back.
“One year? Two years? Half a year?” Gina doesn’t wait for an answer. “What’s the point in learning names? None of you ever stay for long.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Don’t matter,” says Gina. “You all leave eventually.”
Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.
What remains with you after reading Jen's work?
Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?
How is your own writing practice like Jen's? How is it different?
Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Jen!