Writing As I Am Now

The winner of the 2014 Autumn House Nonfiction Prize talks about the nature of memoir and the publishing industry, what makes the personal universal, and why words are so important.

Jill Kandel was the winner of the 2014 Autumn House Nonfiction prize for her book, So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village. Her essays have been published in The Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, River Teeth, Pinch, Image, Brevity, Best Spiritual Writing 2012, and Becoming: What Makes a Woman. Kandel lives with her husband and children in Minnesota where she teaches creative writing and essay. Every Friday she goes to a county jail where she teaches journal writing to female inmates.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Jill will be participating in the panel discussion, "Fact & Story: A Balancing Act." Creative Nonfiction’s Chelsea Denard talked to Jill about the nature of memoir and the publishing industry, what makes the personal universal, and why words are so important. 

CNF: Your background is in medicine; how did you make the transition from RN to writer?

KANDEL: Although I chose a career in nursing, I've always been interested in writing and keeping a journal. It's not so much that I was a nurse and now I am a writer. I've been interested in both medicine and writing much of my life. Nursing ended as a career for me when I moved to Zambia, but believe me, it was very helpful to have a medical background while living in a remote village on the outer rim of the Kalahari Desert. There were many times I had to make decisions, give injections, and treat wounds.

Because my writing flows out of my life experiences, I often include medicine, illness, health and healing in my stories. I think what links the medicine and the writing together is curiosity. I'm interested in how a body functions; I'm interested in what makes a sentence work. I like to understand what triggers physical crisis and how to intervene. I want to understand why a certain sentence is strong while another very similar one sags.

I grew up in a medical household. My father was a doctor. We talked about medicine and diagnosis and about the wonder of the human body. He used to take me down to his clinic after hours and we'd dissect frogs or look at the insides of a goose stomach. We read Scientific American and discussed it together. I also grew up loving the written word, libraries, school. I read the classics at a young age and was mesmerized by books of every sort. As Stephen King said, "Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." In many ways, I was primed to become both a nurse and a writer long before I knew what I would become.   

CNF: Did your memoir call out to be written down, or was it something you always planned on writing?

KANDEL: It wasn't until I returned from Africa that the words began to build inside of me, and I needed to write them out. Living in Zambia, in an isolated rural setting, was very difficult for me. I was often sick. I was hungry. I bore two children. I washed clothes by hand in the sink. I did this for six years. My husband was gloriously happy and very involved in agricultural work. He was changing the district we lived in. I was barely surviving. I didn't have the time or energy to process my emotions. So I stuffed them and hid them and carried on.

It wasn't until I came back, got healthy, and had the luxury of extra time that I began to consider what those six years had actually been like. When I began thinking about Zambia, I was mystified. I didn't understand six years of my life. We had been living next to Angola which was at civil war at the time. We saw hundreds of refugees fleeing for their lives. We were involved in a car accident that took the life of a twelve-year-old girl. I saw friends die, neighbors lose their children, the rise of the AIDS epidemic. It was all hidden deep inside and the only thing visible was my own silence. I wrote because I needed to break the silence created in Zambia.

I learned that hiding memories does not change the memories. It does not deal with them or take them away. It is a form of cheating. I was cheating myself out of my own life story. I needed words to clarify and straighten all the memories, both the grief and the glory. There was a lot of beauty in Africa. I suppose that is what surprised me the most. After writing out the memories of loss and sorrow, fear and confusion, I began to remember the wildlife, the birds, the Luanginga River, the Zambezi Floodplain, the beautiful friendships I'd shared with neighbors. I wrote through the pain, and what came out in the end was the beauty. Pain is not selective. It had been hiding the hurt and it had been hiding the lovely memories, too. Writing set me free. It gave Zambia back to me in a new way. It gave me back those six years of my life.

I learned that hiding memories does not change the memories. It does not deal with them or take them away. It is a form of cheating. I was cheating myself out of my own life story.

CNF: What did writing your book teach you about the nature of memoir? Would you redo any part of that process if you could?

KANDEL: I wrote and rewrote this book four or five times. At first it was just diary type entries. I did this. I went there. I bought that. It was chronological and boring. I added in story arch and creative nonfiction techniques, and wrote it out as separate essays. Then I began sending essays out and over the years had some good strong publications in Brevity, Image Journal, The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, The Pinch. I had a group of essays, but it wasn't a story as a whole. So I tore the essays apart and rewrote them trying to fit them together and puzzle them into becoming a book with an emotional arc. When I finished, I felt there was still something missing. I sent my manuscript to Lisa Ohlen Harris, a friend and colleague, for a critique and she said it needed another voice. She advised me to write in myself as I am now. To layer in my voice as a mature person looking back at that young woman who lived in Zambia so many years ago. It was difficult to go back once again and start over. But the book needed that extra layer of contemplation and knowledge.

It's been such a long process. I'm glad I didn't know ahead of time how difficult it would be. I'm glad I didn't know how many years it would take. I don't know if I would have had the courage to continue. I am very grateful to other writers who read and critiqued my essays and manuscripts. I'm also thankful that I took my friends advice, didn't publish hastily and went back and did the work of adding in that mature voice. It took another year. But I rewrote it once more. I love the depth and compassion that my older voice adds to the book. It made it complete.

So what did I learn about memoir? That writing takes time. Real time. It's a slow process. Like cooking. You can't rush it. I had a saying for many years above my desk. Never Hurry. Never Quit. That sums up a lot of my writing life. Diligence and hard work, while also allowing myself space to play, contemplate and not worry about where it all was going.

CNF: How did you learn to navigate the publishing landscape? Were there bumps along the way?

KANDEL: What surprised me the most was how much work there is to do after my book was accepted for publication. I mistakenly thought most of the work would be over once a publisher wanted it. The day Autumn House Press called and said they wanted to publish my book, I started making a to-do list that grew into pages and pages …Where do I want to send my ARCs? Here is a contract to sign. Who will do your blurbs? … I went out and bought a three ring binder and started filling it with more things-to-do. Eventually, I began to blog about the process. I'm blogging at www.jillkandel.com about the day to day decisions, questions I’m asked, awkward situations, promotions, self-promotion, ups and downs of how I navigate being an introverted writer who loves solitude and spends hours every day sitting in the dark at a computer, to becoming a—come to my book signing, hear me read, I'm throwing a book party!—published author. The transition is not something I expected and one that I certainly didn't understand ahead of time. If you want to read the blog, you can start at entry number one and follow the journey. It is an ongoing exhilarating rollercoaster of a ride.

CNF: What advice would you give to writers who are ready to publish?

KANDEL: I thought I was ready to publish when I wasn't. I think that is a common situation. How do you really know when you are ready? I'd cultivated close friendships with a few writers over the years. I trusted them. They trusted me. When it came time to publish, they were my best help. I've read their manuscripts and they've read mine. I listen carefully to their counsel. Having one or two people who know your writing is invaluable. Another person's eye and mind on your work is a real gift. Once you get the green light, having other writers’ support is fantastic. We email back and forth about contests that are open, houses that are accepting manuscripts, which houses we think the book might be a good fit with. I cannot overestimate how much having other writers in my life has benefitted me. Writing is often a lonely and solitary profession. I had to go out of my way to find colleagues. They are affirming and writing-life-supporting people. And that has made all the difference.

I thought I was ready to publish when I wasn't. I think that is a common situation. How do you really know when you are ready?

CNF: How were you able to make your memoir personal and relatable for the reader, when most will have never been to Africa?  How do you make the personal universal?

KANDEL: My setting may be foreign to many readers, but the struggles I write about are not. The questions my book poses are common to humanity. I write about being a newlywed, transitions into becoming a mother, loneliness and isolation. I wrestle with death and beauty. Understanding my neighbors. Understanding my husband. I wrestle with understanding myself.

My friend, Nancy Nordenson, wrote in her blog, "So Many Africas is one of the finest examples I've seen of how the specific becomes universal, of how the writer's weaving together of a story pulls in threads common to her readers' stories. This is quite an accomplishment given that Kandel's story is likely to be as foreign as a story can get to that of any of her readers."

Writing threads that are common to my readers are what makes the book personal. One of the women who read the book said, "I wasn't prepared for what this book would reveal about her [Jill], how her spirit would be laid bare, and how it would help me to consider my own personal Africas."

We all have our own Africas: times of trials and discouragement. This is not something which is limited by geography.

CNF: To what extent do you incorporate research into your first-person narratives? What kinds of research do you tend to use?

KANDEL: I enjoy doing research and think it is valuable for several reasons. To write well is to write accurately. I am constantly checking my facts: how large is the Kalahari Desert, how do you spell the SiLozi word for hello, what was Zambia's first response to AIDS?

Besides helping with accuracy, doing research is like giving candy to my brain. I'm studying the Zambezi Floodplain and looking at pictures and maps and the images build and grow. Metaphors happen. New words pop up. Research improves my writing because it makes me curious and causes me to follow rabbit trails. Usually at the end of the trail, I find something that I needed to remember, or wrestle with. 

I used all of our personal and family documentation of those years: old VHS tapes, 8 mm film, slides, journals, and boxes of letters I'd written and my mom had saved. I went through the files my husband had kept on his work, the trial plots he organized, the wheat and rice research results, and maps of Kalabo District. I also did research on Zambia itself, everything from excellent old books written during the colonial era to the internet and current events in Zambia. My topics included AIDS, witchcraft practices, and the SiLozi language. Some of the things I studied didn't end up in the book. I spent months reading SiLozi children's stories and fables. I think there is research that informs me so that I write better, even if it doesn't end up directly in the finished book.

CNF: How do you handle rejection in your writing life?

KANDEL: The first time I sent out and got a rejection letter was one of the most difficult. But it also goaded me just enough to bring out my stubbornness. If they didn't want it, I'd find another journal that did. When I started sending my stories out it was to local and regional journals where there is less competition and fewer rejections.

I also talked to a friend of mine who is an editor and she gave me some perspective. An editor is a person with likes and dislikes. And when an editor rejects your story, there are many reasons why it can happen and not all of them include "this is bad writing." It might be as simple as the fact that a story on a similar subject was just accepted and they aren't interested in more on the same subject.

When an editor rejects your story, there are many reasons why it can happen and not all of them include 'this is bad writing.'

I'm very busy with children, my husband's travels, teaching in jail, and being part of a church community. I don't have much time to stew over rejections. Sometimes they hurt, and I have to take a deep breath and realize that the piece I sent in will do better somewhere else.

Being rejected carries such negative connotations. But, honestly, when a story or essay comes back rejected, it gives the chance to reread it.  Sometimes I see a weakness in the thought or I see another thread I'd like to deepen or add. I look at rejection as an opportunity to relook at a piece with new eyes. Later, if it gets published, I’m grateful to have had the chance to rework it.

CNF: Your focus on women is inspiring; is there a specific reason why you write for a women’s magazine and have written for a women’s anthology?

KANDEL: I write for a women's magazine because there is no men's magazine in town! The anthology fit an essay that I'd already written, so I sent it in. It's interesting to me that my work is bringing me into more and more connection with women's groups.

CNF: What inspired you to teach journal writing to female inmates? What have you learned from doing that?

KANDEL: I started teaching journal writing to female inmates at a local county jail about three years ago. I'd written a magazine story about a woman who'd been in jail on meth charges. She'd gotten out and been drug free for five years. When I did the story, I met the jail programs director. He asked me if I'd consider teaching in jail. My first response was no. It took a year of prodding, reading, and thinking before I called him back and agreed.

I love teaching women about the power of words, and the freedom that comes when we learn to use them well. Women in general are communicators at heart. When we silence ourselves, it comes back to haunt us. It doesn't go away. Learning to write the silence away is difficult. But it is also healing.

One inmate said to me, "If you can do Africa, I can do jail." There is something in my story that women connect to. I think it is the fact that so many women silence their own voices and hide their own stories. Maybe we do it out of self-preservation or protection, but in the end the silence compounds the difficulties. This is one of the subjects I've become very passionate about. When women break their own silences, it restores and redeems them.

I've learned so many things in jail. It's difficult to carry other women's stories. But it is also freeing and wonderful to watch the women as they come more alive. I've seen how resilient the heart can be, and how very human it is, too. We share so many of the same dreams and hopes. We all want joy. We all want our children to do well. Women are women the world over. They are mothers and lovers and daughters. I have begun to see how common it is for women to stuff their own stories and hide their own hurts. I have also seen how healing it can be to begin to face yourself and be honest. Some days the women tell me, "Jail is the best thing that ever happened to me." The first time I heard it I was shocked. But it's a common refrain. I needed to leave Zambia to understand it. I needed time, space, food and healing. The jail I work in is a safe place where women are fed, clothed, housed, and often taken away from hostile environments. They have time to sit and contemplate their lives and choices. I love going in and challenging the women to face their hard facts. To think about their futures. We write in words and we think in words. What I'm really doing in jail is teaching the women how to think.

CNF: What are some of the reasons you teach writing in general?

KANDEL: I teach mainly because I believe that words are powerful and when we learn to use them and understand them and love them, we will live better lives. We will interact with our families and our jobs with more clarity. We will be more at peace because we are able to express ourselves and be better understood. We will also have a better understanding of the world and ideas that flow around us. Words gave me power over circumstances and situations that I felt helpless about and didn't understand.

I teach writing to two very different groups of people. I teach women in county jail and I teach homeschool high school students. It's a really interesting juxtaposition of students. They frequently use the same names for God with wildly different connotations. I like to challenge them. What do you mean? What are you saying? Are there better words to use to express the same meaning?

When I lived in Zambia my vocabulary was severely limited by my lack of knowledge in the local languages.  Because it was reduced to two, three and four word sentences, my thinking was also reduced. I couldn't express some of my most basic needs to say nothing about the psychologically complex ones. For years I felt like I had lost language. This experience shaped my love for words and vocabulary. I know what it is like not to be able to speak. I know what it is like to be frustrated to tears by not being able to express myself. So when I teach writing, I try to help students understand what a wonder words really are. I try to help them not take words for granted but to explore them and nuance them and love the small differences between them.

CNF: What’s the best personal advice you’ve been given? What’s the worst?

KANDEL: Best advice: Learn to say no, and don't feel guilty about it. That's the best advice any writer can get. If I want to write, I need to have solitude and quietness in my life. I can't be going to coffee all the time or doing a lot of activities that other women my age do. It hurts people. But the only way the writing comes is if the mind has been quiet. And that means I need to build time to be alone into my schedule. It's absolutely necessary.

The only way the writing comes is if the mind has been quiet.

Worst? You have to get your MFA if you want to succeed as a writer. No. You don't. It helps some people. It doesn't help others. For instance, if you want to teach writing at a college level you will need the degree. But if you primarily just want to write, you can do it without a degree. I don't have an MFA. Each year I choose one writing conference, summer workshop, or writing retreat to attend. I've gone to the Bemidji Northwoods Writers Conference, Rainer Writers Workshop, Creative NonfictioNOW, AWP, Creative Nonfiction Conference, and Collegeville Writing Retreat. Each of these programs taught me generously. I'm very grateful to them. There are also hundreds of great books and websites. I read a lot of books on writing. I study the craft. If you want to learn, you can.

All the time and energy I put into learning on my own was good preparation for being a writer. In some ways, writing is a thankless job and you have to learn to write for yourself. I didn't learn to write to pass a class or impress a teacher. I learned to write deep within, in order to find answers, in order to be true to my own story.

CNF: What role does social media play in your career as a writer?

KANDEL: I have a son who is a videographer and he helped me make a two minute book trailer for So Many Africas. It was a fascinating journey to look back to Zambia visually after having worked with it verbally for so many years. The video has garnered a lot of attention. It's easy to say, "Hey, take a look at my two minute book trailer." People are attracted to the visual. It's fast paced. The music is compelling. Having a trailer up on my website has been very helpful.

I blog weekly about the book publication process and link the blogs to Facebook. I keep my website updated to events, reviews, photos, book clubs. I do a lot of plain grunt work. I contact newspapers, radio shows, television shows. I email other bloggers, check out people who like to review books. I interact with writers who I've cultivated working friendships with. I like making personal connections more than doing the bleeps out into cyberspace. It seems more honest to me. I delete spam mail so I don't want to spam other people. I try to be respectful. People are busy. So am I. If I don't think my book is a good fit for you, I won't send you announcements. I don't like Twitter, so I don't tweet. I don't want your instagrams, your snapchats, your LinkedIn. It boils down to this, I like to blog and Facebook. So that's what I do. I'm not going to go all social media because I'd be frustrated with it. I'm writing another book. And that takes time. There's only so much time in a day. So I have to make choices. We all do. In two years, I'd rather have that second book written than have 20,000 tweets under my belt. I do what feels honest to me.

About the Author

Chelsea Denard

Chelsea Denard is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a Creative Writing major at Arizona State University online. She moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles in 2014, and still has not bought proper snow boots.

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