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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Writer: Jessica Mehta

August 19, 2019

I met Jessica during her residency at Halcyon Arts. Before she gave me a jar of plum preserves from the trees around her house in Oregon, before she told me about the wonderful Lenise Omeasoo and helped me send Kelli Rae Adams to Honduras (true story!), her poems made me want to meet her. So I DM’ed on Instagram, and sent an email, and another email to someone I thought could put me in touch with her.

I’m glad I did. Here’s the conversation we had about poetry, marathons, mothers, and how to make a living as an English major (Jessica literally wrote a book about that!)

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NM: First of all, let’s talk about those 15 books. How did you accomplish all that work? 

This isn’t the answer a lot of people resonate with (or want to hear), but for me writing poetry is relatively “easy.” It has always been my best, simplest way to communicate–much more so than any other genre or with talking. I’ve found “poems” I wrote when I was six years old. At the moment, I haven’t written a poem in several months. This is not great for my publishing career, but a good sign for me. I write poetry almost exclusively as a form of trauma management, so dry spells mean there’s not a lot of negativity going on in my personal life. Writing novels is much more difficult and less natural for me. (That being said, I’ve also ghostwritten several romances and erotica novels for a best-selling “author” and with those, they are so formulaic, it is easy). For my own first novel, I estimated the average word count for the genre then decided on average chapter lengths. I wrote 3,000 words per day, the average length of the chapter, and finished the first draft in one month. Writing fiction or genres besides poetry ultimately ends up feeling more like “work” than writing.

NM: What resources do you still need in your life? 

Increasingly, I depend on my own blend (and ever-changing) means of stress management. This shifts throughout the years. However, I think I will always need to go outside, to seek the wild, and spend at least one day each week exploring the outdoors. It’s the native Oregonian in me, and when I can’t do this for long stretches of time, it feels suffocating. A more logistical answer is the resource of money. I’m fortunate to have founded a company that allows me the freedom to work whenever and wherever I’d like while still flexing some elements of writing.

NM: If you could learn any skill (and money/time were no object), what would you learn?

I would learn every language and dialect fluently starting with Gujarati, Hindi, and Cherokee. My father was placed in one of the “Indian boarding schools” of the mid-century, and for the sake of assimilation was not allowed to speak Cherokee–which, of course, means I never learned anything beyond the remedial.

NM: Tell me about a time something disrupted your plans. How did you deal with that? 

I never had many “plans” as a child, because the goal was simply to survive. My first big challenge was (for lack of a better term) getting kicked out of the house when I was 15. I spent about a year living in a car, and slowly made my way from southern Oregon to Portland, Oregon. When I arrived in Portland, I went to the local high school but was denied admission because the school I had been in previously was so far advanced compared to local Portland schools. I graduated from high school at 16 through independent study while still living in a car. Disruption has been a catalyst for a lot of diversions in my life, though it took several years to figure out what helped me flourish. This has included two abusive relationships (including the one I was in as a teenager), my father dying of Hepatitis C shortly after we repaired out relationship when I was 21 (he contracted Hep C from a dirty prison tattoo needle decades prior–my parents “met” when they started writing love letters while my dad was still in prison), my sister also dying of Hepatitis C two years ago (from meth addiction), and my mother dying last year of an opioid overdose. Such events have, unsurprisingly, heavily fed my writing. Dealing with disruptions has been the status quo of my life, and ultimately writing is what helped me handle them.

NM: What was the most surprising collaboration you ever had? Something that you couldn’t imagine would work, and yet it did?

By far the most surprising collaboration has been with Brennan Hatton, co-founder of Equal Reality, while I was a fellow at Halcyon Arts Lab. I never imagined any poetry, let alone my poetry, would be part of a virtual reality (VR) experience. I’m now working towards transitioning this pop-up into a completely mobile experience. Research shows that embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s compassion, empathy, and understanding. I think we could all use a little more of that.

NM: What are you must-have sources of information? Why?

While I have social media, I rarely actually consume information from it. I already have to spend hours online for work and research, so I don’t go to many websites for my own enjoyment. Information for me largely comes from podcasts and public broadcasting streams. It’s usually what I’m listening to at the gym instead of music.

NM: What motivates you?

An inherent, innate perfectionism tendency and Type-A personality. I write because I have to. I do everything else to try to fill the endless well of, “Am I good enough?” It’s not a very motivating or inspiring answer, but it’s a truthful one.

NM: If you set yourself goals, how do you determine what they are? And if not, how do you organize your work? 

I’m not sure how they’re determined. It’s likely a long, hidden, largely subconscious process that I don’t fully understand. However, when I do set a goal or make a decision, there’s no option for failure. I woke up one day and decided I’d run a marathon, though I didn’t run in any other capacity. I spent a day researching potential training schedule, chose and customized one that would lead to a marathon in six months, and started. I didn’t miss a day of training. After one week, I decided I also wanted my marathon time to be a Boston qualifying time, which led me to picking up my overall pace for the six months of training.

I have never struggled with lack of organization or procrastination. I should probably credit this to my mother. While I grew up in a stifling, often abusive household, I was also raised an only child (as my sister was a half-sister and much older) and my mother lived vicariously through me. I was not allowed to be anything but her idea of “the best,” which unfortunately has bled over into my adult life. However, I have to say, now as a middle-aged adult, I don’t mind the organizational aspect of it!

NM: What practices do you have in place to ensure that you solicit frank feedback that is helpful to you?

Learning how to say no is an incredibly useful life skill. Trusting your gut instinct and seeking out genuinely supportive colleagues and friends is also critical. There will always be people who just don’t “get” your work or what you’re trying to do. The circle who will authentically be there for you with both honesty and care can be hyper-small. Hold out for those. (I’m still trying to build my circle.)

NM: What events/actions do you find most effective for promoting your work?

I’m absolutely terrible at promoting my own work. Honestly, I depend on working with publishers and other organizations who are much more skilled at it than I am. I was never meant to be a self-published writer or a well-liked writer. In fact, while lecturing at a college last spring where I was the visiting writer and all of the students had to read my work as curriculum, one student asked, “How does it feel to know you’ll never be popular?” I’m pretty sure he meant a popular writer, but either way the answer is, “Well, just like the rest of my life!” I’m one of the writers who really could benefit from a skilled PR team to help shape how I (and a lot of the time) my work is viewed. Still, my goal was never to be a best-selling writer or a “popular” writer. I do know what that takes, and while I can ghost write those books for money, I can’t bring myself to attach my name to it. At the same time, I certainly know I’m no Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou. I write because I have to, with no real desire to promote it.

NM: On a related note, what is your social media strategy/presence? How do you feel about it? 

It’s about zero! I did spend six weeks dedicated to growing my Twitter account just to see how it worked. I got it to around 12,000 organic follows and now it just sits there. I try to share stories or articles related to poetry when I can, but honestly I’m just not a social media person.

NM: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else?

People rarely seek me out. When they do, regardless of my writing career, it’s because they want something. That isn’t meant to sound judgmental, as that’s simply how life operates. Ideally, we can find a symbiotic relationship where we can both benefit. A lot of the time, people seek me out for readings, and if I’m available I’m happy to do that. Writing is often solitary, and readings are a way to meet and connect with fellow poetry lovers. I also have a fair amount of people seek me out to try to lecture me about “not looking” or “not acting” Cherokee, whatever that might mean to them. I have a lot of filters on my email now. I think some people are regularly looking for a person to project onto, and that’s a position I just don’t have the time or strength to handle so I usually just ignore those messages and filter them away.

NM: And finally, a hypothetical: How does one make a living as a writer?

Well, I wrote a book on that! 100 ways to make 100k with your English degree goes over how I personally make money as a writer. Spoiler: It’s not “fun” and you don’t write what you want to write. I write a lot of articles on plumbing or blogs with hotel descriptions. I specialize in SEO writing because that’s what pays higher amounts. I charge per word, not per hour, and have a team of editors that take 25% of my rates to ensure the work is flawless. Making a living as a writer is a lot like making a living doing anything else. It’s a lot of doing what’s necessary to create an income you’re comfortable with while drawing on the elements of the work that will benefit your own creative career. Just because I’m writing about roofing materials today doesn’t mean the process isn’t still benefitting my own writing.

 

 

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