I’ve recently had the pleasure of getting to know Jean Ryan, a gifted writer and generous spirit whose story, Manatee Gardens, opens the collection Outer Voices Inner Lives. Jean has since kept up a correspondence with me and had several of her blog posts featured here at lgbtSr. Her collection, ‘Survival Skills’ (Ashland Creek Press) is available for anyone interested in superb writing and stories with deep insight into the human experience. I couldn’t think of anyone better for a 6 Questions feature. – Mark/Editor
MM: It’s been really good to get to know you more since we “met” through the Outer Voices Inner Lives collection. Can you tell readers a little about Jean Ryan? Native Vermonter, now in Napa, CA …
JR: I was born and raised in Vermont. After college I moved to Boston and eventually wound my way to California, drawn by visions of sunny beaches and the freedom to live openly as a lesbian. Berkeley was everything I’d hoped for and more. It is still a treat to drive down from Napa and walk through the colorful neighborhoods of Berkeley, where everyone is accepted and anything goes.
For twenty years I was in the food business—a cook, then caterer. Cooking is the sort of hard labor that builds character: two decades proved enough. I then segued into plant nursery work, trading my chef’s knife for a pair of bypass pruners. It’s a gentler job that leaves no blood on my hands, and each day I learned something new about nature.
Cooking, gardening, writing—not a bad way to spend one’s time on earth. I am especially fortunate in love, having spent the last thirty-four years with the kindest woman I know.
MM: Your writing resume is extensive and impressive. Have you been writing all your life? Was there ever a ‘writing bug’ that bit you?
JR: Thank you for that compliment—I often despair that I haven’t written enough.
I have been writing my whole life, though there was a fallow period after the publication of LOST SISTER during which I lost confidence. While I wouldn’t mind having a following like Stephen King’s, I’ve learned that book sales are beside the point. Authors must write to please themselves, to answer their own questions, to discover what intrigues them and why.
MM: You have a short story collection out, Survival Skills. What are some of the inspirations for your stories and how do they get from an inspiration to a manuscript?
JR: As a writer, I am most interested in the natural world and the vulnerability and interdependency of all living things. I enjoy exploring the connections, the synchronicities, the quiet miracles underlying the world we see. Fear and the relative fragility of the human mind fascinate me in particular.
Most of the stories in SURVIVAL SKILLS were inspired by something I had read or a show I had seen. “Migration” issued from the real story of a Toulouse goose that lived in a park in Los Angeles and became smitten with one of the visitors. “Looks for Life” also came from real events—a co-worker told me about a friend of his whose life changed after a plastic surgeon rebuilt his face. “Waiting for Annie” followed a special I had seen on coma, the “silent epidemic.” Improved emergency response techniques and sophisticated life support machines are keeping more and more lives in this eerie state of suspension. Especially intriguing to me is the mind’s ability to make connections by itself, to persist without the complement of consciousness. “Paradise” emerged from a program I had watched about intelligence in birds, parrots in particular. One bird had acquired a prodigious vocabulary and this stirred my imagination. I thought it would be fun to work this creature into a story, to use him in fact as a main character. In order to create conflict, the parrot in this tale is malicious as well as brilliant. The extravagance of Palm Springs, its artificial overlay, seemed an apt parallel to the various indulgences that Max enjoyed in his man-made abode.
MM: I always ask writers about their routines. What’s yours? Same time every day? Not so structured?
I write in the mornings, in my living room, using a laptop computer. However, I think about my stories anywhere and everywhere, so you might say that I am always in the process of writing—either mulling over scenes in a particular story or absorbing ideas for future stories.
I usually start making notes for a story in longhand. After I have a few paragraphs down, I switch to the computer. I love the ease with which text can be manipulated, and paper saved, using a computer. I edit as a I write. Manuals on writing will invariably instruct you otherwise, but my method is more like a stone mason’s: A sentence must be as strong as I can make it before layering on another. I am obsessive about finding the right word. Occasionally a word that perfectly defines an idea is not a word that fits rhythmically, so I will use a slightly different word in order to achieve the right sound. The rhythm of a sentence is very important to me, and I hear phrases as I write them. I strive for writing that is precise and beautiful at once.
MM: You recently told me I couldn’t stop writing, which is why I decided to forge ahead with a new book. ‘A dancer dances’ (from A Chorus Line). Apparently a writer writes. What are your thoughts on the necessity of writing? Twofer: what does writing do for you?
JR: The world is not waiting for my stories, nor do I anticipate payment for them (certainly nothing commensurate with the effort), and my readership so far is modest. Still, each time I finish writing a story I am elated.
Why? If not for payment or acclaim, why do we write? What sustains us? What accounts for the gratification?
It is not hope. When we are fully engaged in our writing, what time is there for hope? What use is hope?
Nor is it satisfaction. While we may be proud of our stamina and resolve, our finished work will always fall short of our vision. We accept this. We write anyway.
Spiritual leaders teach us that pleasure dependent on nothing is the only pleasure that lasts. I think our writerly thrill comes from this mysterious, inviolable place, beyond the reach of fame and fortune and everything else that comes and goes. This is the answer to our effort, this very private bliss. For as long as we live, for as long as we write, we have access to it.
MM: Is there any guidance or advice you would offer people who want to tell stories with the written word?
JR: Writers, like other artists, work in a realm of uncertainty. Publication is not guaranteed, nor does publication guarantee an audience. If publication is your only motivation for writing, you might want to reconsider your options.
It is a given that writers will meet with disappointment and rejection. They are putting their ideas into the world and many readers and publishers will not be interested. Because a writer puts her deepest thoughts on paper, there is a personal component that makes rejections especially keen. One of my favorite Buddhist sayings is apt here: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Shake off these rejections; they do not serve you. On the same day you receive a rejection, send your story to another publisher. Publishing decisions are mostly arbitrary and do not reflect on your work. If your story has merit, it will eventually find a home. Meanwhile, keep writing.
You will also encounter tepid reactions from your family and friends. This means nothing—they are not writers and cannot relate to your passion. If you are lucky enough to get feedback from a seasoned editor, you should probably heed it.
Most of all, seek encouragement from yourself. Write because it requires your best effort, because you want to ask something of yourself. Write for the exhilaration. Write to discover who you are.