Oyster River Pages: What role does the artist/writer play in society?
Laura Jones: First and foremost, I’m a Buddhist. I’ve practiced Buddhism in the SGI for 25 years, and the high regard held there for artists and culture is inspiring. My mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, who taught me about Buddhism and happens to be the SGI President, has met with incredible individuals the world over: Rosa Parks, Mikhail Gorbachev, Herbie Hancock, the President of the Club of Rome, and so many more—the list goes on and on. In these dialogues he has constantly emphasized for decades the role of artists and writers as peacemakers and humanistic citizens. He also believes that religion cannot exist without the arts, because it is art that inspires and moves people and gives expression to the diverse human condition. These ideas have been fundamental to my growth, and I have done my best throughout my life to respond to these expectations and the praise showered upon us as artists and writers.
ORP: Name three artists or writers you’d like to be compared to. Why these people in particular?
LJ: I try never to compare myself; I think that’s the surest way to become blocked. However, I am, of course, inspired by certain writers. Two that come to mind immediately are the great journalists/essayists, John McPhee and Joan Didion. McPhee inspires me because he is endlessly curious about everything, and has a deceptively simple way of writing. He’s very forthright, but there’s so much going on in every essay, every sentence. I read once that he feels the structure of a piece should be like the skeleton in a body, so buried you never quite see it, yet it holds the whole thing up. As someone who is particularly interested in structure—and who feels it comes most naturally to me of the entire writing process—I’m drawn to this skeleton idea. It lit me up. After reading several of McPhee’s small pieces in his new book, The Patch, I think I’ve just about cracked his structure code, but I won’t share it here and ruin everyone’s good time.
As for Didion, I truly wish I’d read more of her in graduate school. She’s just the consummate master, and probably ignored as much as she is in academia because she’s a woman. The word that comes to mind for Didion is “mournful.” There’s something anxious, and searching, and just painful beneath the surface of every piece. I recently saw Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is, of course, about the Sharon Tate murder and Manson family. All I could think of was Didion’s haunting collection, The White Album, which is drawn from work written around that same time. She writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But The White Album is about the time those stories fell apart, a period she describes as 1966-1971. The cool, rich communities of Malibu and beach houses lining the PCH become mere ghost towns as uneasy fear settles into the inhabitants, post-murder, post-LSD. And I’m sure this is true, but, of course, the environment observed is really an observation of the writer herself and what she perceives. It’s Didion who has fallen apart, but the way she breaks is exquisitely described.
ORP: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
LJ: Probably never to compare myself to another person. When I was in film school at NYU, I was 17 years old, had no idea what to say or who I was, and I got horribly blocked looking at others’ work and trying to emulate them. It wasn’t until much later, when I developed as a writer, that I learned to listen to my own voice and—most importantly—to trust it. When I teach, I tell my students that the editor has no place in the writing room. The editor is for second drafts. The editor is the one doing the critical thinking about the marketplace, how to sell, what else is out there, all of that. But the writer has to be completely free to say what she needs to say, as she needs to say it. The only way I know how to do that is to be quiet and alone with the page, and just write. Stop overthinking. Move your fingers. Discover as you go. That’s what works for me, and I’ve seen people terrified of the blank page use this technique and create beautiful work. I mean, amateurs and students, people who don’t believe they “can write.” But of course they can because they know their own stories. They just need to believe in them.
ORP: Who do you hope reads your work and why?
LJ: That’s a good question, because my fear is that nobody reads anymore. I hear it so many times a day, from young people, from older folks, too. I think our smart phones have ruined a certain type of quietude we have and a deep engagement with the written word. I’m guilty of it, too. I work as a journalist, and I still find myself at the end of the day going to Apple News and skimming headlines rather than sitting down with The New York Times on a Sunday, the way I did when I was younger.
I hope anyone who reads my work is giving themselves time and space to absorb ideas and language, because those are two things I feel most concerned with. My mind tends to put together a lot of ideas at once. I think through associations, and skipping about through those connections finds its way into my structure. I hope there’s enough there to sustain someone’s interest so that they will learn something they can take with them. That’s how I like to read and why I’m drawn to non-fiction. I love to learn. But I also hope there is something there in the language and the poetry that sticks in your ear and makes you happy. I can be broadened and lightened in the course of the day by even one beautiful phrase—such as what I quote from Hurston in my essay: “She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up.” I almost can’t read that without tearing up, every time. It just fills me.
ORP: Do you consider your writing/artistic time to be work or play?
LJ: Of course writing is work, but it’s the most beautiful work, isn’t it? I wrote an essay once called “Occupation” where I investigated the concept of occupational therapy. My daughter has autism and cerebral palsy and has been in some version of therapy since the day she was born. I had this question: what could possibly be a baby’s occupation?
I learned while writing that occupational therapy started because it was thought that everyone–children, old people, even the mentally ill–need an occupation. Something to occupy their time, hands, and mind, because this is how humans live. It’s what makes us happy and whole. So we may fantasize about leaving our jobs some day and retiring, but honestly, I think more people than not grow depressed and bored when they do. We need our occupation, and in that work, we become who we are.
ORP: What’s next for you artistically?
LJ: I’ve just started editing for Mondo / Alamo Drafthouse, the largest privately owned movie theater company in the U.S. We are creating unique, art-driven books about the movies, which combines my two loves of writing and film. I have to say I never thought I’d be happy editing. In grad school, I avoided working on lit magazines like the plague, although many of my fellow students volunteered. My thought was, why work on someone else’s essays rather than my own? But what I’ve discovered is, editing is like producing (my former career). It’s both conceiving something from the ground up and bringing in the best people to actualize that vision, and it’s helping people do their best work. Editing is incredibly creative.
I’ve also been able to continue to write in this capacity. My first book, A Field Guide to Evil, which is a flash fiction horror book created for a local Austin speakeasy, also includes one of my stories. But at the same time, I got to work as an editor with incredible writers such as poet Simone Muench, non-fiction essayists Anne-Marie Akin and Jonathan Jones, and good old fashioned flash fiction writers such as Matt Amati, and a host of other incredible talents. Each one taught me so much, and I’m damn proud of that book.
Next year, I hope to publish a graphic memoir I wrote called My Life in Movies, about some inappropriate films my mom took me to at a young age, and how they shaped my fascination with film. A chapter of the book was excerpted last year in Fourth Genre.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear in Oyster River Pages!
Laura Jones is an editor, writer, and journalist living in Austin, Texas. Her nonfiction essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Foglifter, The Drum, and The Gay and Lesbian Review, to name just a few. Two anthologies also feature her work: They Said, edited by the poet Simone Muench, and DaCunha Volume 2. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Northwestern University, where she won the AWP Journals Prize. Currently, she is the Editorial Consultant for Mondo/Alamo Drafthouse and a journalist writing for The Austin Chronicle. Read her powerful essay, “Eatonville, 1987” in the third issue of Oyster River Pages.