Jenny Forrester (she/her) has been published in GetSparked, Gobshite Quarterly, Pom Pom Lit, Nailed Magazine to Columbia Review, Portland Review, Seattle’s City Arts Magazine, and elsewhere. Her books include “Narrow River, Wide Sky: A Memoir” and “Soft Hearted Stories: Seeking Saviors, Cowboy Stylists, and Other Fallacies of Authoritarianism.” She can be found at jennyforrester.com.
The following is an interview with Jenny Forrester.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Personal-as-political writing intrigues me. I got divorced and an empty nest (even my chickens died) as my first memoir was being published and global geopolitics went the way they went. I had writing material, sad to say. I can’t claim vast personal suffering in a world filled with suffering, and I can’t claim to be a certified expert or academic on complex social justice issues or global geopolitical economics. What to do? I decided to create a piece of art.
“Soft Hearted Stories” is a collection of thought experiments wrapped in a larger literary experiment focused on the nature of change and mental health. It’s moments of my life during a small window of time. It’s snapshots of societal upheaval, increasing authoritarianism worldwide, and late capitalism using a variety of artistic cameras: stories, songs, and poems.
It was important to me to communicate the reality that mental health issues can affect anyone at any time so we need to meet stigma with great amounts of empathy the same way we need to meet necessary social change and issues of justice and reparations with empathy. The challenge there, as the writer of “Soft Hearted Stories,” was not to sound like I have all the answers because I don’t. I also wanted to claim authority of my story and responsibility for my life and difficulties, which is a hope I have for everyone however they’re able to do that, whether or not through some outward expression.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
The excerpt is from pieces and parts of the book (which is also a pieces-and-parts kind of book) to show why we’re there in that little square book running around, overthinking and it shows something of who else was in there with me so the readers can make friends of my friends and enemies of my enemies and see some of the drama which isn’t just my drama and why when I say drama, I’m not NOT being a feminist. It’s dramatic. Literary. And. I want to attract a lot of readers, all the readers really, the readers who say they’re too distracted to read or they have too many books to read or they don’t like poetry. It’s like saying we don’t like doctors. Know what I mean?
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
It came out of my travels from my first book’s book tour and then from moving from Oregon back home to Colorado (Western Slope born and raised) after my divorce and trying to stay in that city but ultimately deciding I needed a real change since everything was changing anyway. I took a class online with Ariel Gore in her Literary Kitchen on chapbook making. The first book I had written and took on book tour held a lot of rules I made for myself. Rules like: You can’t preach. What was that about… It’s an idealistic book. So… For the second book, I wanted fewer rules. Less idealism.
Also in the first book, I wanted to be really in control of the narrative. But I know now. Readers bring themselves to the page, too, so that was something. I didn’t want to have to do all the emotional labor for readers and I didn’t want them to project things onto me either. I was very tired. I wanted to let go of the narrative to reflect the loss of control in my life, what I had felt as loss of control. Or something like that.
I had one rule really, I guess: write to the disturbing reality of disconnection and banishment and isolation and connect with whatever is on the other side of all that suffering when you can’t even trust yourself much less anyone else. How do we get back to that place of trusting ourselves after everything we worked for or hoped for is gone and at the same time, we’re reading the comments, reading between the lines, or experiencing outright hostility from so many directions. Change is hard for everyone, the changed, the changers, the changing.
What happens when we lose our marbles a little bit and everyone on the political spectrum has some form of bootstrap theory going on either because they’re pointing out your privilege (abusing the term and the argument simultaneously, btw), pointing out how hard they have it (everyone does this for a whole bunch of reasons right?). So. What’s a writer to do when to reach out in any direction is to get your hand bit? I didn’t put all the details down for every painful event or relationship but I kept the feelings of things I had gone through during that seemingly short period of time.
And then the pandemic happened and it seems to really fit, puzzle piece-like into the greater whole. So, I’d say the biggest influence was allowing myself to really look into that abyss of loss and isolation where no one could help me except myself which is kinda bootstrappy here in this paragraph, but it isn’t in the book. I promise. I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m soft-hearted. Try to be.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
One challenge is the personal exposure, the vulnerability everyone claims to cherish but they really don’t. Another is how other people might feel about themselves being flattened into characters in my writing. If people don’t like being written about it can be because we can’t see another person the way they see themselves and in a book, they get stuck onto the page in a permanent kind of fashion. So we’re exposing them, too.
Regarding the personal exposure issue, I mostly have to get over my fear-ridden ego and hope for the work to speak to people in a helpful way, let go of what might be projected onto me or onto the work. Embrace the hazards of artistry, right? And I tried not to make anyone out to be evil (we’re really into that nowadays which was one of the psychological pressures that I struggled with so mightily (and unmightily)) and I didn’t publish some things (that were so brilliant) because the people involved didn’t want me to. I didn’t ask everyone’s permission, but I did ask some.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
I write every morning. A big lined sticky note at least. I need quiet. I live alone and still wear noise-canceling headphones. I used to suffer from a whoosh in my head. It sounds funny. Totally was not funny. It was a nightmare. There were times, I just held my head and cried. So, now that I can experience silence, I cherish it.
There are some people writing books that teach their readers how to attack better, how to be more on-a-side, in control of the narrative of the day and I don’t mean anti-racist books. We should all be anti-racist. For sure. And. AND. We’re fracturing in some ways that I worry about, ways that won’t make us less racist, ways that will make us meaner. And. I was fracturing. My mind was struggling with a lot of pain. So. Part of my writing process is getting over the whiny, super-uninteresting (except to me) part of myself, seeing what’s really going to help, seeing what can create softening, not in a compromising or less radically-engaged, progressive kind of way but in a long haul, we’re-having-relationships-with-imperfection-all-the-time kind of way. I’m super imperfect (just ask my frenemies) but I’m also really sensitive to being/saying/doing good, helpful things. Being/saying/doing Kind things. So. I have a rich inner life. We all do, I’m sure of it. Some people just don’t want to admit that so they’re all sharp-edges. Hard. Righteous. Even when they’re saying they’re imperfect. See?
And getting over the fact that I’m weird. We are. We’re all weird. Life is weird. Embracing the scary way things are and creating art of it is a practice I have to do every day, sometimes every minute because of the comments, the righteousness, the narrative, the dog-piling, the lying, the self-hating that’s really not sustainable and is really devastating to people suffering mental health issues and/or isolation, all the stuff that seeks to create separation. Banishment. It’s very real. And now, we’re literally separated from each other. We’re not even supposed to hug our own family members. So painful. How can I soften my heart, strengthen my mind. Be a White Rose even now.
What’s your next project?
The next work is focused on gun violence, various kinds of bullies, gossip, scapegoating, and stand up comedy, again utilizing hybrid forms from songs to memes, poetry, prose, and cursive sticky note rants. Preachy/anti-authoritarian things.
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