Angst. A hard-hitting, Midwestern mixture of anxiety and unfocused resentment kicked off my journey toward Planet Write. I was a high school dropout with unrealistic ideas about what the world owed me. I’d had a hardscrabble journey to adulthood, and a lot to say about it, but I had yet to make my way to a writing life.
Angst propelled me. I knew things needed to change, but the future was blurry. After getting my GED, to help with job prospects, I applied for financial aid and enrolled at Columbus State Community College. Next thing I knew, I was back in classes, self-conscious about being a few years older than most of my contemporaries. The high school I had spent many days avoiding was known for teaching survival skills, not sentence structure, so I began in remedial English.
Somewhere along the line, college began to click for me. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed writing narrative essays, especially for classes that weren’t English. I loved the credibility of being a writer who knew a lot about subject X or Y. I spent hours writing entire essays that weren’t on the syllabus. Taking every sociology and psychology class I could, I began writing fictional case studies – getting into the minds of those I wanted to understand. I really kicked off my writing life in those psychology classes, exploring the research and theories of Erikson, Freud (Anna and Sigmund), Jung, Maslow, and Pavlov. Mental illness became the mainstay of my creative writing for many years after.
Those first few years of college were long. I worked full-time in factories, clubs, restaurants, and gas stations. I took classes as I was able to pay for books, general fees, and transportation. I had to time things with the bus line for a few years, which wasn’t ideal, but I got through, and I wrote most of my essays on the bus or during breaks at work.
When I was accepted into Otterbein University, I began to take writing seriously. I met a few instructors who opened new worlds for me. Dr. Shannon Lakanen urged me to explore my personal experiences in creative nonfiction, and, before I knew it, I couldn’t shut up about myself. I studied Joan Didion, Michel de Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and Phillip Lopate. I learned that when I wrote true stories, even traumatic stories, they lost their emotional grip on me. Writing allowed me to reframe reality.
I was lucky enough to study with Phillip Lopate personally after Otterbein because, at the urging of a few professors, I applied to a single grad school and, go figure, got in. I remember getting the acceptance letter and thinking, Shit! I can’t really do this.
Bennington was tough for me, but I was so grateful to be there that I absorbed everything it had to offer. I didn’t take a single breath in Vermont for granted. Although I continued to study creative nonfiction, I realized that the fundamental benefit of writing transcends genre and form.
Once a graduate left to find sustainable work (after years of working and school, working alone feels rather strange), I found time to write but no structure and no audience, so I wrote what I wanted when I could, and I continued to read everything I could get ahold of. I also began to share work, mostly in online journals and small press publications. I had a voice.
I currently direct a program that connects writers to community settings around San Antonio. The writers, who are published and stellar instructors, bring their passion and expertise to young people, adults, the elderly, the incarcerated, and the homeless in order to show them that their voices matter. So many people do not understand how valuable their stories are.
I remember my angst vividly. It was my companion. I had been through quite a bit in my formative years that made me fear the world; and fear is a place from which we either make bad decisions loudly or hole up and hide. I hid.
It was writing, in all its “otherworldliness,” that freed me. I attempt to pay this forward with my work, both as an educator and a person who connects those who know the value of writing with those who are yet to discover the power of words. It is my belief that Planet Write should be about inclusion, and that it will only be made stronger with the addition of voices that have been silenced due to lack of access or time. So many people live every day just trying to get by.
Writing, for me, is necessary, urgent, and sometimes it feels more real than reality itself. I recently published a book with Rain Mountain Press, After the Gazebo, and I am beginning to shop a new collection of eco-centered fiction. I am also finishing a very strange novella, To Shake His Hand.
My journey as a writer has just begun. It is only within the last few years that I’ve truly tapped into the authentic, creative voice. Writing equips me to deal with the messy stuff of life, and it has become a bridge to opportunities I could have never imagined existed. I suppose if I were to summarize what drives my writing life today in a word, it’d be gratitude.
by Jen Knox
You told me not to play with matches that summer, so I palmed a corner-store lighter. The serrated metal tickled and warmed as it rolled against my thumb. The flame reached for the tip of your blue Crayon, and globs of wax fell on my thigh. I pressed the warmth, eager to melt the whole thing, but you knocked the lighter from my hands. You wanted to color the sky, you said, and I wouldn’t ruin your chance.
(Excerpt from “Lottery Days,” which appears in Literary Orphans)
Jen Knox directs Gemini Ink's Writers-in-Communities Program in San Antonio. She is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press, 2015), and her short work can be found in The Adirondack Review, Chicago Tribune's Printers Row, Chicago Quarterly Review, Istanbul Review, Literary Orphans, Room Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Find Jen here: www.jenknox.com