Jenni Simmons on “A Strange and Common Meal”

Posted on Jan 7, 2016 | No Comments

Jenni_Simmons_headshotIn her eloquent essay, “A Strange and Common Meal” (Issue 6), Jenni Simmons reflects on the many forms “communion” takes, from sacred ritual to Southern suppers. In her interview, Simmons discusses coloring, her workspace, and her influences.

Jenni Simmons (@jennisimmons) is a creative nonfiction writer, and the editor of the Art House America Blog. Her writing has appeared in Comment Magazine and The Curator, among others. In addition to the liturgy of this strange and common meal, Jenni also notices liturgy in her everyday life, including the liturgy of coffee shops in Houston, Texas, where she often writes. She plans to write a book of these liturgies one day.

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What inspired you to create this piece? One of the editors, Towles Kintz, contacted me and mentioned that I could write about any table in my life, but she would love to see a Communion table somewhere in this issue. I totally took the bait, inspired to try and write about this table that is very meaningful to me.

How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts) Definitely slow brew & fits and starts. Then I reworked a few sections after Towles sent me her edits. It turns out that writing about Holy Communion isn’t all that easy. I mean, it’s just the body and blood of Jesus Christ. No biggie.

Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. My quiet, peaceful upstairs home office with a door, a desk, a few bookshelves with some of my favorite books, inspiration wires strung with artwork and photographs and quotes, my late grandfather’s and father-in-law’s bolo ties hanging on a music staff wire rack, a big window that looks out to pine trees and neighborhood rooftops, and a comfy armchair to sit in when my desk chair hurts my back. I also love to write in coffee shops around Houston, and as I hinted in my bio for this piece, I plan to write about the liturgy of coffee shops at some point.

Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? Kathleen Norris, her books The Cloister Walk and The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” in particular, which I read in my early 20s. She opened my eyes to the fact that the liturgy I experience in church, or in her case, a monastery as a Benedictine oblate, continues to move in cyclical currents in our everyday lives. She also taught me to see spirituality in the mundane aspects of our lives — that we do nothing in vain, and that it all has purpose laden with meaning and truth. Also, The Cloister Walk is so beautifully structured — I had never seen such a creative table of contents in a book before, nor did I realize a table of contents could be creative.

Annie Dillard’s gorgeous sentences and poetic vision in books like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm gave me a thirst to write creative nonfiction, and she taught me the art of seeing. I’ve seen the world differently ever since. She also affirmed my love of nature and the great outdoors though I live in a large city.

As for books about the writing process, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard have been instrumental to my art. I reread them often, over and over again.

What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I stand up and stretch my back. I look out a window and stare at the sky. I take my dog, Heidi, on a walk. I make a cup of tea. I clean something in the house. I listen to good music. I color something with my colored pencils.

You mention coloring with your colored pencils. Can you elaborate on what types of things you color? Why colored pencils? Right now I’m coloring an illustration of a Bible verse by artist Jenny Stewart, a free download from her website, French Press Mornings. Also, I’m very excited about the free Take Your Poet to Work coloring book that will be available in July from Tweetspeak Poetry. I need to find some other cool, artistic coloring books as well.

I prefer the smooth texture of colored pencils vs. Crayons whose texture is too sticky, and markers are too fluid. I also love the satisfaction of sharpening my pencils in a cheap little electric sharpener I bought at the grocery store. I like to have a fresh, sharp point on my pencil when the white space I’m coloring is very small or narrow — the ability to be precise is gratifying.

What was the hardest part about writing this piece for you? You say that it was not an easy piece to write, so can you elaborate on the difficulties? It was challenging to write about the sacrament of Holy Communion in a creative and literary way. I understand the theology of this sacrament, but I am not a theology writer — I am a creative nonfiction writer. I also wanted to write about Holy Communion in such a way that readers who are not familiar with it, or other aspects of church liturgy, could understand its importance and why it is so meaningful to me. And it was challenging to relate the mystery of this sacrament to other tables in my life. But in the end, I enjoyed the challenges that I hope benefitted my writing.

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We asked Jenni to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A bird. Which bird is hard to say, but do I have a thing for Great Egrets. I’ve always wanted to fly, both in real life and in my dreams. I was very sick for 4 years and when I recovered, I finally dreamt that I could fly.

What is your greatest extravagance? Wine. Books. Cigars.

Which talent would you most like to have? To play guitar. Also, to sing like Emmylou Harris or Karen Peris.

Who is your hero of fiction? Jeremiah Land.

What is your motto? Progress, not perfection.

Also: “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”
—Gustave Flaubert

 

 


This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.