This week, we interviewed Jessica Harrison Hahn (she/her/hers), who will read some of her work at the Helicon West meeting on 26 January 2023. Jessica is a genre fiction writer, typically writing historical fiction, fiction, and sometimes speculative fiction. On rare occasions, she also writes flash nonfiction.
Helicon West: Could you tell us a bit about your background?
Jessica Harrison Hahn: I grew up and currently live in Davis County, Utah. My parents, though not artists or writers themselves, have always been supporters of the arts and of my writing. They also encouraged my decision to attend college with the goal of becoming an English and History teacher, which is my current profession. I attended Utah State University where I earned a major in English and a minor in History with teaching emphases in both. I also had the opportunity to work at the USU Writing Center where I cultivated a greater love of writing and the community writing creates. I now teach middle school English and am pursuing a Master of Arts degree in History through Eastern Washington University.
HW: What role does writing play in your life?
JHH: When I was sixteen I was writing a story and I shared it with my aunt hoping for feedback. After she’d read it and marked some corrections for word choice and grammar, she asked me over to her house to talk about what I’d written. She offered wonderful verbal feedback, praised my creativity, offered helpful critiques of my characters and syntax, and asked me why I wrote. I explained that I liked the escape into another experience and it felt therapeutic to try and put a story together. Those same answers are still true now, but I’ve seen how writing is much more to me than an escape. I write to think. I often read with a pen in my hand, even if I never use it, because the writing instrument feels like a talisman for my thoughts and helps me focus. I am an avid journaler and use writing to think through my everyday life as well as some of the biggest decisions I face—and in that way, writing is still very therapeutic. Whether I am writing in my journal, jotting down thoughts about work, or building a creative piece, writing is an essential part of my life and how I express myself to myself.
HW: How do you find consistency in writing practice, and how do you find a healthy life-writing balance?
JHH: In terms of my creative writing, I try to keep time for it while balancing many other aspects of my life. My job can be demanding and most of my free time is filled with grad school work, so right now there is not an abundance of time for creative writing. I am fortunate to be a part of a writing group that meets bi-weekly and that time is often the only hours dedicated to creative writing. I hope to carve out more time for creative writing after my Masters program concludes. That being said, knowing that I have designated time to write and that I will use that time for writing makes it easy to step away and see to other responsibilities. In the seasons of my life where I wanted to write and didn’t, my life felt much more out of balance. But knowing that I have a sacred, deliberate writing time—however brief it may be—helps me to feel fulfilled in my writing and in my work and personal lives because I am finding a balance that works for me right now.
HW: Do you have any fun pre-writing rituals?
JHH: I don’t have a lot of writing rituals, though I know I have some preferences that help me feel ready to write.
When I feel stuck or I’m trying to think of how to continue a scene or story, I step away from my laptop and use paper and pen, usually a black pen. I think pen and paper help me slow myself down and not get so caught up in powering through a scene. They allow me time to sit with a scene and its characters until I get enough momentum that I can return to my computer, copy down what I’ve handwritten, and keep moving through the writing. I also build project-specific playlists. The tone of my music, if I choose to listen to it as I write, needs to match my writing. I also need music I am familiar with otherwise I get distracted by a new artist or song.
If I’m really stuck, I’ll flip my notebook upside down or write from the side to try and get myself out of whatever groove I was in that clearly wasn’t working and find myself in a new, different groove. I typically write in the same places—at my desk or in my reading chair. I don’t do well writing in new spaces, though I often try. I love hiking and being outside and I’ll bring a notebook with me and try to give myself time to write at the summit of a hike or in a particularly beautiful place. But however good my intentions were, I never wrote a whole lot. For a while I was frustrated by how little I wrote in such inspirational places, but I realize that a majority of writing is just living and taking in one’s own emotions and experiences so that they are richer when it’s time to put them into writing.
HW: What role has publication played in your writing career? Do you have pieces published?
JHH: Publication is such a scary concept! I have wanted to be a published writer since I was in elementary school, which is a common and lovely goal! I have had minor publications in a poetry anthology when I was in high school, a short story in an online literary magazine, and an essay in a USU undergraduate argumentative writing collection. I have a novel burning a hole in my hard drive, waiting for me to finally put together a query letter to be sent to agents in the hope of publication.
HW: How do you craft a piece with the intent of publishing it?
JHH: I try very hard not to write with the intent of publication, but I also see that as a privilege I hold. I have a stable job and live in a double-income home and don’t rely on my writing to support any financial aspect of my life. I would love to publish more, but that is hardly ever my goal when I write. The dream of publication slowed down my writing process for years. I am one who gets caught up in what others might think of my writing and the fear of critique and failure stunted me as a writer. It wasn’t until I did some work on my mental and emotional health that I started writing for myself and my own enjoyment again (and that was when my writing not only happened, but got so much better). Writing to create a beautiful story based on something beautiful inside of you is the best thing a person can produce. Then revising and revisiting that work to turn it into something greater makes it, I believe, more publishable. Myself comes first, the story comes second, and publishing is a hopeful third.
HW: What advice do you have for up-and-coming writers?
JHH: My advice for other writers is to write because you love it. Let it frustrate you, let it make you cry or laugh, and love it. The best writing I produce comes from my heart and comes after I’ve given it time to sit inside my head. I don’t think I’ve ever had an immediate, original thought then wrote it down right away and had it be any good. I wish it was so easy, but time and attention make the best writing, at least for myself.
Along with loving writing—write often. Allow space and time for writing, even if it’s in a journal or on your phone. I only have four hours a month dedicated to creative writing, but those four hours are exceptionally important and keep those skills working.
Last advice of all, seek feedback and take it. That doesn’t mean you have to make the exact changes other people specify—definitely know you are in charge of your writing—but listen to what people tell you when they read your work. Then be brave enough to revise. Revision is hard and scary and it can be so difficult to get rid of good things in order to make room for great things, but it’s worth it. Your writing is not the sum of who you are, so don’t worry so much about perfect writing and focus more on what feels right and how you can make it even better from there.
Jessica Harrison Hahn