Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: We love the large scope of this piece and how it includes topics from religion to names to our place in the universe. Can you discuss your approach to theme and the ways that you connected such diverse topics?
Jennifer McGuiggan: Writing is very much a process of discovery for me, which is a nice way of saying that I flail around a lot until I find my way. I often start writing essays with one or two images, ideas, or scenes in mind, and then I just see where it takes me. Sometimes I have a general hunch of where it all leads or what themes will emerge, but I try not to worry too much about seeing the whole essay from the start. I used to think that “real writers” knew all of these things when they sat down to write. What a relief when I finally realized that this isn’t true for many (maybe most) of us! I tend to be an associative thinker, so making connections between discrete or even disparate things is natural for me. I’ve learned to embrace that as part of my writing process and in the structure of my essays.
RR: What made you connect your experiences with the whales and other natural phenomena with God and religion?
JM:When I began studying writing more seriously and getting feedback on my work, someone pointed out that I used almost no description or details in my essays. I wrote from my head and my heart, but I largely ignored the external world. I set out to practice writing about the world around me instead of focusing solely on the world inside of me. As an exercise, I started writing descriptive nature sketches. Soon after that, I also began tinkering with a narrative memoir about my experience of becoming a “Born Again Christian” at age 16—and then leaving that path in my early thirties. I eventually realized that those nature sketches wanted to be more than descriptive passages. I was looking for meaning and belonging in nature, searching for understanding of the unseen world by more closely examining the seen world. I wrote this essay as part of that collection, which I hope will become a whole book of essays.
RR: Have you gone whale watching or anything similar since? If so, do you look at them differently now?
JM: I haven’t been whale watching since that trip, but last summer I went to Iceland and took a boat ride on Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon. We maneuvered among these enormous, sculptural icebergs. The ice breaks off from the adjacent glacier and floats in the lagoon before finally heading out to sea. The experience felt similar to the whale watching tour in a way. We had a crystal blue sky that day, and the ice itself was brilliant white or milky blue, with sections shaded dark charcoal by volcanic ash. It was like nothing else I’d ever seen in person. Just like with the whales, I’d seen photos and video footage of glaciers and icebergs before, but being there in the midst of them felt surreal. I kept switching from my cell phone camera to my DSLR, but then I’d remind myself to just look with my own eyes, to really be there: to breathe the air, feel the sun and wind, hear the birds—even taste the 1,000-year-old ice that the tour guide hauled out of the water. There was so much more to take in than I could capture digitally.
RR: You said in the piece that you settled on Jenna as your ‘true name;’ why not use that as your pen-name instead of Jennifer?
JM: That’s a good question—and one I’ve struggled with. While Jenna feels most like me, I still have people in my life who call me Jenn or Jennifer. Most of my family and nearly all my friends from before I turned 30 haven’t made the switch. I’ve considered publishing under the name Jenna, but I haven’t felt ready to completely relinquish my given name of Jennifer. I think of Jenna as a diminutive or nickname, like “Jen.” But I’ve found that most people don’t see it that way; they think of Jenna as its own thing, separate from the name Jennifer. So I’ve compromised, publishing as Jennifer and listing my name as “Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan” in my bio. Honestly, it’s kind of awkward, I think. Maybe I should write another essay to figure out why I’m still toeing the line in this way!
RR: What are your writing habits? How do you find inspiration?
JM: My writing habits are rather sporadic. I’m not nearly as consistent or prolific as I’d like to be. I do best with external deadlines, even though I wish that weren’t the case. I teach writing, as well, so finding the physical and emotional energy to write my own stuff can be challenging. I’m still figuring out how to do that and do it well. Years ago I used to feel like I had nothing to write about. Now I get ideas from every corner of life. (This is another way that embracing the associative mode of thinking has really helped me!) If I feel stuck, I try to do something else creative, such as cooking, singing, or traveling, which is probably my favorite way to be inspired. I took lots of notes on that trip to Iceland last summer. This summer, since I don’t have any big travel plans, I’ll go through the notes (and yes, photos) and see what essays are waiting there for me to write them.
Jennifer McGuiggan’s work in Issue 5.3: