Inspired by “On the Lit Mat,” “Where Books+Body Meet” will take a look at writers’ habits—both in terms of when they sit down to create and in terms of how they restock their well of energy and creativity.
I’m thrilled to launch the first “Where Books+Body Meet” interview with Jacqueline Sheehan, a novelist and essayist who also teaches workshops on the combination of fiction and yoga.
Sheehan is also the author of one my favorite books, Lost and Found, the story of one woman’s struggle to heal from grief after her husband’s death. The book features an absolutely lovable dog whose animal wisdom and instinct is key to that healing. Sheehan is also the author of Picture This, the sequel to Lost and Found; Now & Then, which follows a woman in transition who goes back in time; and the historical novels Truth and The Comet’s Tale: A Novel About Sojourner Truth.
Sheehan lives in New England; you can read more about her on her website.
7 Questions with Jacqueline Sheehan
How many hours a week do you spend writing?
This is hugely variable. It could be anywhere from five to fifty hours. But I often work on multiple projects, so while I might not be writing directly on my next book, I might be working on an essay, or outlining a workshop that I’ll teach in Boston [Sheehan teaches writing workshops at Grub Street].
What’s your favorite time and place to write?
My most productive time is in the morning from about 9-12. About a year ago, I had a writing studio built on my house and I love it. My desk faces out to a deck and a large meadow below my property. I honestly think that it makes a difference to be able to rest your eyes on something beautiful when you look up from writing, and my view of the meadow works for me. I keep my binoculars on the desk, so that I can get a better look at the hawks, deer, and foxes as they wander through.
Where do you find inspiration when you aren’t feeling it?
I don’t always find inspiration, but I do sit down to work. Inspiration is the thing that happens when I wake from a dream that has to do with my book, or when I hear someone say the perfect word as I pass them on the sidewalk, but I don’t count on inspiration. I count on writing, word by word. I also read constantly, and I’m often inspired by other authors.
What one book—fiction or nonfiction—would you say most influenced your approach to writing?
I have re-read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, about five times. Every time that I read it, I think, This is a perfect book. The plot is riveting, characters strong, fresh dialogue (even now), and not a neatly tied up ending. Children are treated as complex characters.
Currently, I just read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and I’m in awe of what she was able to accomplish in this nonfiction tale. While grief is the plot that simmers below the surface, the rigors of the Pacific Crest Trail are the perfect metaphor.
Many people consider fiction writing to be an unhealthy, antisocial, depression-courting activity and/or profession. Thoughts?
There is a certain amount of sit-your-butt-in-the-chair that must happen with writing. But my experience with writers is anything but solitary. I am part of a strong and vibrant writing community. I meet weekly with the same group of writers every Wednesday night. I don’t ever schedule anything else for Wednesday nights. Never. I’ve written with them for ten years. My very best friends are writers and we support each other, cheer each other on, and yes, inspire each other. In fact, I know these people better and more intimately than I know some of my family.
What rituals or activities do you consider your islands of peace (and possibly to balance the effects of writing)?
While I would love to get weekly massages, I have to settle for monthly massages. But wow, do I love massages.
I get a great deal of peace from nature, so I try to be outside part of every day and to really observe and be fully present when I’m in nature. On a perfect day, it goes like this: Coffee, newspaper, meditation for about 15 minutes, shower, writing. Then it is essential that I get out, take a walk for an hour or more or go to the YMCA where I work out with weights. I like to eat good food, so I usually make a big pot of soup on Sunday evenings, and it lasts for half the week.
If you do any physical activities, how do they affect your work?
I can’t imagine how I would write without yoga and vigorous exercise. I need to be connected with my body so that I can stay connected with the physicality of my characters. Readers often tell me that they could really feel what my characters are going through and partly this is because I write very physically and I am able to do this because of my deep appreciation of the physical forms that we have.
For ten years, I worked with Patricia Lee Lewis who ran writing retreats internationally. Aside from running workshops about writing, I also taught yoga every morning. That is how we would all start our day in Scotland or Wales or Ireland for the week. This helps writers get to the places in our cellular memory that is such a rich source of writing.