Staying True to Your Writer Dreams:
A Conversation with Jen Soriano
Elissa Favero, Contributing Writer (Class of 2024)
Staying True to Your Writer Dreams:
A Conversation with Jen Soriano
Class of 2024
RWW alum Jen Soriano and I met at a coffee shop in Seattle at the end of August. Her new book, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing, had been released just that week, and she was celebrating after a kickoff event at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company the previous evening.
Elissa Favero: Jen, you graduated from RWW in 2018. How is your new book connected to your time at RWW—were these essays you were crafting and revising during the MFA program? Did you already have this book-length project in mind then?
Jen Soriano: Coming out of my MFA, I knew I wanted to write a book. I didn’t have this exact project fully shaped yet, but I had started thinking about a book like this on integrative medicine, chronic pain, and the neuroscience of healing. I originally came up with the idea for this book back in 2014. But when I came to RWW, I knew I wanted to learn how to write all different things—poetry, fiction—and I got to do all that. This book is inextricably tied to RWW, though, because so much of what I learned about the craft of nonfiction, including essay writing and lyric essays, is infused in this book. I wanted to get an MFA to take my prose writing to another level. I wanted to learn techniques to write more beautifully and more experimentally. The mentors I worked with cracked open a whole new world for me in terms of how to pursue those goals. If I hadn’t gone to RWW, I still would have written a book, but it would have been a lot different. I think it would have read more like prescriptive nonfiction or traditional autobiography. But because of what I learned at RWW, I was able to create what I most wanted to make, which is something a little off-the-wall and a combination of a lot of different things. I feel really proud of what I was able to do in this book because of the literary techniques I learned at RWW. I hope my mentors agree!
Another reason it’s inextricably tied to RWW is that it grew quite directly out of the MFA thesis I worked on with RWW faculty member Barrie Jean Borich in my last year of the program. I got a lot of encouragement from Barrie and from Program Director Rick Barot around the process of writing a book, which I needed. It’s not easy to write a book. It starts with the confidence that you can do it. I needed to be encouraged, and I got that encouragement from Barrie and Rick, which helped me carry through.
EF: I'm thinking of the subtitle of this new book and also noticing that you describe yourself as a “lyric essayist” on your website. Do the terms essay and essayist feel important to you as a writer?
JS: Yes. They really do. I love the essay form. For this book, I have my agent to thank for suggesting that I transform it from what was originally trying to be a conventional narrative memoir but was kind of failing at that because I don’t really write that way. My agent identified that and said, “I think this would be better as essays.” And I responded, “Oh, thank god.” I know how to write essays and love the essay form because it’s like creative problem-solving. You get to wrestle with a particular problem in an essay and play with all kinds of not necessarily solutions, but explorations around the problem. In this new book, the essay form allowed me to share information about science and history but in creative containers. Each essay allowed me to think about a new form and different starting point. I could play around with different ways of telling stories. The lyric part is what I learned at RWW. Learning about lyric essays allowed me to free up this authentic form of expression that touches on emotions, expresses the subconscious, and even ventures into mystical things. It also allowed me to incorporate my background as a musician with what I had learned in conventional prose writing through my work in communications and journalism.
EF: Yes, I’d love to hear more about your background in particular art forms and kinds of work. How do you see your training coming through on the page? I’m thinking of your experience as a musician but also your work as an activist.
JS: I always think about the point of what I’m writing, which comes from my experience in activism. Sometimes I wish I could free up my process more to write about whatever and follow my intuition as opposed to always asking, “Why am I writing this?” But wanting to understand purpose is the way I think. It’s another reason why the essay form comes naturally to me. Essays tend to hang together well if you’re clear about a central theme. I’m also often thinking about the reader, which I know a lot of writers avoid. But my approach is very much considering, “Who is going to connect with this?” I think that also comes from activism. There’s an infinite number of possibilities of things I could write, and if I think about the reader, it helps me focus and move deeper.
My background as a musician affects my writing at the sentence level and also at the book level. When I revise, I always read out loud and think about each sentence like a song lyric. With song lyrics, you have to match words to melody and beat. It’s not exactly the same thing with writing essays, but when I read aloud, I listen for how the sentences sound and relate to each other to create variety as well as flow. On the book level, I thought about the essays in this collection as an album. With an album, you need variety; if every song sounds the same, no one is going to listen to the whole album. This is another reason I think the essay form worked well. Whereas people might expect chapters to have more uniformity in tone and voice, with each essay, I could choose a different form. One could be the ballad. Another could be the rock anthem. I thought about varying the tone of each essay in ways a musician might consider varying the tone of different songs in an album.
“Whereas people might expect chapters to have more uniformity in tone and voice, with each essay, I could choose a different form.”
EF: Nervous became available for sale August 22, and you have what looks to me like a packed schedule, sharing the book through both in-person and virtual events into the fall. What new things are you learning about yourself as a writer in the process of promoting the book?
JS: To be honest, I thought it was going to be harder to do self-promotion. In the past, I’ve really disliked it. But then my friend and stellar Seattle writer Angela Garbes, who wrote Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, came out one day in a public interview saying, “I have no problem with self-promotion.” She was so certain about that! It made me feel like maybe I could feel that way too. She was talking about it in the context of labor and how much work she had put into her book. She knew it deserved to be promoted. And I thought, I’m going to try that out. And I’m learning that it actually works for me. I’ve been trying to stay true to the belief that if I spent eight years writing this book, I must really believe that it’s worth sharing with people.
I think a lot of people believe that publishers do a lot for book tours. They don’t. Authors do the vast majority of the work. So, it’s been a lot of work, but I’m learning to stay true to the labor and honor it. I’m also realizing how wonderful it is to reconnect with people. At all the stops, I’ve been reaching out to folks, some of whom I haven’t been in touch with for a while. I’ve been finding that people are really receptive to reconnecting, especially after the pandemic years. There’s hunger for connection right now, and I feel lucky about the timing of the book’s release and how I’ve been able to share it in person.
“I’ve been trying to stay true to the belief that if I spent eight years writing this book, I must really believe that it’s worth sharing with people.”
EF: Circling back to your RWW experience, is there any advice or wisdom you’d offer to students currently enrolled in the program or to alums who’ve already completed it?
JS: To students in the program now, I’ll just say enjoy it and take advantage of everything RWW has to offer. I would totally do RWW over again if I could and probably will go back to those alumni refreshers! For both students and alums, I would repeat the words of advice Marie Mutsuki Mockett, a former RWW faculty member, offered me. I asked for her advice at one point about the possibilities of self-publishing or going with the first press that offered to publish my book. She said, “I can’t answer those questions for you.” She told me, “Whatever your dream is, you should just go for it.” So, I would repeat that back to folks because there’s a lot around us that doesn’t necessarily encourage us to go for our writer dreams. We’re the only ones who are going to hold to those dreams. We should be true to them.
The other thing I’d say is lean on your writing community and writing peers. My writing community absolutely got me through this journey and brought a lot of joy into times that were tough. Even if your writing community is one or two people, lean on those folks and make it a practice to check in with them. It makes the ride a whole lot easier.
EF: Is there anything we haven’t yet talked about that you’d like to share as we close out our conversation?
JS: I’ll share one of the messages of the book. I want to encourage folks to consider how they can contribute to a trauma-wise society. What I mean by that is, for the purposes of RWW students and alums, where in their lives and practices can they promote community and collective care? RWW is an example of a culture that already has that built into it, but how can we be even more deliberate in bringing that awareness and those practices into our communities and families? Another one of the messages in Nervous is that we need to destigmatize mental illness and have mental healthcare from cradle to grave. But short of that and facing all these crises, how can we as artists promote a culture of collective care, safety, and interdependence? These are some of the most fundamental principles of what makes a healthy nervous system and healthy ecosystems. If art can promote principles like that, we’re contributing to a trauma-wise society and shifting culture toward security and well-being for all.
Jen Soriano (she~they) is a Filipinx writer and movement builder who has long worked at the intersection of grassroots organizing, narrative strategy, and art-driven social change. Jen has won the International Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Fugue Prose Prize, and fellowships from Hugo House, Vermont Studio Center, Artist Trust, and the Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat. Jen is also an independent scholar and performer, author of the chapbook “Making the Tongue Dry,” and co-editor of Closer to Liberation: A Pin[a/x]y Activist Anthology. She received a BA in history and science from Harvard and an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from the Rainier Writing Workshop. Jen is also a co-founder of the cultural democracy institutions MediaJustice and ReFrame. Originally from a landlocked part of the Chicago area, Jen now lives with her family in Seattle, near the Duwamish River and the Salish Sea. Her debut book, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing, is now available from Amistad/HarperCollins