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Jayne Anne Phillips

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"I think my work is really rooted in my childhood, in my young adulthood, my family, my ancestry. And it's very much rooted in place. I've sometimes written about places very far away from West Virginia and people who certainly have never seen the place where I grew up. But the sense of hard reality, the edge in my work, I think comes from having grown up there. There's just no substitute for growing up in West Virginia."                    

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A glimpse of Jayne Anne Phillips

 When Jayne Anne Phillips was growing up in Buckhannon, she used to write serial novels to entertain her friends.  "Myself and my friends were in the novel," she said. She'd read chapters to her friends at Girl Scout meetings in the Baptist church.

 

"I had an unquenchable hunger to write," she said.  She realized, early on that, "many times, you write what you never intended to write. The writing has a kind of evolution that you can't plan and can't limit. And that's what's so miraculous about it."


Now her books have been published in 12 languages. She writes about people, often children, dealing with devastating problems: abuse, alcoholism, death, while they live otherwise normal lives. Most of her novels are set in West Virginia at different times in state history. "The whole story of my mother's life and her mother's life were stories I grew up with. And the stories of their lives were connected to political events. The Civil War. The Depression. World War II." Her stories go in many directions, "but I always start with something real."   

Jayne Ann Phillips' novels have won her many national and international awards, including the Pushcart Prize, the Academy Award in Literature, and a National Book Award finalist listing. She is now Distinguished Professor of English and Director of Rutgers University's Master of Fine Arts Program in Writing.  

A sample of Jayne Anne's writing, from Shelter:
               
              
Click the triangle to hear Jayne Anne Phillips read this passage:

"Dad might still be drunk from this morning. Or he could rouse up from a drunk sleep if he heard Buddy and be out of his head. You could never tell what might set him going. He'd rip off his own shirt and thump it with pillows. Or he'd get to throwing things at the light bulb that hung from the kitchen ceiling, pelt it with rocks or coins from his pockets. Mam didn't keep a bulb in it anymore, but he'd still get riled and swing the cord around, yelling words that weren't American. Mam said he learned those in the Army, in Korea. And he didn't talk foreign unless he was drunk. Then he got afraid. Afraid of what? He'd been in prison in Korea, Mam said, long time ago. Not for doing anything wrong, just for being a soldier."  

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A writing activity:

Jayne Anne uses verbs and nouns primarily to help you see a scene. She uses very few adjectives.  Why might verbs and nouns be stronger image-builders? List the words she used in this paragraph that helped build this scene in your mind. There are at least 29 such words. Be sure to include verbs.  After each word, list the part of speech. None of those words are adjectives.

Try to rewrite this scene using adjectives.  What's the difference?

                        ~ See the Activities page for more ways to learn from these writers ~

Five ways to get the most out of this web site:

1. Listen to a stirring hour-long conversation with Jayne Anne. 

Enjoy her voice, stories, readings, reflections, and advice about writing.

2. Read/download the audio program transcript.

Read it as you listen, marking passages you want to come back to.

3. Read / download the table of contents.  It is an outline of the audio program. It will help you find the passages you want to remember.

4.  Play short audio snips of this program for a class or audience.  It's easy! The program is divided into short tracks that can be played one at a time.

5. Try some activities that help you use this website to teach storytelling/writing skills.

To listen to the whole Jayne Anne Phillips program or an individual track, go to her audio tracks page.

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Where do you find the seed of a fictional story?
"I think there has to be that gut connection. It may have to do with a sight or a smell ... the sight of somebody doing something, and you have no idea who that person is. It may come from a remembered line that you heard spoken in childhood. It may come from a fantasy. But you have to start somewhere real."  
~ Jayne Anne Phillips
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