By Heather Leah Huddleston
Words are serious business for Jeb Sharp. The tiny stepping stones that can bridge gaps between people politically, culturally, personally, Sharp knows all too well that those words can also cause severe tension. As a radio personality and journalist, her passion for stories falls in the realms of international human rights, foreign policy, and anything that can both discover and express what it means be human.
In the essay “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home,” published in Clockhouse, Volume 3, Sharp writes a tender and poignant essay about her father, his love of literature, especially the children’s story, and how he passes that passion on to his granddaughter—an essay that is very different from the focus of her daily work.
Luckily, there are voices like Sharp’s out there in the world asking the questions necessary to help unify humanity—voices in which we should all pay more attention. Here is a brief interview with Sharp about how to authentically write the self into story.
HLH: I see that you write mostly nonfiction as you’ve reported on people and politics from all over the world. The piece published in Clockhouse was a very personal essay about your dad and his love of literature. What is the key ingredient for crafting your life into story? How do you come to the decision on what to include and what to leave out in order to make an essay both personal and universal?
JS: I wish I knew the key ingredient! For me, it’s about a certain kind of noticing, an attempt at honesty, a gathering of strands of perception into a larger whole. I suppose I start with a powerful memory and what it evokes, and work out from there. In this case, the germ was that magical storytelling encounter between my father and my daughter. As I write and shape and edit, I’m not actually thinking about whether it’s personal or universal, I’m just trying to make sense of the connections that emerge. Then the developing theme sort of pulls me along.
HLH: What are some elements of craft that are important in narrative nonfiction?
JS: I work in public radio and have spent far more time writing radio scripts than writing what I think of as “narrative nonfiction.” But, of course, good radio journalism is narrative nonfiction! And in the same way a good radio story should keep you listening, good narrative nonfiction should keep you turning the pages. For me, that’s all about enticing characters, a sense of mystery, evocative scenes and landscapes, authentic dialogue, the sensation of a truth unfolding. Plus the research, reporting, reflection, whatever it is that gives you the right to tell the story in the first place. One intriguing difference between radio and print is that the human voice gives away so many clues about character and life experience, details that don’t come from the words the person is saying but through subtle, hard-to-describe qualities embedded in the voice. That could be a great writing exercise, just trying to evoke or describe character traits that come through in someone’s voice. I think as listeners we fill in all sorts of information (accurate or not) as we hear someone speak. How do you achieve a similar effect with words on the page?
HLH: Any advice for writers who want to focus on the “self” as their main character?
JS: That’s a hard one. Strive to be authentic, which may be harder and more painful than it seems it should be. Scrutinize the self the same way you would scrutinize another character in order to bring them to life. And in a nod to your earlier question about the personal or universal, one should probably ask oneself why the focus is on the self as a main character for any particular story. It may work for some stories but not others.
HLH: What have you been focusing on lately—both your thoughts and your words? Any more personal essays in the works?
JS: At work I’ve been focusing on ideas about resilience—what it means, how it works, how to build it, in individuals as well as communities. At home I’ve been trying to write about journalism and political identity and the challenge of being both citizen and reporter. That will certainly be a personal essay. I’m also writing about gender and the ways it has figured in my life. Our understanding of gender has changed so dramatically in my lifetime it’s confounding and challenging to deconstruct one’s own relationship to the concept.
HLH: Lastly, what are a few fun facts about Jeb Sharp that not much of the world knows—that you’re willing to share, of course.
JS: My real name is Jennifer. My sister is a year and a half older than I am and when we were both tiny she couldn’t say “Jenny” properly and said “Jebby” instead. It stuck of course. At some point “Jebby” began to sound childish to me, so I shortened it to “Jeb,” not realizing a) how much gender confusion it would cause or b) that it would have political implications in the year 2015. I’m not trading it back in though.
I live with my partner Rhona, daughter Annie, and our cat Couscous in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rhona is an artist and paintings conservator and she and Annie like to draw together. Lately I have been joining them and teaching myself to draw. It is a revelation. I find the intense concentration it requires calms my restless brain like nothing else.
I’m glad you didn’t ask me to name my favorite book. I never understand how people can answer that question.
We’re pleased to have the opportunity to re-present an excerpt from Jeb Sharp’s “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home,” which was published in Clockhouse, Volume 3. If you’d like to purchase a volume, please click here.
From “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home”:
I don’t know how we got on to The Wind in the Willows, but I suddenly realized my father was telling Annie what happens when Mole goes off alone to explore the Wild Wood. Perhaps he had asked her if she had read it yet, and when she replied that she hadn’t, he launched into his favorite part. He wasn’t just summarizing the plot though, he was narrating it. He was in the Wild Wood. And he had taken Annie with him. She was rapt. She leaned forward, her eyes locked on his, as Mole gets lost and terrified and finds refuge in the hollow of a tree, and Rat goes after him and eventually finds him. Mole is so exhausted he begs to take a nap before they start out again, and by the time he wakes up it’s snowing. They set out anyway and get lost anew in the snowstorm.
As the drama intensified, grandfather and granddaughter seemed to fall into a trance, as if they were in some magical storytelling machine that had left the mortal world behind. They were transfixed by each other, and the rest of us were transfixed by them. Their faces lit by candle light, bent towards each other, Dad’s animated with the telling, Annie’s suspended with the listening. I don’t know how many minutes went by as the two friends stood down the dangers of the Wild Wood.
Jeb Sharp is a special correspondent for the public radio program PRI’s The World. Her stories about global politics and culture have won awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists. She is grateful for two writing residencies at Hedgebrook, where she wrote the first draft of “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home.” She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Heather Leah Huddleston is a CWC Board of Steward member and part of the marketing and publicity team for CLOCKHOUSE, the literary journal published by CWC in partnership with Goddard College and the MFAW program. From time to time, she will revisit an author previously published in CLOCKHOUSE for a conversation about craft and the writing life.