Just Jen

There is nothing extraordinary about me or my situation; what is interesting is that I refuse to be defined by my condition.

Jen Powley

An MFA in creative nonfiction helped Jen Powley publish a memoir about living with multiple sclerosis

June has turned our thoughts to graduation, the last rite of spring and harbinger of patios, cottages and beaches – all great places to read books. To celebrate, we will be feting three recent graduates of King’s College’s new Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction, each of whom has scored a book deal. The program is designed to help writers turn good ideas into completed books, and connect them with agents and publishers who can take said book to a wider audience. The program, now in its second year, has so far resulted in at least six book deals.

Today we chat with Nova Scotia’s Jen Powley, who has written a memoir that focuses on living with multiple sclerosis. The books is called Just Jen and it will be published by Roseway Publishing, an imprint of Fernwood Publishing, in spring 2017.

Jen, what were you up to when you decided to apply to the MFA program at King’s?

I was busy working for the Our HRM [Halifax Regional Municipality] Alliance at the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) in Halifax. I loved my job, but my multiple sclerosis (MS) affected my lung capacity and my voice; I couldn’t lead meetings anymore. My boss, Mark Butler, was great about acting as my voice but I couldn’t teach him two years of planning school in the ten minutes we had before a meeting.

I applied to do a degree in political science. I wanted to look into why the province amalgamated HRM [from Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax County] and if the goals had been reached.

At the same time, I applied to the new MFA program.

Why did it appeal to you at this point in your career?

I wanted to do something I could pursue at my own pace without needing a rousing voice.

Did you already have this project in mind when you entered the program or was it an idea that came up during study or workshops?

I was going to write a book about amalgamation, but I thought that would have a really limited readership. I wanted to write about all the assistants I had worked with and the different things I learned from them and some of the interesting adventures we had. When I started writing that, I discovered that the story about how I am coping with my condition could mean something to a lot of people who can’t imagine how I survive with the limited function that I have.

Why was this particular book the one you wanted to write?

I don’t know if I wanted to write it at first, but I thought it needed to be written. I have often heard strangers or family members say that they didn’t think they could deal with life as a quadriplegic. I wanted to show them that it is difficult, but it is something that you just do. There is nothing extraordinary about me or my situation; what is interesting is that I refuse to be defined by my condition.

A lot of writers are now going to school specifically to hone and develop their craft. What, based on your experience, are they getting from writing programs that they can’t get elsewhere?

I think you can get it elsewhere. I think you can cobble a lot of the program together with workshops and reading.

What I think you can’t get is the mentorship. The mentors are amazing, patient and accomplished writers who all approach their craft a little differently and come up with different results. But they are all magnificent.

I think understanding that there is more than one way to achieve success is crucial.

Do you have another book planned or in the works yet?

Nothing concrete is planned, but maybe I’ll write the book on HRM.

Written By

Chris Benjamin is the managing editor of Atlantic Books Today. He is also the author of three award-winning, critically-acclaimed books: Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School; Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada and Drive-by Saviours; as well as several short stories in anthologies and journals.

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