by Melissa Greenwood

Isn’t it ironic how someone who, by middle age, has already lived an arguably difficult, complicated but also full and rich life can appear so much younger than her 56 years? That’s what I thought as I sat across from the positively radiant author Jeannine Ouellette, screen-to-screen, on a Saturday morning Zoom call last year: How is it possible that this bright-eyed, dewy-skinned, objectively gorgeous woman is a grandmother of five? And yet, to know her life story as I do—from surviving incest and sexual abuse to the foster care system to a divorce hashed out quite publicly before her small Minnesota community—I might have imagined her worn, world-weary, wrinkled. “Potions and lotions,” she interjects, as I silently chastise myself for not turning on the beauty filter. “Love my Retin-A.”

But creams aside, Ouellette says she’s leaning into the wildness of aging. In the right light, especially with her husband behind the camera, she likes how the wrinkles I fail to see appear to sparkle. And isn’t that the Ouellette way—to reframe something and, in turning it on its head, make us see anew? That’s exactly what she does a) on the page in her own work (and if you’re unfamiliar, a great place to start would be her Best-of-the-Net and Best-American-Essays nominated piece “The Cost” that explores the emotional price she paid for writing this first essay); b) in the classroom of her increasingly popular and eminently useful Writing in the Dark Substack; and c) in her in-person and virtual writing classes by the same name.

jeannine ouellette author

Ouellette and I spoke for two hours—her at her rustic and rugged Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness 1933 log cabin on Lake Superior (think: a water-access only, paddle-in property). With a La Croix in hand and her messy, unassuming bun making her no less striking, Ouellette was cozied up in her favorite black sweater—a recycled cashmere one by Everlane—while I was a couple hours behind on the West Coast at my much less quirky Los Angeles apartment (no composting toilets here!), armed with caffeine instead of sparkling water.

Full disclosure: you should know that Ouellette has been one of my writing teachers for nearly two years now, and part of my desire to profile her sprang from my curiosity to dissect what she’s doing that’s unique and effective and that differentiates her from others in her field. When I talk about her method being effective, I don’t just mean in a capitalistic sense, although participants from both her one-day and six-week sessions have generated everything from standout paragraphs that later became part of something larger—whether a book or longer-form essay—to polished poems and other ready-to-publish pieces. (One writer friend of mine is up to the mid-teens in the number of acceptances inspired by Ouellette’s exercises, and I’m trailing her at 14 and counting.) As classmates, we’re constantly updating one another, too—”Remember that flash I wrote last term? After some light revisions, it found a perfect home!”

Naturally, knowing that many of her students’ works not only live in the world but have also been nominated for prestigious awards fills her with pride, but Ouellette, who cares about publication as much as any working writer, tends to take more of an anti-capitalist stance with her instructional approach—valuing the journey, the surprises, the process, and the community over the end result. And this is true to the spirit of her classes (for which the waitlist sometimes exceeds 100 people) and to her equally educational and growing Substack—over 8,500 followers and 1,500 paid subscribers strong—that has caught the attention of Electric Literature, Brevity, and Literary Hub; was voted one of the best creative writing Substacks by Sarah Fay of Writers at Work, who separately called Ouellette a “Substack visionary;” and also ranks as one of Substack’s top 20 literature newsletters globally, with a spot at #16 and climbing. (Impressively, these lists position Ouellette beside veritable icons like George Saunders, Cheryl Strayed, and Maggie Smith—heavy hitters with household names.) And, lest these mounting accolades weren’t enough, Laura McKown of Love Story even compared Writing in the Dark on Substack to Mary Oliver and Rilke having a brainchild—a powerful endorsement if ever there were one!

Notwithstanding 30 years of professional writing experience, the ever-humble Ouellette is a bit stunned by her recent success and “can’t believe it,” but the rest of us can. “Writing in the Dark feels like…my open door, feels like alchemy…I’m in a spiritual contract with people…we’re going to create together, and we’re going to be vulnerable, and this is a safe space,” she says of her collective classrooms—adding that teaching in a Waldorf school really shaped her.

“As a schoolteacher, you learn the hard, immutable truths of human tenderness…adults are vulnerable too. They’re not six years old, but it still matters,” she muses. From 2000 to 2010, Ouellette, who—at the time—had “no formal teaching experience, no teaching degree, no undergraduate degree, and no Waldorf training,” taught in a Minnesota-based Waldorf school that her own children attended and even took one group of students all the way through from grades one to eight.

“To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I was really good at it,” she says, wistfully. And this—despite the fact that, at the start of her tenure, her personal life was very much unraveling. She details the end of her first marriage in her highly acclaimed memoir The Part That Burns (Split Lip Press; 2021), which received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly and was a Next Generation Independent Book Award in Women’s Literature finalist and listed among Kirkus’ Best 100 Indie Books of 2021. It is there Ouellette writes, “I waited years to marry the man I’d fallen in lust then love with”—her son’s then-second-grade teacher Jon, to whom she’s still married. (The two will celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary this summer.)

My life was falling apart. Like faaaaaalling apart,” she tells me, drawing out the short a-sound for as long as it takes me to gulp down more coffee. “Here was this horrible situation that was caused at least in part by my own actions—though others soon added fuel to the fire,” she says. “I was a brand-new teacher with three young children in an acute crisis, and I was very much scorned and judged in the school. Some people would wait outside my classroom door and say, ‘You don’t belong here. You’re not going to be here by the end of the year.’ Of course, there were others, including the parents of my first graders, who were compassionate and kind, who minded their own business or even went so far as to offer help with carpooling and casseroles as I navigated the hardest time of my adult life. But overall, it was a hostile environment. I wanted to leave that fall and even tried to, but the administration asked me to stay. Still, I applied for other jobs anyway, but I didn’t get far with my lack of degree and work experience. As a former stay-at-home mom, now single with a mortgage to pay, it was a really hard, hard time…But every morning I would go into that classroom and shut the door and start.”

And behind that door were school-aged children who remain in Ouellette’s life as grown adults today. One of her former students, Liza, has been her part-time retreat coordinator and program assistant for years, and another, Zoe, teaches yoga at Ouellette’s in-person offerings and recently gathered with friends at the very lake property at which Ouellette and I conducted this Zoom interview to celebrate and write vows in preparation for her wedding (How to Memorize Your Heart’s Subtle Voice). (Fun fact: Jon and Jeannine arrived at the cabin early to do some last-minute sprucing up, including painting, because if you give them a DIY project, they’ll tackle it with gusto!)

That Ouellette takes manual labor seriously doesn’t come as a shock when, in her own words, “the combination of a clear vision, a tenacious work ethic, and a very warm heart” helped her “little newsletter that could”—as she puts it to me—explode into the vibrant virtual writing space it’s become (How I Grew My Substack from Zero to 40K Annual Income in Just 12 Months, Part One). Whether she’s doing labor of the back-breaking variety—like hauling sixty-pound bags of concrete and eliminating about “four million billion gazillion piles of brush,” as she phrases it half-jokingly on Facebook—or of the mental variety, like leading workshops and online challenges or tackling her own creative pursuits, including an in-process novel and craft book, Ouellette works “tirelessly, doggedly…ferocious[ly].” What’s more, she approaches her work with a smile and with love, painting her bunk house and sauna for the aforementioned pre-wedding festivities with the same care and attention that she gives to the mural project on her newest grandson Z’s bedroom walls and treating her students—past, present, and Substack subscribers alike—with the kind of compassion that was often lacking in her own life, especially during her tumultuous childhood, when—Ouellette shares—“my teachers saved me.”

When she’s not returning the favor as savior to a giant, grateful, and growing network of Writing in the Dark devotees, she’s likely baking in her kitchen. “Sometimes it might be really, really incredible,” (just head to her social media for proof, and you’ll find rose apple tarts and cinnamon braids, pear custards and strawberry summer cakes, banana puddings and perfectly-iced lemon loaves, to name a few), “but it also can be just good enough or not work at all, and that’s okay,” she says of her culinary creations, and I can’t help but think of the parallels to her workshops, where she invites us to play within the confines of detailed constraints that push us “into uncomfortable or unfamiliar places” that may or may not inspire magic.

In my own experience, I have found that this process of struggling—and even wrangling—with the language to make it fit into the highly specific container of a given assignment forces me to consider each word critically, sharpens my thinking, and—on my best days—makes the writing “sing,” as Ouellette would say. But she’d also be the first to admit that singing is often preceded by plenty of false starts and wobbly notes:

Maybe the prompt was really hard. Maybe you had to just refuse to do it, or maybe you had a breakthrough…I’m not going to be offended about this hard thing that we’re all electing to do together…It’s about the willingness to walk into the unknown and see what emerges…frustrating or fruitful.

Like all of my favorite and most memorable teachers who’ve preceded her, Ouellette is tough when it comes to the bar she sets—high!—and the tasks she assigns—difficult! (Paradoxically, the lower the word count, the more Herculean her prompts can feel, and as a rule, she limits us to 750-word, “tiny-but-fierce” flashes.) And/but it’s equally true that Ouellette’s rigorous, exacting nature is matched in even greater parts by her softness, that she can’t help but show us her humanity, and that her glorious essence—or what I think of as the “who” of her—is the shimmer to the shard of this seemingly-impossible, bordering-on-masochistic work that we writers elect to do.

Incidentally, shimmers/shards is also a writing practice that Ouellette teaches—a way of noticing and succinctly documenting observations about the world’s beauty while never shying away from naming what’s ugly—almost like using potions and lotions to smooth out our skin while simultaneously being grateful to turn another year older, laugh lines and all.

“I grow wilder and wilder as I age,” she says. “By wild, I mean more and more synced with what is wild in the natural world and what is wild in myself…I am becoming wilder and wilder and wilder. How glorious.”

In embracing aging and the inevitability of death—because “life is short,” and there’s “no time [or words] to waste,”—Ouellette’s writing is more urgent and gorgeously alive than ever, and if we follow her lead, perhaps ours can be too.

How glorious indeed.

Ouellette and Greenwood talking in Zoom; screenshot of side-by-side view

Pictured: Ouellette and Greenwood—all smiles during their 2023 Zoom call.


About the Interviewee: Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award in Women’s Literature, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Her essays and fiction appear widely in literary journals including Los Angeles Review of BooksNarrativeMasters ReviewNorth American Review, Calyx, and more, as well as in her popular Writing in the Dark on Substack, where she also teaches writing. Additionally, she teaches at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and Writing in the Dark: The School, a creative writing program she founded in 2012, from which a great many essays, stories, and poems have been published, a growing number of which have been recognized with nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best American Essay. Jeannine is incredibly proud of her equally incredible students. She is working on a craft book and her first novel.

Meet the Contributor

melissa greenwoodTwo-time Hippocampus Magazine contributor Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s been published in Brevity, The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Manifest-StationJewish Literary JournalLongridge Review, and elsewhere, including in the Awakenings: Stories of Bodies & Consciousness anthology, and she’s been nominated for awards by Meow Meow Pow Pow (Best Small Fiction), Kelp Journal (Best of the Net), and Gold Man Review (the Pushcart Prize), where her work has also appeared. Melissa lives with her Canadian husband in LA, where she teaches and sometimes blogs about Pilates, he teaches elementary school, and they both partake in some nightly dark chocolate before watching (but never binging) television because #balance.

 

 

The post PROFILE: Jeannine Ouellette, Author of The Part That Burns & Creator of Writing in the Dark first appeared on Hippocampus Magazine.

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