Jessie Powell: The Way the Keys Sound on Paper

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When I was ten, I had a stroke of luck that represented the first real growth of writer roots for me. My grandparents gave me the manual typewriter I played with at their house. It was a Remington Rand, with red and black ribbon, no correction ability, and a metal lever that I pulled to advance the carriage when the bell dinged at the end of a line. For months, I pecked out words mindlessly. I filled up pages of the onionskin paper Poppa had given me along with the typewriter. I wrote unconnected words, long words, words I had to look up in the dictionary, words whose sounds pleased my tongue and my fingers.

I don’t remember when I connected typing to the elaborate fantasy games I played with my best friend, but I do recall asking my mother if there was a job where you could just type for a living. She said, “Jessie, you don’t want to be a secretary.”

As soon as I realized that the correct answer was actually, ‘writer’, I composed a novel. It was 57 pages long. (Note to self: The logic that claims each page contains about ten thousand words is completely outdated and wrong.) It had a sex scene. But since I was a little confused about sex at age ten, the guy kissed the girl’s breasts, and I wrote, “And the rest I will leave to your imagination.” Probably just as well, since I had a masterful hold on explicit language, even if I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on.

Seven months later, in the midst of my second novel, I reread the first one and burned it. It was largely a retelling of Star Wars with a girl for Luke Skywalker and an evil Mother for Darth Vader. Then, I reread the in-progress novel and burned it, too, for being a retelling of Starman only with teens. I asked Mom if I could take a writing class. She bought me The Elements of Style instead.

I was fifteen and homeschooled before I took my first writing class. It was a correspondence course with an instructor at Northwestern University. No credit was associated with it, but the work was at a college level. The instructor constantly told me to read my stuff out loud, and I did. I went on to devour the few workshops offered by our local library over the next two years.

And here’s what I realized. By the time I was seventeen and in college, I was far from being one of the greats, but I wasn’t half bad, and I was better than any of the adults taking classes with me. (Arrogant? Yes. But also true.) In college, I almost never completed my work as assigned. I submitted historical fiction for my history essays (all thoroughly researched and appropriately cited). I turned in thrillers for my politics classes. Sociology got an imaginary case study. When I tried to write something nonfiction, I got a C. At one point, I wrote an essay for environmental science that started out with a famous quotation. The instructor remarked, “You actually used something from your sources in a straightforward way for once.” And my research partner said, “Oh, I thought she just made it up like she usually does.”

Only my English courses received good nonfiction. I loved (and still adore) lit crit. But when I got to grad school, I discovered that there’s a way of looking at literature that can suck the soul out of writing. My English Master’s also triggered the worst of my bipolar, and I suddenly stopped writing altogether. For four years, I had nothing substantive to say.

So I wrote letters, and I read. I read books and stories, fantasy and mystery. I tackled literature that I’d missed while I was supposed to be studying it, and when Zoloft finally gave me my writing back, I wrote a novel. Not as promptly as when I was ten, because this one was longer than 57 pages.

I worked a forty hour a week job when I started Divorce: A Love Story. And I struggled to carve out the writing time to finish it. It took me seven years to get 73,000 words. After I had submitted the first third of the book to a publisher for consideration, I tossed out the last half of the novel. The publisher accepted it, and I rewrote in six months what it had taken me seven years to compose in the first place. The publisher is a micropress, so the book is only available in electronic format. But it’s out there, and I’m damned proud of it.

I also started blogging in 2011, and I’ve written another book and a half since then (“and a half” means “fully written, poorly edited”). It’s as though the four years I lost were saving themselves to force momentum onto me later. I just submitted a second novel to a major press, and have hopes of getting targeted feedback, even if the editor rejects it. My third novel is in its perpetual editing stage.

The best advice I have for writers is to do what works for you and throw the rest out the window. Trust yourself and be prepared to listen to your critics. Writing is a collaborative effort, and a good editor is worth waiting for.

I’m not keen on self publishing because I want to get paid to go to work, rather than paying for the same. But I have a lot of respect for friends brave enough to risk this route. There’s still a lot to be said for traditional publishing, and I don’t advise you to discount it just because it takes a long time. At the end of the day, it’s more than the big names. Go to conferences; meet editors and agents, and put yourself forward as both a writer and a student of writing.

I’ve been called “goal-oriented,” but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m spastic, I write on an erratic schedule, and have to trick myself into coming back to a project once my muse is bored with it. But I’m stubborn. And I write a lot. And I will do this for a living. These three things drive me forward, give my tree leaves, and make my branches full.

About Jessie: 


Jessie Bishop Powell is a half crazed mother of two kids on the autism spectrum. Her husband is a saint. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama and teaches college English online. You can find her hiding from her parental duties at

Find her on Facebook HERE.
Find her on Twitter HERE.
Find her on Pinterest HERE.

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  • Jessie Powell

    Thanks again for featuring me Erin. I’m sorry I’ve been so flaky this week. I swear I’m not usually so all-over-the-place.

  • Kat Biggie

    I love this! your first novel was longer than mine (seven pages, self illustrated, entitled “My Unicorn.”) I love that you just made stuff up in college and got good grades out of it! I had a similar experience – I didn’t make the stuff up, but I wrote most of my best papers when I was drunk!!! :-0 It’s been fun getting to know you through SP30+ and I really enjoyed getting a look at the inner writer here!

    • Jessie Powell

      Thanks for saying hello! And I love that you wrote and ILLUSTRATED yours!! I have never been confident about my drawing abilities.

      • Kat Biggie

        It was NOT good. Stick figure on a swing set… although I was VERY proud of my unicorn!

  • Kat Biggie

    Oh and I also wanted to note that I too wanted to write love stories (in fact my first novel that I am editing now is a love story) but even though at 36 I do now know the words and the actions, I still get all blushy and red writing it! So I might steal your line – they kissed and I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination!!! :-)

    • Jessie Powell

      AHahah! I dragged that manuscript EVERYWHERE. My best friend’s Dad FOUND it and READ it. And all he said was, “You’re a talented writer”. I was mortified.

      • Kat Biggie

        Laughing out loud!

  • TLanceB

    You are the perfect person to be in Erin’s series. I’m so glad you did this. My first thing was a short story about a boy and his pet snake (it was a metaphor for wanting an older brother).
    Your writing is inspirational because it’s honest, talented, and meaningful. I’m so glad we’re friends and writing colleagues.

    • Jessie Powell

      Absolutely! You and Deanna are awesome, and plus we live four hours away and have kids the same age. BONUS!!

  • Bill-The Authentic Life

    Jessie, so happy to see you here. I adore your writing and your advice. For so many years, I had nothing to say and then suddenly? Everything to say. I’m sure you know what I mean. Looking forward to reading more of you.

    • Jessie Powell

      Yes, I do! And your words are both wise and timely. I really enjoy your stories. Thanks for saying hello :)

  • Kirsten Piccini

    You are the perfect person to write here for Erin, I am sorry I’m so late to the party, but I wanted to read it when I had time to truly comment.

    One of the things I love about the way you write is that it tackles things that might make people uncomfortable, but you’re sincere in it. Plus your imagination is beyond compare, the ideas and situations you bring to us as readers are never middle of the road, never mediocre.

    plus, deep down, your heart is one of the truest I’ve ever seen. I’m glad we’re friends.