Jana Horn on Fiction, Faith, and the Ups and Downs of Teaching

Jana Horn on Fiction, Faith, and the Ups and Downs of Teaching
Jana Horn by Ebru Yildiz

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers get a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist along with critical musings around the music.

Jana Horn's don't-call-it-a-debut (but, call it a debut) Optimism was really intriguing to me, I even featured a song on a previous Baker's Dozen (paid subscription plug!). Her new album The Window Is the Dream is a massive step up to my ears. I got her on the horn (sorry) to talk about creating, creation myths, and a whole lot more.

You're getting your MFA in fiction. How's that going?
It's coming to an end, so it's kind of strange—but I love it. If I could keep going forever, I just would. I don't like to be out in the real world, you know? [Laughs]

What does the final year in a MFA program for fiction entail?
It's about teaching and writing your thesis. I'm no longer in classes. I teach essay writing to college freshmen, and I teach a fiction-writing class as an elective. I also have to write a book, which is what I'm doing now.

How's the book going, if you don't mind me asking?
It's really hard. [Laughs] I'm learning to write a novel while writing a novel. I don't have the chops, and it's not an intuitive process. It's very rocky, and I'm coming up against problems left and right. It's kind of like the process of making my first album. You're learning to make an album while you're making an album—and it's a disaster. [Laughs] It doesn't look good, it doesn't sound good, it doesn't read well. It's a lot of revision, revision, revision, revision, revision.

In terms of the creative parts of your brain, do you find you're exercising similar parts when it comes to practicing writing and music separately, or is it different?
There are some elements that are very similar, and some that are different in ways that I appreciate. I think that if they were incredibly similar, I wouldn't be doing them both. But songwriting has a more first-thought-best-thought thing about it that novel writing simply doesn't have. There's an unconscious way of writing that I'm interested in and I strive to do, but it's not sustainable in longform writing. You can only write unconsciously for so long before you need to fill in the blanks with words.

With songwriting, you can let those blanks be blank. You can fill them in with music. You don't have to solve the equation. You can let the listener do their own work, which in that sense makes it more like the job of a poet—which I'm not. What's more interesting in songwriting, to me, is not writing it all out and letting it be shared experience, as opposed to "I've sat here and written this thing out for you."

Was there a moment when you were younger where you fell in love with fiction and reading in general?
I was not a huge reader as a kid. I mostly read the Bible. That's where I gave a lot of my attention growing up. The first thing that startled me into action was when I was 14 and I read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. That's when I was like, "OK, you can have a voice." It's funny, it's dark, it's got concepts that I've never thought about. It tickled all the places that I didn't know about beforehand.

Tell me about making the new album.
It was such a swirl. With Optimism, I'd written the songs and set out to record them, and we went out to the studio for a couple of weeks—it was a complete process, and it felt contained. This was very much not contained. I would write a song, I'd go to record it, I was finding time to record while I was in the program, both taking classes and teaching and writing, and I was recording in another location in Upstate New York. Whenever I had a break at school, I'd go record, and whenever I had a break in recording, I'd go back to school. It was a back-and-forth over the course of a year, and it felt so different for me than the last time around.

Sometimes it can feel to the listener like the music just came together magically.
There is an element of magic to it. "How did this come together?" I feel that way about everything. How does something come out of nothing? It's pretty crazy. What's the creation myth here?

You mentioned reading the Bible when you were younger, I know you had a Christian upbringing. You're 29 now, where's your faith at now?
I think it was a process. It's changed since I changed, and it feels like a subtler, more implicit part of existence than the more soldier-like approach I had as a child. I was into literal interpretations and was very studious about everything—like I was getting an A in the Bible. It's really useful for me, it's very much in my consciousness, which I'm really thankful for and glad. I think everyone should grow up with some sort of deep knowledge of a sacred text, because it has a place in my daily life and it's often coming to mind. We memorized things as kids, not just scripture. Did you memorize stuff as a kid?

Not really. When I took Latin, I think we were expected to memorize Catullus and stuff, but, honestly, my AP Latin teacher just showed us movies most of the time.
That's too bad. I think it's important. You memorize something and then it's yours. No one can take it from you, it's in there. It's kind of cool. You can have all these things in your inventory. It's how the world worked for so long—you had to memorize stories that were passed down. The way the world works is always changing significantly and essentially, and I'm really appreciative of having gone through what I did. I'd like to have more sacred texts memorized, but one at a time, I guess.

What's it been like to work in a university these days?
The university is a really wild place. You're bringing together so many different kinds of people, and you're charging them a lot of money. It's a naturally really fraught place. My personal challenge is getting students to care, which maybe sounds obvious, but it's compounded by the fact that these kids are paying $70,000 to come here if they don't live in Virginia. There's expectations on that cost.

It's pretty hard to see exceedingly talented students uninterested in their talent. I mean, I get it. Writing and reading has never been a popular career. But it's more challenging than ever to teach writing, especially since a lot of these kids did a good portion of high school online. I'm working with COVID kids, so my class is in response to that, and most of what we do is handwriting. We don't really engage with technology—not that I'm trying to make them Mennonites, but I'm up against something so big that I feel like we have to face it accordingly.

There's so many challenges, I can't even list all of them. You can't contain all the problems that are on a college campus. I just pick my battles and try to make my way through the rest unscathed, if possible. My general issue is trying to get students to fathom that so much of writing has nothing to do with writing. Writing is living. It's what you do. What makes it to the page is so little of that process. I get my students to give me feedback, and I hear from them that they'll spend seven hours, on a good day, on their phone. And then they write their essay, and their essay is fine, but you know what I'm saying, right? The writing process, the thinking, is getting redirected in uninteresting ways.

What was school like for you as a kid?
I personally loved school, and I still love school. I had a really good time in school, and a good education, which is maybe not tremendously common in very small towns in Texas. We had a nuclear power plant in my town, so that might have helped funding for getting the school going, getting good teachers, and getting an artist program together. I had 100 kids in my grade in a town of 2,000 people. I had a really good education, and I loved school. I still do. I just keep going to school!

Tell me about establishing your sound. I feel like you've already established a way with melody that is identifiably yours.
As I've gotten older and listened to more music, I really like atonal, dissonant, repetitive stuff, as well as complicated harmonic stuff. I had a really strong Broadcast phase, where I felt like Trish Keenan's challenge was so apparent, the way the vocals challenged the notes. She was hitting these crystal notes that were really important to me for a while.

I've definitely been affected by what I like, but it's also hard because I listen to all kinds of things, and it's not a 1:1 relationship with what I want and what comes out. My sound is hard to talk about, because I might have one thing in mind, but it never comes out the way I thought it was going to be. I don't feel like I have the musical prowess to be able to say, "I'm going to make the song sound like this." I can't really do that. I listen to what I listen to, and I do my best, and hopefully what ends up occuring is more interesting than what I was trying to do, but who knows.

It's really hard to know what you sound like. You'll never know what you actually look like. I look in the mirror every day, but I can't tell you what I actually look like, and I'm surprised when I see myself in photographs. I kind of feel that way when I listen to my own music. I don't always know what others are hearing. I can let it be interpreted by others and not really think so much on the intention.

It seems like your music is gaining a fair amount of attention, even as you're finishing your MFA. What's the balance like, in your mind, with which artistic discipline you're looking to focus on in the future?
There feels to me to be something essential about the cooperation of the two. If I was going to wholeheartedly focus on one or the other, that would've happened already—and it hasn't yet. There's something symbiotic about it, where I can stare at a computer screen for only so long before I take out my guitar. Music is both a break and a way of unletting some of the density of writing. I can spill it into a song and then go back to my writing. They've worked together for me so far. It'll be interesting to see what it's like when there's not a fire under my butt about getting my MFA done. When I came to this program, I wasn't sure about what it was going to be like—if I was just going to let music go for a while. But it didn't happen.

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Jamie Larson