Our guest this week is Jennifer Hoppins. Jenny is a mother of two, writer, artist, outdoor enthusiast, and one of my most supportive and encouraging friends. I met Jenny years ago through blogging, and look forward to one day sitting in the sunshine and sipping iced tea while picking her brain about all things writing and education.
The about page on her blog, Imagined, Remembered, Believed, reads: "Writing is engaging in memory and imagination and happens by trusting and believing in yourself." and what better words could usher us into our interview?
~What does an average day in your house look like?
In our house, we begin working before we are fed, dressed and showered. For years I filled six am to seven with social media and coffee. (Who am I kidding? Curious George ended at 8:30 and my son was suddenly HUNGRY). In this way, I kept up with regular posting on my blog, chatted on fb, and generally gave myself plenty of time to wake up before rushing into chores or planning our educational projects. Lately, Elliot is no longer interested in the PBS programming and wakes earlier to squeeze in some Minecraft time while I make tea and breakfast. I now share less online, focusing more on developing my personal writing projects. In that liminal space before “school” begins, I often take notes on the writing knots I’ve tangled myself into. Sometimes I am brave and open the file of my book project.
Usually by 8:30, (a habitual schedule based on former television viewing) we eat breakfast and begin work on the general areas of study. This varies in no particular order from journal writing, reading, math, grammar workbooks and music. We save art and larger, all consuming projects for the afternoon. I consider our style of learning to be project based. The current project helps to shape the areas of academic focus. Recently we read the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich and are exploring early America through a Native American lens. I found some interesting workbooks that have a few inspiring projects, but sometimes an idea hits us and we just run with it. I have a friend who said “learning is like a spiral” and I agree. Two years ago we made a large tipi in the back yard and painted it with images inspired by Native art. At that time we weren't actively reading historical novels or informational texts on the subject. It was one of those whimsical ideas that suddenly land in my consciousness as a worthy time investment. It turned into a family activity and included neighborhood children who were delighted to come over and play.
We have discovered that whatever is living under the surface of our imaginations can be brought into the light and developed with great and lasting effect. The projects we've done individually and together as a family have enriched all of us. When we do a collaborative or individual project, Elliot remembers. The learning sticks. The stuff we do in the workbook fades.
So an average day in our house, during an active project, is usually messy, all consuming, and without deadlines. In between projects, I attempt to restore a measure of orderliness and maintain that, but it all eventually slides into something more interesting than clean.
At the end of the day, we read, take walks, or watch movies. Sometimes we venture out and go downtown. Sometimes we meet with local friends for play and conversation. Home education is the fullest, most active lifestyle I've ever experienced, even busier than when I was finishing college with a baby and an adolescent. People tell me that they could never do what I do, and I think silently that they wish they could. I say, take the leap. You will begin to know and understand your child in a way that you can never truly know them if they are still in school. And as you struggle to make sense out of the challenging topics they are meant to learn, you will also rediscover yourself. Especially if you simultaneously embark on your own creative life. You just might find that you are more valuable for who you are than what you do.
When writing, I hope to evoke emotion in the imagined reader rather than being emotional. Through the actual writing of a piece, I will sometimes get caught up in a memory so powerful that I rush to write it using as much detail as I’m able before it vanishes. This leaves me feeling a little bit raw and dizzy for a while. I recently wrote about the most traumatic day of my life. A few days later, I experienced profound relief. It was as if the character that was me in the past (who exists now in a reconstructed form outside of myself) began to carry a large portion of that emotional burden.
In another way, memoir writing impacts my present moment. I’m reminded that I went through some kind of soul-fire, and now stand in new growth, more vigorous and ready to reach out for the life I’ve chosen. I become freshly aware that I am really happy now, even when things go wrong and my expectations get blown. I find that I want to go play outside with my family, riding bikes together, roller skating, hiking in the woods or building a fire. I want to look at the moon and stars and soak up everything that exists outside after being so intensely focused on my internal thoughts and feelings. To go right back to textbooks after a writing jag makes me feel impatient. I have pent up energy to burn and lively conversations that want to fly out of the silence. So this lifestyle does affect goals and schedules. In a word, we are fluid. There are no hard boundaries between the structured education and the one that we construct through our projects and activities.
~Can you tell us a little bit about your writing life?
At least half of it happens before I bring myself to the page. It is a thought process, sometimes born of a question that I’m trying to untangle. Sometimes I construct sentences and phrases in response to something I've heard or discussed. I was always the kind of person who came up with a response too late. In my childhood, I was trained to be a listener and not a speaker. I think I've spent my adulthood trying to have a voice. My writing life is becoming more natural as I age. In my thirties I knew I wanted to be a writer, but didn't feel confident enough to try. In my forties, this impulse and desire only grew stronger. I no longer feel that I’m not worthy to call myself a writer, despite the fact that I do not have a book published by a publishing house...nor that I've never before attempted this legitimizing process. This bold daring of calling myself a writer is a result of years of reading books on writing and then connecting with people who write. I can trace the development of my body of work (unpublished and self published) with the friendships I made in the blogging community. One friend read over fifteen of my stories through email exchanges. She critiqued each one and encouraged me to keep going, without a single negative comment or correction. Now, I know that this is not what is really supposed to happen...a truly honest critique will contain at least one thing to correct or adjust. But my friend believed in me so much that she gave me gift after gift of loving praise. From those words, my confidence grew. Today there’s not much to stop me from writing, no matter if I go to an official “academic style” critique group and they shred my lines in red pen. I know at least one person in the world will love it, and that is enough for me.
I write in the morning before getting out of bed. It’s not actual physical writing. I call it “writer’s mind.” It activates as soon as I become aware that I’m awake. Sentences form. I have to get out of bed and go downstairs to my journal. The pets always bug the heck out of me for breakfast, and I lose some of it. I keep scraps of paper by my bed to scribble the essence of it. I likewise write in the shower the same way. The best stuff comes to me when I am unable to write it down immediately. The writer’s mind happens when I’m driving. When I’m sewing. While washing the dishes. When I’m at the gym on the elliptical strider. It happens whenever I mow the lawn (loud buzzing and repetitive tasks draw me inward). I have a pile going now of scraps written on envelopes, copy paper, on post-its. There’s no order. There are no wide open blocks of time to put it all together. Except on Sunday mornings. And then, when the house is quiet and there are no expectations, a flow begins to pour. But it was all building like rain that collected and spilled over. If I am intense in the delivery, it’s because I've been waiting and waiting for the chance to get to my files.
~What measures do you take to protect your creativity?
I don’t. Then it builds until I can’t take it anymore and I end up blowing everybody and everything off until I've gotten something crafted that satisfies the need. It’s like thunderclouds that keep rising in the humid summer afternoon. The storm of words relieves the pressure. Then I go back to being present in the demands of chores, school, dinner, exercise and errands. We live in a beautiful southern city with many opportunities for learning outside of the home. We have many places to go, and several friends who invite us for play. These are all blessings and golden opportunities. So I have learned to integrate creativity in short sessions. I also have a handmade shop on Etsy. I discovered that having a customer helps to protect that creative time. When you have a due date for a project, it always gets done. But so many of my writing projects are open ended and never get the full attention and finishing touches that would make them shine. I realize how important it is to make deadlines to share my writing with someone.
~Do you need absolute quiet to write? Or do you prefer noise, and how does that impact your day?
I prefer rain falling on the roof and tapping on the windows. There is something magic that turns on my writer’s mind when there is a gentle, repetitive, natural noise. I should probably move to Seattle. Or put on my headphones and listen to rainforest sounds or meditation sound baths. But I’m learning to write amid interruptions and questions from my husband and son. They love to have me home with them instead of at the library, and I enjoy the comforts of home over the institutional and quiet spaces of study.
~Do you have a set time of day put aside for writing?
I love mornings best of all. But evenings are nice too. Everything in between is too hectic to try.
~Do you set goals for your writing?
No. Except for when I joined a writer’s critique group. That was amazingly motivational. And incredibly hard to swallow. I did once challenge myself to write 50 short stories in a ten month period. I made it to fifteen.
~What is the most challenging aspect of being a writer and a homeschooling parent?
The fluidity of our lifestyle. It helps and it restricts. If there were more boundaries for specific activities, I would probably produce more viable work. I need to get better at making deadlines to share what I’m working on.
~What is the most rewarding aspect of being a writer and a homeschooling parent?
Being a homeschool parent has expanded my writing more than my traditional education. I must be immersed in the learning journey with Elliot, and this extends my worldview. I’m not limited by the old stuff that was taught to me years ago about life or writing or relationships. The world is new to me as a home educator. It’s always changing, there’s always more to discover. I used to be rigid and judgmental in my thinking. Now, the scope of topics and philosophical questioning is broader, deeper, filled with possibility. It continually flows outward and inward with every leading we follow.
~How do you feel about balance? Is there such a thing?
I believe that there is a balance to life when I stop trying to control it. Things level out. Problems come to solutions. I’m not as desperate as I once was about making my idealistic versions be manifested on my schedule. Yes, we are busy. But one day, when my body is old and my child is grown, the house will be silent. It will be just me and the cat here. I’m not really looking forward to that much peace.
~Has your creative process changed since homeschooling?
YES!!! We are so very free to create our own learning, that we do something creative every single day. When reading aloud together, we are creating close bonds through our conversations. Since age seven, Elliot has been raising money through the sale of his ninja themed artwork for people experiencing homelessness. He paints a lot. He also has a special room we keep just for Lego building. In the backyard, my husband built a fort for Elliot that he got to help construct. It’s nearly finished. Inside, there is room for all of us to have a real camp out together. It has solar powered lights and a canvas tarp for a roof, so when we’re all inside, we can imagine we’re living in the colonial era. That we are surviving on a frontier. On a warm evening, we can bring in candles and read our historical fiction books. It makes everything feel so real, as if we’re living the story as it unfolds.
All of this helps my creative process. I know that everything good I've ever written came from a time when I immersed myself in life, fully, without the numbing distractions of cable TV, the internet, or radio stations that play ads. I have grown closer to my desire to write from seeking nature, from bonding with my child and my loving husband who takes a very active role in this journey. We are creating as well as receiving life as it arrives...and this is exactly how the writing happens for me. The more I create, the more raw material arrives to continue the flow. There is some kind of magic that comes from deciding to live fully in the moment first, really engaging with people and the natural world, then crafting useful pieces of it. I love to write scenes with landscapes. I love to absorb the sky in a piece. What clouds do is kind of what emotions do. Sometimes they float, sometimes they rage.
In this way, it does not matter if you are a beginning writer at the elementary level, just learning to write your first poem, or if you’re 89 and want to finally write the memoir that has burned in your heart all these years. Decide to live first, and the writing material will arrive of it’s own accord, like a gift. You can turn it away, or welcome it in.
~What advice would you give to someone who is passionate about their creative pursuits, and just starting out on their homeschooling journey?
I’m sure this has been said by many people, but finding a community of supportive people is a priority. If you take a risk and encounter a negative, unhealthy person, let them go and keep looking. The way to do this is to invest your attention into lives. Show that you are interested and care about others...and mean that sincerely. Do this and friends will arrive to reciprocate that love. Don’t limit yourself to the qualities that you think are ideal for a friendship. One of my friends is a former homeless person. She once was addicted to crack. Her mother was a librarian, and taught her daughter to love reading form birth. During her darkest days, when living in an abandoned building, she kept a backpack with library books. She read through the highs and lows. This friend continually supports me with a solid, steady flow of encouragement. Through her, I realize again how incredibly, abundantly blessed I am to have this exact life.
This knowledge inspires me to write through the challenges that led to the bursts of light.
Being creative means being expressive, and since I’m an introvert with a great need for expression, writing is the way I get that need met. My son is an extrovert who needs active, verbal engagement with people. I realize that his learning needs to happen as much outside of the house as it does inside. It needs to happen in a community, where he can have some exposure to his world. Maybe not exposure to all the hard things all at once, but to a life not washed out and handed back to him in a product designed to raise his test scores. He comes alive with purpose and imagination when the context for learning is not sterile and orderly like many traditional classrooms.
I think many of my writing blocks happened because my life was so constrained to home and school that I never really had anything exciting to write about. I couldn't breathe or share my thoughts aloud without encountering some kind of evaluation, correction or judgment. In order to get really healthy and happy, I had to get comfortable with who I am and how I respond to the world. That response means everything. And this is why anyone who wants to write should be absolutely encouraged to write, no matter if what they say is not mainstream...in fact, especially because it might not fit the status quo.
~Jenny, I can't thank you enough. Your words are so thoughtful, and inspiring to me. Just reading your responses make me want to jump into not only my writing, but into life in general! I love especially what you said about the challenge of the fluid lifestyle that comes with homeschooling. Thank you again!
Links for Jenny:
Imagined, Remembered, Believed
If you are a homeschooling parent who is in the midst of creative pursuits, or know someone who is, and would like to contribute to this series, please contact me at crnnoel(at)gmail(dot)com.