An Interview with Jean Zimmer
Guest Blogger Sarah Feldman
Straw Dog Newsletter caught up with Jean Zimmer during a family camping trip to Cape Cod. Guest blogger Sarah Feldman interviewed her about her upcoming Craft Workshop, Grammar for Dummies and/or Writers.
Sarah: I am interested in the wide variety of forms in which you work. Does grammar function in the same way in, say, technical writing vs. fiction vs. radio?
Jean: Grammatical requirements differ hugely, depending on the genre. For example, in technical publications, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies are intolerable. Newspapers and online publications have their own styles, which they enforce rigidly. In fiction, reading should be a smooth ride. In broadcast journalism, the text can be more colloquial, following looser grammatical rules.
By understanding and applying basic rules of grammar, you [can invest your writing with] a sense of calm and mastery. [But] grammar is more art than science. There is latitude, and breaking the rules intentionally and with command and continuity can be refreshing for the reader.
Sarah: What are you working on right now?
Jean: I am wrapping up edits on a technical guide to espresso preparation; editing a novel, a couple poetry collections and a journal article; reviewing a memoir; and beginning work on a textbook. I am coaching a writer through a fiction project, and helping a client find an agent. And, of course, I am refining a syllabus for my upcoming grammar workshop.
Generally, my editing work trumps my writing. At the moment, I am chipping away at a radio commentary, a travel story, and my website (which is under development).
Sarah: How do you juggle all that with other obligations?
Jean: I prioritize very carefully. It’s a little like triage. [I have to determine] which deadline is tightest, who in my life is neediest.
I take both my career an editor and my “career” as a parent very seriously. I have a teenager, and a set of ten-year-old twins. Raising a family has been a great education. To love your work and be completely immersed in it, and then to need to remove yourself completely from it, allows you to return to it with a completely fresh perspective. I’m not sure I would do that otherwise. My inclination might be to stay in the work and not get that very useful breathing space.
Sarah: Do you have any advice for other writers performing a similar balancing act?
Jean: Create boundaries. Ask your family and friends to be respectful of your work time. In return, respect your family-and-friends time.
Accept that there will inevitably be frustrations, such as sick kids and schedule glitches. Mine those experiences for writing material later.
Remember that taking time to rest makes you more productive.
Never underestimate how much you can get done in 15 minutes.
Sarah: What’s one moment that would go on your career blooper reel?
Jean: In my early days, a software corporation hired me to write the index for a user’s manual. I was required to use a Macintosh computer to compose my document. I’d used PCs exclusively up to that point, and was unfamiliar with the Mac platform. On my first day on the job, I spent nearly an hour behind a closed door in my high-rise office, searching for the computer’s “on” switch, before I emerged, sheepishly, to ask the clerical assistant. (It was that little symbol on the keyboard.) That mystery solved, I composed a fine index.
Sarah Feldman’s work has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead. Some of her poems were anthologized in “Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry”.