The Creative Life in Our Cities: A Conversation with Jenn McKee

We have many talented artists and creatives living and working in our Farmington/Farmington Hills community and our weekly interview series, sponsored by City Life Realty, will introduce you to some of them.

Today we feature journalist and essayist Jenn McKee. Jenn is also Metromode‘s project editor for On the Ground Farmington.

When did you first start writing?

I wrote painfully earnest poetry in middle school and high school; majored in creative writing (and wrote about theater for The Michigan Daily) while I was a Residential College student at the University of Michigan (at which point I discovered that writing was much, much harder than it looked); and after years of floundering, I landed a spot in Penn State’s MFA program in fiction writing. 

What did you enjoy about the experience at Penn State?

Penn State’s program offered lots of valuable workshop experiences (including a very pragmatic book reviewing course taught by powerhouse poet Robin Becker), but I also worked in the Writing Center as a tutor and taught several different undergraduate writing classes (rhetoric and composition, creative writing, business writing, article writing, etc.).

Teaching probably taught me as much as my classes did, because when you have to articulate writing principles and edit other people’s work, you’re inevitably clarifying the craft for yourself. And when it was time for my 48-hour take-home comprehensive exam, I discovered the thrill of trusting the writing process to lead me intellectually to answers I hadn’t arrived at by way of more casual thought. It was then that I started to realize that while a fiction writer was the writer I’d long dreamed of being, the writer I actually was, was a personal essayist.

Who has been a mentor to you along the way?

My longtime editor at The Ann Arbor News, Bob Needham, was definitely the most influential mentor I’ve ever had. He took a chance on me, bringing me on board even though I’d only been an occasional freelancer while pursuing a more academic path. “Do you have any concerns about my lack of newsroom experience?” I asked him, nervously, when he offered me the probationary position. “No,” he said with a shrug. “I think you’ll pick things up as you go.” And thus began my twelve-year stint in my dream job, for which I’m so grateful.

Can you describe something you’ve written that is particularly meaningful to you?

One of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever been involved in was a story I wrote for the Detroit Free Press about the Shakespeare in Prison program, run by Detroit Public Theatre volunteers at a women’s prison near Ypsilanti. I had to invest tons of time and effort, and jump through endless bureaucratic hoops, and work with almost none of my usual reporter’s tools, to get the story done, but once I actually got into the prison to witness rehearsals and a performance, I was awed by how much this program meant to the incarcerated women involved, and I seriously couldn’t get enough of hearing their stories and perspectives (though I couldn’t speak to them directly). That my job was to go back out into the world, where no one could see what was happening inside those walls and tell the story of theater’s impact on these women’s souls felt like a huge, rare, wondrous honor. I felt a big responsibility, because these women were depending on me to tell their story and get it just right.

Can you share a favorite quote about art or life?

Warren Zevon performed on “The Late Show with David Letterman” while knowing he would die soon, and during the interview portion, he said. “Enjoy every sandwich”—which is something that’s stuck with me ever since. So, I try to be present as much as possible—and as it happened, I think this makes me a better artist, too.

The other quote I love is something my late, much-missed father-in-law said. I’d told him the embarrassing story of how I once met Ben Vereen for an interview, and because Vereen arrived 45 minutes late, he first apologized to me, and I replied, “You’re welcome.” Super-smooth, right? “I’ll never be cool,” I said to my father-in-law. “Being cool is overrated,” he said. And though he may have just been comforting me, I’ve thought of that quote ever since as a validation of the wonder I’m still capable of feeling— and I’m thankful for never having lost that.

What advice or suggestions do you have for younger writers?

Be patient with yourself. Though our society obsesses about, and fusses over, precocious wunderkinds, most of us take years to find our voice, and that’s not a failing. It’s just a necessary part of your journey. Also, if you start veering from your original plan—as I did when I realized I probably wasn’t built to be a fiction writer for the long haul—have the courage to follow your gut. What you picked up along the way on that first path will play no small role in guiding you on your second, or even third. (Did I mention I’m now experimenting a little with playwriting?)

What do you think is missing from the arts community in Farmington/Hills?

Readings, storytelling events—essentially any kind of literary gathering place, like a bookstore or an artsy cafe with live music. I’d love to see that kind of scene come alive in Farmington.

Why is celebrating and promoting art healthy for a community?

The art scene in a community is, to me, its humanity. Plain and simple. It’s a point of commonality that we can all share in and be part of, no matter how different our backgrounds and daily lives.

Learn more about Jenn McKee and her writing here and here.

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