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Jacqueline Dougan Jackson

JACQUELINE DOUGAN JACKSON is author of two family histories/memoirs, titled Stories from the Round Barn and More Stories from the Round Barn, as well as a wonderful book about writing that inspired me when I was younger, Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail, and several children’s books.

Jacqueline has been writing since she penned a book about rabbits and fairies in third grade. Much later in her career, after retirement from the University of Illinois at Springfield in fact, she taught a course titled “Writing from Family Materials,” in which students recorded their family stories photographs, recipes, newspaper clippings, immigration and religious histories, and interviews with relatives. Says Jacqueline, “Family skeletons tumbled out of closets. Whole families got in on the act and we’d have a big party at the end and meet everybody.”

Jacqueline is a professor emerita of the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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These are the opening lines of Stories from the Round Barn:

There is the land. In the center of the land are the farm buildings. In the center of the buildings is the round barn. In the center of the barn rises a tall concrete silo. On the side of the silo are painted these words:

THE AIMS OF THIS FARM

1. Good Crops

2. Proper Storage

3. Profitable Livestock

4. A Stable Market

5. Life as Well as a Living

— W.J. Dougan

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How old were you when you began collecting the stories about your family?

I was 14 or 15 when I took a notebook and wrote out a number of stories that were in family lore: milking on feet was one, and carving on the backhouse door, another. At some point then or a year or two later, I told my grandfather I was going to write him a book and call it The Round Barn. However, I didn’t really know how to go about writing such a book. What I should have done was grab a pencil and start quizzing Grandpa, but I never did, and he died when I was 20. Nor did I quiz Grandma much. So much information I missed!

I’m not sure when it formed in the back of my mind; it seems like it was always there and I did write a few farm pieces, but not focused on the future book. But I was writing other things, and sometimes having a hard time writing at all, due to my family situation. I didn’t start gathering material in earnest till my father was hospitalized for three months in 1967 and I realized that, if he died, I’d lose all THAT information too — so I flew three times to the hospital and began taking down his stories, asking questions, etc., and that kept up, using both him and Mom, till her death in ’88 and his in ’96. I also queried everyone I could find who had anything to do with the farm, and unfortunately missed some important ones.

Intense writing began on my first sabbatical in 1979; it took me that long to find the form. I won’t take time now to go into the various forms I tried first and abandoned, though this might be of interest to your class. And the writing was fitful — I’d work hard summers, and at other in-between spaces, and on two more sabbaticals, but I was working full time and a single parent, etc. It wasn’t easy. But it never lost its drive and freshness, and hasn’t yet.

Tell us how you decided on the structure of your books.

Both books are cannibalized from the “big book.” The big book in addition has many more aspects, including scientific chapters and historical aspects — all tied to the farm, of course. My intent was to tell everything about every aspect of the farm, and the importance of it. I began — but as I saw it grown, and knew all the material I still had to go, it became clearer that this book was my life work. I haven’t really written anything else since Snail, except small things, and some 300 or more radio shows! The book did develop, but since I didn’t have an outline to begin with, it wasn’t going anywhere I didn’t intend. It was just going. The first book, it turns out, reads like a novel if you read it straight through from beginning to end. I’m not sure book 2 does that. I never thought of it as a memoir till the publisher called it that, because the book isn’t about me, though I’m part of it. The reader knows that all the material has been sifted through Jackie. While there’s not much fictionalizing, there is some. A true memoir I don’t think you should make up parts.

Why did you decide to write the stories in the third person?

Since so many of the stories and material don’t have Jackie in them, it would have been uncomfortable (impossible?) to shift back and forth between “I” — all Daddy’s boyhood stories, where is Jackie? — and “she.” Jim Howard’s account of learning about cows from Grandpa, do we want Jackie there listening? I’d have been an uncomfortable presence in much of the book. This way — with the third person, referring to myself as Jackie — I take up my rightful place as part of the scene, one of the actors who just happens to be taking things down or noticing things. Also, you need to read my children’s book The Paleface Redskins, which is really what started the third person. This is fiction but based on the family, and I made up names for the family. I was Marcy, my sister Pat was Betsy, Craig was Thad. When I first started writing the barn book, I used the Paleface names for a while, but then abandoned them for everybody’s real name, except in a few places where I wantd to protect someone, or felt I might get sued! So switching from Marcy to Jackie was natural; it would have been unnatural to go from Marcy to “I.” ALSO important, using the third person gave me a much more objective view of the material. I could watch Jackie, observe her thoughts, actions, interchanges. I didn’t have to actually BE her, even though I was her.

Did you find some parts harder to write than others?

Some parts were easy as anything (Daddy’s boyhood stories). Some were hard. Are still hard. “Gaea” in More Stories from the Round Barn was very hard because it is so important. To get the feelings right, to say it exactly right. I wrote and rewrote the important parts. Also, some stories didn’t have a natural ending, and I had to fictionalize as to what could have happened. For instance I tried a number of final sentences to the Miss Egan story before I hit on the one that seemed natural to her, what she could well have said in response to Grandpa’s telling her about the old tractor. And in getting the big book ready for my editor this spring, I took stories that had no endings or were weak, and in a number of cases, figured out (after years of dormancy) how to make them come right.

Others were sheer hard work — the Esther story was many years in the writing, as I found more and more material, and developed more insight, and talked to more people…. And I kept honing my style. Made it more and more concise.

For more about Jacqueline Dougan Jackson, visit her website here.

Copyright 2004 Allyson Latta.
“If I sit at my computer, determined to write a New Yorker story I won’t get beyond the first sentence. It’s better to put no pressure on it. What would happen if I followed the previous sentence with this one, I’ll think. If the eighth draft is torture, the first should be fun. At least if you’re writing humor.”– David Sedaris