creative nonfiction, essay, Janna Marlies Maron, literary journal, memoir, More to the Story, National Nonfiction Simulcast, Tell stories without shame, The Sunday Spotlight, TrueStory, Under the Gum Tree, writing
My introduction to Janna Marlies Maron came when my essay “Something to Do with Baldness” was accepted for publication at Under the Gum Tree, a reader supported, full-size, quarterly literary arts magazine that specializes in creative nonfiction, with visual artwork and photo essays alongside feature essays and four regular department sections: Fork and Spoon, Soundtrack, 24 Frames a Second, and Stomping Ground. Janna is the editor and publisher of Under the Gum Tree, which she began five years ago with the publication of the first issue in August of 2011.
Under the Gum Tree was my first creative nonfiction print publication in the January 2014 issue, and I was ecstatic when I received my copy, which has gorgeous artwork by Jane Ryder. The magazine is printed on high quality paper with a thick card-stock cover and the pages have that slick coffee table-display feel. I couldn’t believe my essay was set in such a beautiful display. It was as if I had hit the jackpot. Later, I was honored to have my essay nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors, and I got to know Janna more personally when she interviewed me for her podcast series More to the Story (more on More to the Story below).
One thing that impresses me about Janna is her incredible ability of creative manifestation. She has generosity of spirit and is community-minded, qualities that increase her capacity towards that creative manifestation. She is, in essence, committed to the act of creativity, especially personal storytelling. As Janna states on her website:
“If I had to sum up what I’m all about in two words they would be: authentic storytelling. That’s the core of why I write, why I publish stories and why I teach others to write their story. I tell stories that challenge and inspire people to pursue the potential of their creativity; I nurture creativity by making space for exploring and showcasing creativity.”
In addition to editing and publishing Under the Gum Tree, Janna runs TrueStory, a nonfiction reading series and open mic in Sacramento, California, a collaboration she founded with writer and professor Elaine Gale. And just this year, Janna unveiled her podcast More to the Story, an eight-episode series “all about creative nonfiction and telling true, personal stories.” In the introductory episode, Janna talks about “why sharing true, personal stories is important,” and she reads an excerpt from her own story “The Gum Tree,” published in the premier issue. The other episodes include discussions with previous UTGT contributors Penny Guisinger, Maddy Walsh, Timothy Kenny, Samuel Autman, Kate Washington, Katy Sargent.
Janna Marlies Maron holds an MA in creative writing. She teaches as an adjunct professor of English, facilitates writing workshops in Sacramento and online, and offers editorial support services. Janna writes on a variety of topics, including health and wellness, and is the author of three ebooks: How to Manage Depression without Drugs: 5 Game Plans That Helped Me Get My Life Back, Claim Your Throne: How to Manage Your Online Content & Rule Your Corner of the Internet, and Sip, Don’t Gulp. She lives in Sacramento, California with her husband.
A few questions for Janna:
When you began Under the Gum Tree, did you have any idea of what you were embarking upon? Were there particular journals or magazines that you drew from for ideas or inspiration? Will you share the story of how UTGT came into being?
There were a couple of factors that went into my starting UTGT. I found the genre creative nonfiction in grad school and when I graduated, I didn’t see a lot of opportunity for reading or publishing in that genre. That, combined with my professional background in magazine publishing, prompted me to explore the possibility of starting a magazine. When I looked at other literary magazines, one thing I felt was missing is the magazine-size, full-color, glossy experience of magazines—that’s the experience I had with my job history and the experience I loved about interacting with magazines. Color, design, layout, I wanted to bring those elements to the literary publishing world.
Did I have any idea of what I was embarking on? Not really. I mean, before entering the literary publishing space my experience was strictly with lifestyle consumer magazines, and there’s a big difference between that and what I do now. The material that I publish requires such care, and it has such staying power. Not only that, but I am building lasting relationships with the writers whose work I publish, and I often get to watch them grow in their careers. There are writers who were published for the first time in UTGT, and they have gone on to have the essay we published in an anthology, or they get a book deal, or their new work is being recognized as a notable essay in Best American Essays. It’s a pretty cool feeling to look at the list of notables and see so many names that have also been in UTGT, and that is not something I ever imagined would happen when I started the magazine. It’s an honor to feel like a small part in a writer’s publishing journey.
Can you talk about UTGT’s tagline “Tell Stories Without Shame”? For me, this tagline was a defining reason why I chose to submit to UTGT. In the pilot episode of your podcast More to the Story, you read the story you wrote titled “The Gum Tree,” which elucidates the meaning behind the title of the magazine. Will you talk about how these two, the magazine’s title and tagline, are intrinsically linked?
Writing creative nonfiction is the single most important work I have ever done in my life that moved me to a place of self-acceptance. I really hate talking about writing as therapy, because when you craft true stories, personal or otherwise, into art, it moves beyond therapy—it has to in order to be considered art, and it has to be art in order to speak to an audience. So I am not talking about therapy here. But I am talking about the experience of writing about my story—what has made me who I am as a person—in a way that helped me see how it shaped me and how there was nothing in it to be ashamed of. The act of writing allowed the story to take on its own life, apart from me and my interior world, and once I could look at it as something separate from me it wasn’t so painful or awkward or shameful.
People often ask me what it means to “tell stories without shame” because the assumption is that there is no shame in the story. And that’s not it at all—it means that we are not ashamed to tell our story. That is the experience that I’ve had with writing and telling and sharing my story, including “The Gum Tree,” and that is the experience that I want to give others, both readers and writers, with Under the Gum Tree.
This month, UTGT is celebrating its five-year anniversary. When we met for lunch this summer, you were planning an anniversary hoopla celebration. Please share with us what your upcoming event is and how readers can be involved.
Yes! I am super excited to be planning an event I’m calling a National Nonfiction Simulcast. It is in partnership with Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Hippocampus Magazine. Each publication will host a local event with readers, and the entire reading will be broadcast online via a live-streamed video. Anyone can attend at one of the four locations or remotely by watching online! It’s happening on October 29, 5 p.m. Pacific / 8 p.m. Eastern. All the details and info can be found at underthegumtree.com/live, and that’s where the video will be streaming on the day of the event.
You also were planning a redesign and contemplating a minor name change of the magazine. Can you talk about some of the changes you’ve made since UTGT’s inception?
I did briefly contemplate a name change from Under the Gum Tree to simply Gum Tree, and I had an informal poll of previous contributors and subscribers who overwhelmingly voted for the name to stay the same! So that’s not changing.
I did, however, make a big design change by taking the tree symbol off the cover. I did this for a few reasons. The main reason is that it was limiting what we could do with art on the cover. If you look at our previous covers, they are all very similar with virtually the same treatment of the art. Removing the tree gives us more freedom and space to use; it also lets the title come to the top edge of the cover, which is more traditional placement for magazine titles.
That’s the biggest change. Readers may not really notice the other changes because they are subtle and that is intentional. I wanted to retain much of our signature elements like a lot of white space, full-spread treatment for the opening of a piece. But the updates I think add really nice touches, like two column text instead of one, and icon images for each of our themed departments. These are the little details that I think keep our design fresh and updated.
One of the things I love about UTGT is the incredible visual art that counterbalances the writing. How do you find the artwork that goes into the magazine?
We do get some art by submission, but not a lot. I’m very fortunate to have an extremely talented art director and designer who collaborate on the art work. They will often solicit work from artists, collaborate on which issue it should be in, and the design placement of the work in the magazine. One other design change directly affects the art we publish, and that is that we will do full-bleed on the visual art as much as possible. Sometimes file size affects whether we can do that or not, because if files are too small then the quality won’t render in print, but when we can do it, we will because the full-bleed images are so arresting and compelling in print.
I so enjoyed interviewing with you for your podcast More to the Story. What was it like for you to work in the auditory realm, creating a podcast, as opposed to the visual realm of producing a magazine? Can we look forward to new episodes in a second season of More to the Story?
Oh, I love it! I started the podcast so that I could provide a way for people to hear the writers reading their own work, which I think creates a whole new experience with the story compared to strictly reading the text on a page. And then hearing the writer share about the story, how it came to be, what it was like to write about it, also adds a new dimension that I hope will ultimately entice people to check out the magazine. It’s also another way to support the writers that Under the Gum Tree publishes, which I really love doing, so, yes, I do hope to have a second season.
At the top of your “About” page on your website is a terrific picture of your legs in red cowboy boots. You tell a little story about you and these boots:
“I used to be afraid to wear the red boots. Actually, I used to be afraid to do a lot of things: walk the one mile to high school alone, try out for basketball, get my own apartment and live without roommates. I also used to say “no” to avoid feeling uncomfortable. If I didn’t know anyone at the party, I’d send my regrets. If I couldn’t find a friend to go with me to yoga, I simply didn’t go—even though learning yoga was a New Year’s resolution. And I certainly never wore the red boots.
Sound crazy or familiar? If it sounds familiar, then you’re in good company. All of the work that I do—writing, editing, publishing—is in pursuit of helping others to intentionally look for ways to be true to yourself, living the life you were meant to live instead of the one that someone else prescribes for you. Often those prescribed expectations—of parents, teachers, coaches, pastors—keep us from being our true self because we’re so afraid of what might happen otherwise.
I share my story because now I wear the red boots. And I want to help others do the same.”
I love this sentiment of overcoming fear and taking risks to fulfill your true self’s identity and of wanting to help others do the same. How did you come to the place of being able to wear those red boots? What changed for you? Was there a defining moment or experience, or was it a gradual coming to terms with who you were and where you wanted to be?
It was definitely gradual. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home and church, and a lot of my upbringing taught me to pay attention to whether or not I was following the rules, and I think I subconsciously learned that following the rules meant I was living up to everyone else’s expectation of who I should be.
Being a writer makes me naturally inclined toward self-reflection. So as I was coming into my own as an adult in my late twenties I realized that I still wasn’t comfortable with who I was, and I had sort of had this assumption that I’d just all of a sudden get comfortable when I became an adult and left the social construct of high school and college. Except, of course, it got worse. So I did things like forced myself to live alone for one year even though I didn’t want to. I did this when I was twenty-eight and, as the oldest of four kids, I had never lived by myself. I did things like resolve to “stop saying no for comfort’s sake”—that was actually a New Year’s resolution I had one year. The red boots were another self-challenge, because I bought them and couldn’t bring myself to wear them for something like a year or more. I had to remind myself of my own mantra to not say no for comfort’s sake.
On your website, you call yourself “a self-proclaimed ‘woman in progress’” but I like to think of you as a literary mover and shaker. I’m inspired by the many projects you have on your plate and your ability to manifest your creative ideas as well as your strong commitment to community, especially the creative nonfiction community. What motivates you? Where do you get your energy from? How do you balance the many demands of your varying roles as writer, editor, publisher, teacher, and podcast producer with your personal life?
You’re so sweet, thank you! I like the term “woman in progress,” because it helps me to remember that no matter what level of success I feel I have achieved, there is always room to learn, grow, change, and improve.
Energy is an interesting thing for me these days because I have to be very careful how I spend it. I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2012 and even though I have been symptom free for three years, fatigue and depression still creep in from time to time. In spite of that, I have this inherent need to make things happen; it’s just part of how I’m wired. I can’t stand when people talk about the way things “should” be because unless there is some action I can take, the theoretical is very frustrating for me. I guess that makes me a pragmatist (probably also why I prefer nonfiction to fiction!). So, to answer your question, when there’s something I’d like to see exist in the world, my first impulse is to create it myself or to be a part of creating it. It’s probably not the best impulse to have all the time because that’s how I end up doing so many projects that it does get to be unmanageable at times.
In fact, at the beginning of 2015, my husband and I made the decision to close a business that we had had together for four years. That was not an easy decision for us to make, but it was the right decision, and it’s part of what allows me to keep doing other things like the magazine and podcast. When people ask me about how I manage it all, the best answer I can give is to say that I’m constantly evaluating what takes the most of my energy and what gives me the most energy in return. When an activity sucks more energy than it gives, then I know it’s time to let go. I’m always talking through those variables with my husband, who helps keep me in check, because he’s the one who has to deal with me when I’m stressed and take care of me when I’m spent.
What authors inspire you? Which books are some of your favorites?
Joan Didion is my favorite author. Her books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are stunning. I have not yet experienced the loss of someone close to me, and still I feel I experienced the heartbreak of loss through those two books. I also love Eula Biss and Michael Pollan for the way they weave reporting and research with their personal stories so masterfully.
What are your favorite things to do outside of the literary world?
As you know I take an annual trip to Ashland, Oregon with my sisters—that’s partly literary because we are there for the Shakespeare Festival plays, but we also shop and eat a lot. My husband works for a winery, and wine tasting is one of our favorite leisure activities. We love to host dinner parties and facilitate conversation among friends over good food and good wine. We travel as often as we can, and our favorite vacation spot is a remote beach where we can lounge and read all day long. We ride our bikes around town when the weather is nice. And I practice yoga regularly.
You’ve already manifested a lot. Where would you like to go from here?
That’s a good question—I’m not sure. My big dream is to see UTGT become self-sustaining and profitable as an independent magazine. Jeremy, my husband, thinks I should start another magazine. I guess we’ll just have to see!