Meet the New Wheel Advisor, Jill Jespon-Part I

Jill Jepson, a writer of non-fiction and fiction, an anthropological linguist, blogger, and editor has been teaching at St. Kate’s since 2001. Her dedication to her linguistic research, her passion for writing, and perseverance to become a better writer each day makes her an excellent advisor for The Wheel staff.


Libbie Mitchell: “Let’s just start off with a pretty basic question. What got you interested in teaching?”

Jill Jepson: “Well, you know, when I was in college, I really was eager to have a career in something I was really passionate about. First of all, there weren’t a huge number of fields that were really open to women; they were just beginning to crack open a little bit. So, I could have gone to law school; I could have gone to medical school- women were doing that. Tiny, tiny numbers at that point. And, you know, I thought about those careers-the prestigious careers and lucrative careers- but I didn’t really have a passion for any of them. What I really had a passion for was studying and learning. I was a nerd! I just wanted to take classes, to keep studying, to keep learning and I thought, ‘Well, okay, I’m not going to be a professional student my whole life! So how can I keep doing this and keep being a lifelong learner and just be engaged in a community of people who want to do that- who just learn and want to learn and discuss ideas?’ And I realized that was by university teaching. That was the way that I could do that. So that was the main thing that drew me into teaching at a university. I had no desire to teach kids because I really wanted to be in a community of adults who were all working with ideas and so on. I mistakenly believed there would be less sexism because it’s tough for women now and it was really tough for women when I was graduating high school and college. The women I knew who were in medical school and law school were going through hell. There was no protection against sexual harassment; there was no protection against just really overt forms of discrimination. Anyways, I had the idea that in an academic environment, you wouldn’t have to deal with that. I was grossly mistaken, but that was at least part of the motivation. I also liked that an academic career gives you a huge amount of freedom. You know, I teach my classes, but part of my time is set aside for writing, doing research, and that’s what I wanted to do. And I decide what I want to research; it’s not assignments my boss gives me that I have to do. So I love that aspect of it- the freedom aspect. I think for most people that go into academics, the freedom is the motivation. They really want to follow their passion, they want to say, ‘I’m doing this research, and I love it, now it’s taking me in this direction, and I go there.’ So that’s what this job has allowed to me do.”

LM: “Speaking of passion, writing and linguistics are obviously a huge passion of yours. Has that always been the case, or how did that begin?”

JJ: “Yeah! You know, I always had a fascination with stories and storytelling and writing stories. And when I was even three years old, I would sit down, I would tell a story, and I would make my mom write it down. She diligently wrote these stories down, and she actually kept some of them. And when I read some of the stories when I was older, unfortunately, I couldn’t say, ‘Wow! I was a prodigy!’ They sound like a three-year-old, you know! But, it fascinates me because that interest in storytelling and writing was there even before I could actually write. And I wrote all the way through grade school. I published my first story in fifth grade; I must have been ten. It was in a children’s section of a newspaper, and I won a contest for it. I still have my first acceptance letter at home, and my payment was this lousy, crappy little pencil box. And I remember even at ten thinking, ‘What a piece of crap!’ But you know, as I became a writer later, I realized that most of the time, you get paid really really badly. So that was my first taste of the poor enumeration writers get. But anyways, I just continued on writing. And-and, I was also interested in language my whole life. I grew up in central California, a very rural area. About 50% of the population there at that time was Mexican-recent immigrants from Mexico. So my school was about 50% Mexican students, and they spoke Spanish. And I was fascinated by the fact that they would be speaking, using these sounds that made no sense to me, but they had meaning. It was just fascinating that that meant something to them. When they were saying those words, it meant things in the world. I was absolutely intrigued by that. We also had Chinese families a few that lived in the small town. I would hear them speaking, and I just became absolutely intrigued and fascinated by language. When I got to high school, I studied the two languages they had available. And then I went on to study language and linguistics. You know, I guess there just wasn’t any question that that’s what I was going to do. I was going to write, and I was going to study language; more specifically, language and culture and how they relate to one another. And I just sort of found a way to do that.”

LM: “It said on your website that you can read Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, French, Spanish, and Swedish. How did you acquire all those languages?”

JJ: “Well, I just spent a lot of time at it. I went to Japan for two years after graduating college and studied Japanese while also working there. Then I took off, did some traveling, and came back to the states to get a masters degree in Asian Languages and Civilizations. I studied Hindi and Chinese while getting my masters degree instead of continuing with Japanese because I wasn’t really wild with the Japanese program there. Then after I got my Master’s Degree, I went to India to continue my study of Hindi. When I went on to get my doctorate, I went into a program in linguistics, so obviously, I was going to take a lot of language courses. And I just continued to study my three main languages: Hindi, Japanese, and Chinese.The others… I kind of picked up on the way here and there. I spent some time in Sweden and studied Swedish. Spent some time in France, studied French. Spent some time in Mexico and Guatemala and studied Spanish. A lot of the times that people were investing in careers, raising families, or buying homes, I was off studying a language. So in a way, I was kind of behind on everything else, but you know, look at all these languages I knew. Not a lot of practical use for them, but you know, it was just pure passion.”

LM: “You have written a couple of books and articles and have also written in scholarly journals, magazines, and through many other channels. Is there any piece of work that sticks out to you?”

JJ: “The work that was the most important to me at the time was my book Writing as a Sacred Path. I worked on that book for a long, long time. Even for people who aren’t religious or not particularly spiritual, writing kind of becomes a spiritual experience anyway. If you sit around writers, the way they talk about it is they’ll say, ‘It just came to me from somewhere. It’s almost like there’s an external force giving me this.’ They’ll talk about mysteriously suddenly having a brilliant idea. Now they don’t literally believe that there was a muse or a spirit that had given it to them, but it feels like it. And so it becomes kind of a quasi-spiritual experience. Writers will talk about writing in flow, just feeling like you’re not even in time anymore, ideas are just flowing. So I became interested in all of those aspects of writing. I became interested in how writing is almost like being a monk. I have a whole chapter in there about how being a writer is like being a monk because you have to be really devoted to this work and just do the work even though you might never get a penny of pay for it. It might never get published, you might not get any reward, and that’s how monks work. They do all this work, and they aren’t doing it for any reward; they’re doing it because it has to be done. That’s kind of how writers have to work. You have to be engaged and spend five years writing this novel, not with the idea of, ‘I’m going to be rich and famous when I finish’ -because most writers will not be- but do it just for the sake of doing the work. So I became interested in all those ways that writing was like spirituality; it is like a spiritual experience. So that book was really significant to me. I think it was the thing I worked the hardest on, and the most important. It was the one I get the most- you know, still, to this day, I have people emailing me saying, ‘I loved your book.’ I don’t have people say, ‘I read your book, and I hate it.’ But there probably are those people that are just too polite to write and tell me.”

ill's works include the books Writing as a Sacred Path, Women's Concerns: Twelve Women Entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the scholarly articles "A Linguistic Analysis of Discourse in the Killing of Nonhuman Animals in Society and Animals, "The Ontogenesis of Basic Word Order" in General Linguistics, and many more.

John Beyer

Jill’s works include the books Writing as a Sacred Path, Women’s Concerns: Twelve Women Entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the scholarly articles “A Linguistic Analysis of Discourse in the Killing of Nonhuman Animals in Society and Animals” and “The Ontogenesis of Basic Word Order” in General Linguistics, and many more.

LM: “When you were writing Writing as a Sacred Path, or as you are writing now, what is your inspiration? Do you have particular places or writers that inspire you?”

JJ: “You know, that’s a tricky question because I’m not sure what it is. Writing is almost like a compulsion. You know when someone has the compulsion to do something and they don’t really know why? That’s sort of what it is. There was one time a few years ago I was extremely depressed about my writing. I was really really depressed because I had written a book, I sent it to editors, and I got editors saying, ‘Oh my gosh this is fabulous, it’s just marvelous, it’s wonderful.’ My literary agent loved it, too… and she couldn’t sell it. She tried selling it for a year and a half; she tried to market it to publishers and everyone loved it except people who could publish it. They were all like, ‘Meh.’ They didn’t say they hated it, but they were all like, ‘Meh. I didn’t love it.’ And so it was like, ‘Ughh.’ I worked for six years on this book, so I was very unhappy and sad about it. For a while I saw a therapist over the summer, trying to deal with my sadness over this book. And she said, ‘I don’t understand why you keep writing if it makes you so unhappy.’ And I just couldn’t explain it. Logically, it would make sense that I would just quit and do something else. So I posted on my facebook page- I have a whole bunch of writer friends- ‘Writers, do you like writing? Is that why you write? Or do you not like writing?’ And I got all these answers. One person said, ‘Ha ha ha sure. I love it. That’s why I’m constantly procrastinating.’ And somebody else said, ‘Yeah, I hate every minute of it except for maybe an hour a month.’ And it was like everyone had this compulsion to write, but the process of writing was agonizing. So I came back to this therapist, and I said, ‘Well, I can’t explain it, but I’m not alone.’ I did have a couple of people say, ‘I love every minute of it.’ And I actually do love writing. So it’s hard to explain. It’s really hard for me to explain what inspires me. I can tell you, though- I don’t know if you consider this an inspiration- but for a while, I thought I really wanted to be a really literary author. So I was writing these really literary things that really weren’t that good and really weren’t going anywhere. If you ever write a literary novel, one out of 10,000 get published, so I didn’t have very much success with it and I was kind of mulling over what I want to do. And I had this dream, a dream that Stephen King was talking to me. And he said, ‘Why don’t you write commercial fiction? Commercial fiction is what sells. And it’s good too!’ And so I woke up and then next day I started writing commercial fiction. And so sometimes I tell people, ‘Stephen King appeared to me in a dream and advised me to write commercial fiction.’ And I don’t know if you call that Stephen King influencing me, but that’s what got me into writing fantasy and science fiction.”

LM:”You’re obviously an accomplished writer. What has made you a better writer over the years?”

JJ: “Failure.”

LM: “Failure?”

JJ: “Yes, failure has made me a better writer. Not getting published has made me go and say, ‘I have to do it better. I have to keep at it, I have to keep doing it better, and I have to figure out why this didn’t sell.‘ Failure is the best teacher you can have. It’s painful, but it’s a much better teacher than success because if you write something and it’s successful, you have no reason to improve. And a book being successful doesn’t necessarily mean it was good; it means it was successful. So yeah, having things that didn’t sell forced me to write better.”

LM: “Is there a novel you are working on now, and if so, what is the novel about?”

JJ: “Yes, there is. It is actually about what could happen if there was a serious enough solar storm that would fry all the computer juice in the entire world. What would happen? We wouldn’t be able to find out. We wouldn’t even know what would happen because we wouldn’t have cell-phones, our cars wouldn’t work, our telephones wouldn’t work, and we wouldn’t get water or electricity because they both require computers. How would it even get fixed? You need a computer to make a computer chip. There’s actually been research that said if something like that every happened, it would be a global catastrophe that would take at least a decade to recover from. So my novel is a young adult science fiction novel about what happens if a solar storm takes out all the computers.”

LM: “Why young adult?”

JJ: You know, there’s a practical reason, and then there’s also an emotional reason. The emotional reason is I love young adult fiction. I love writing for young people, and I love that age between 14-17. But the thing about young-adult fiction is that people of all ages read it; everyone read The Hunger Games, even though it was designed as a young adult novel. Anyways, I love envisioning my readers being a teen girl and being able to say something to them. I never had kids, so this is my way to influence them- to teach and to be there for young women. A lot of my characters are very dimensional female characters. Strong and vulnerable at the same time- most strong people are also vulnerable- as well as interesting and passionate. I love the idea of writing something that a 17, 16, or 15-year old girl or younger could read and imagine how she could be that person. From a practical standpoint, it’s also easier to get a young adult novel published than a novel for an older audience. It’s just a more open market right now.”

LM: “Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?”

JJ: “Yeah, I do. I think the first piece of advice I would give is to not expect to be successful right away. And I say that because I’ve worked with a lot of writers through coaching, teaching, editing, and so on. And the ones who believe that their first novel is going to get a big contract and that it’s going to be really successful are the ones who get discouraged when it’s not. And they’re also the ones who fall by the wayside; they just get too frustrated. And then you have the person who’s writing the novel and says, ‘Well, I can fantasize about this being really successful and maybe it will be, and maybe I will be someday, but maybe it won’t be. Maybe it won’t even sell, and it will just be in my file cabinet forever.’ Those are the people who keep at. So it’s not like positive thinking,like, ‘Oh I’m going to be successful right away. My first novel’s going to make it.’ That positive thinking thing, it goes against you. It works against people in writing. I’ve seen it a hundred times. Those are the people who, when their novel gets turned down by seven agents-my first novel got turned down by 74 before I gave up- get so discouraged, they don’t send it out anymore, and they don’t even write anymore. You can’t do that. Perseverance. The other thing I would say is the thing that will make you successful- the number one thing- is perseverance. Keep doing it. You’re disappointed, you’re not getting published, you’re failing, you feel like a loser- just keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it. I work with a lot of writers who are older, who are retired people who have never had the opportunity to write before and now they’re writing. And I tell them that there are writers who publish their first book when they are in their 60s, 70s, their 80s. There’s even a woman who published a book and sold it for a million dollars when she was 97 years old. Now, I don’t want to wait ‘till I’m 97 to publish. But my point is that it’s never too late. You’re never too young; you’re never too old. Just keep at it. Those are my two pieces of advice. Don’t expect immediate success and persevere.”

To learn more about Jill and her works, go to Keep an eye out for her science-fiction novel, and stay tuned for Part II to learn about her travels in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Central America.

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