In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—J. Jacqueline McLean
This week, we spoke with J. Jacqueline McLean about her father, her inspiration and motivation for writing, and pushing towards your dreams.
Your nonfiction piece, “Voting Day,” tells the story of your father’s voting journey while facing racism in this country. What inspired you to write this piece?
My father was a simple, uneducated, poor man. He never expressed strong emotion about anything except voting. I think growing up in Louisiana had a lot to do with his passion over voting. He witnessed the struggle of not being able to vote first hand and voting was how he paid it forward, his most visible way to make a difference.
Can you tell us about the Churchill quote at the beginning of the piece (“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”) and why it’s included?
My father was certainly not the average voter. Forbidding blacks to vote was perfect democracy for the white man. This quote just nudged at me because I felt it perfectly defined why my father was so determined to make it to the polls by any means necessary. Democracy belongs to all skin colors. To Daddy, voting was the black man’s ticket to real freedom.
The line, “Lessons and dreams are not a straight shoot; they show up in everyday rituals” resonated with me. What sorts of daily rituals do you do to achieve your dreams? What other sorts of rituals, apart from voting, do you think we need to do to improve as a society?
The list of improvements is so long, I don’t know where to begin. Less texting and social media would enrich our everyday lives greatly. Society would be in a lot better shape if family and home values played a prominent role with more people. The family structure has decayed rapidly since my teenage days. Instead of banning books, educate society on the richness of black history. I wonder how many people know a black man invented the stop light. Understanding the past is the core of where dreams live. My own rituals for my dreams is to breathe as much life as I can into what I consider my two personal gifts from God. Writing and running. So, I read, write, run, then repeat every day. I keep typing until it turns into writing. I look for stories everywhere—on the bus, plane, overheard conversations, mistakes, controversy. Framed on my desk is the quote: “There is no wrong or right. Just write.” This fall, I will run my seventh and possibly eighth marathon.
You have decades of history layered into this short piece, and I absolutely love the ending. When writing work that spans so much time, how do you navigate the time jumps?
I have to give my television news background the credit for the learned skill of thinking visually. It makes it easier to write seamlessly and craft creative storytelling.
Your writing style creates cinematic, bite-sized scenes for readers. How did you develop this style?
Again, TV news. I use short soundbites and layer my packages with fast-paced video so my stories never drag and are highly entertaining. I once started an investigation about a cable con with two words: Buckle up! Another benefit of television reporting, I can’t help but to write conversationally, just as I talk.
What writers inspire or influence your work? Who are some authors you enjoy?
Percival Everett and Colson Whitehead are my top two. Others include: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Jacqueline Woodson, Carson McCullers, Joan Didion, Ross Thomas, Mike Royko.
You’re an investigative journalist, and have nonfiction pieces published in numerous journals, including The Write Launch and Hawaii Review. What other projects are you working on now?
I’ve written so much about my father and sister that I’m hoping to publish a collection of short stories on both of them. My long term goal is also to find an investigative story separate from my personal life to sink my teeth into. A big dream: To one day write a body of fictional work.
J. Jacqueline McLean is an award-winning investigative journalist, marathon runner, and photographer. Her writings have appeared in No Tokens, Fresh.Ink, The Write Launch, Hawaii Review, River River, wraparound South, York Literary Review, storySouth, and Rock Paper (Safety) Scissors. McLean is a funny, Paris-loving girl who lives in Hawaii.