This is a profile feature by Franki Hanke.
Early on in life, when looking over the catalogue of offered degrees and careers, pursuing an art career simply wasn’t a listing. It was foreign to the world Pamela Carter Joern grew up in.
“It would have been like wanting to fly to Mars. Without a spaceship,” she said.
However, from where her journey to writing and the present day started, she did make it to Mars. After secretarial work, youth work, irrigation tube setting, a temporary stint as a pastor, teaching high schoolers English, and a few more assorted experiences, she’s now published three works of fiction since she graduated Hamline University’s Creative Writing Program in 2000 at the age of 52.
For years before entering Hamline’s program, she danced around the world of creative writing.
“As an undergraduate, I double-majored in English and speech communications… My intention was to teach.”
After teaching high school English briefly, Joern returned to school for a Master’s degree in Secondary Education and Interpersonal Communications, intending to utilize the background in a long career as a teacher.
First, her family moved to Des Moines following her husband, Brad’s, job. In her late twenties, working at home with two children, Joern knew a friend who wrote poetry.
“I thought, ‘If Ruth can write poetry, I can write poetry.’ So I did, late into the night. Formal sonnets. Terrible stuff.”
Together, Joern and her friend Ruth went to a writer’s conference, intending to work with a published poet who would mentor them to improve their poetry. Upon arrival, they found out that the poet had died from a heart attack. A replacement, an author of 23 self-help books and “notorious womanizer”, was assigned to them instead.
“After sitting with him in a secluded alcove, while he told me my poetry was awful (true) but that he could help me (hand on my knee), I aborted his class and wandered into a workshop on writing drama. Thus began my stint as a playwright.”
Then, they moved to Minneapolis where she discovered, “teaching jobs, especially for English teachers, were very scarce.”
Instead of teaching, she shifted her focus to return to the new area she’d stumbled into because a poet had died: theater.
“I went to seminary, thinking that I was preparing for a career of writing drama for the church.”
She wrote her first play I Have Prayed Our Father for Too Long at this time which received standing ovations from sold-out houses, but also a bit of hate mail. Knowing the church wasn’t going to give her enough freedom for her ideas, instead Joern and a friend, Susan, created their own company.
“Susan and I started a small theater company, called Role Over Productions, because we were interested in cross-gender casting as a way of demonstrating that gender roles need not be limiting.”
Over the course of three years, Joern wrote two more plays that she and Susan produced among other productions, but finally then, she wrote the “novel in a drawer,” which hasn’t been published, but still didn’t turn to novel-writing as a career. Instead, she began her work with Councils of Churches and Re-Imagining, an ecumenical feminist movement.
With a huge success at an international conference in 1993 came more hate mail, but for ten years she enjoyed her roles as a volunteer and paid editor of the quarterly newsletter.
“All this time, like many people I have known, I talked about writing, but I wasn’t doing much about it. I took a screenwriting class at the Playwright’s Center, wrote a screenplay, went to a disheartening conference. I took a class in children’s literature, wrote a kid’s book that got some response, but no publisher,” Joern said. “When our youngest daughter went to college, I decided it was time for me to devote real time and energy to finding out if I could write.”
Then, came Hamline’s creative writing program. Joern decided to enroll for three major reasons: to learn skills in writing (“I was sure there must be some”), to find out if she could write prose, and to be in a community of writers.
Graduating with her M.F.A, she gained confidence.
“Being immersed in a supportive environment—not just for development of skills, but also for the necessary commitment and lifestyle—helped me to claim writing as a means of engagement with the world.”
Finally, after years not dedicating herself to writing, she turned to the pen. However, next came the publishing.
“After my first book (The Floor of the Sky) was rejected in a few places, I made a list of possible small publishers, about 30,” she said. “I scoured a reference book. I wanted small presses with decent reputations. I sent a manuscript to a press in Nebraska called Backwaters Press just because I loved the name.”
“I steeled myself to send out to three at a time and keep doing it for however many months (or years) it might take…. ”
Crediting luck, Joern received an acceptance from one of the first three she’d sent it to, University of Nebraska Press.
Drawing inspiration from the landscapes of western Nebraska, Joern wrote her three published books set in the land that she grew up in.
“The land imprinted on me, the way early landscapes tend to [do]. Also, the temperament forged by it- resilience, reticence, stubbornness.”
Now, having reached Mars, Joern has gained a lot of perspective looking back on what it means to pursue publishing and career writing.
“It’s very difficult to make a living as a writer… At some point, I decided that I could not attach my writing to uncertain outcomes; it had to be worth doing, for its own sake. I’ve seen students demoralized if their first effort doesn’t result in overnight success. I used to say, ‘This race is not to the swiftest or even the most talented; it’s to those who don’t quit.’ Some people have overnight success. Most of us have long apprenticeships followed by fits and starts, rejections and applause.”
She recommends a network of supportive people to keep one going through the many skips in the road.
“The work itself, though; that is the reward. If you love scraping deeply down into the painful beauty of life, then sitting hours alone in a room, wondering if anyone will ever care what you are discovering about what is means to be human or if you can render it so that anyone will care, all the self-doubt, all the rejection, all the humiliation of having to answer the question that comes up at all social gatherings once people know you write—oh, have you published anything I’ve heard of?—all will be worth it.”
The reward of the writing became concrete in the Fall of 2015. Speaking at Anoka-Ramsey Community College as part of the Two Rivers Reading Series, the freshman English classes read In Reach, Joern’s book of stories.
“After one of the sessions, a young woman named Elise told me that she has several literary tattoos, from such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald. She asked for my permission to use a quote from my story, “Lessons at the P. O.” She also requested that I write it in my own hand in her book. Flattered and honored, I complied.”
Recently, Joern received this picture.
Seated on the unreachable red planet, Pamela Carter Joern looks back at her journey without regret though she wishes she’d started it all sooner; but at the end of the day every experience has only added to her content to draw on. She recommends: “Stay open to life. Mind life.”
Franki Hanke, or Francheska Crawford Hanke, for long, is a student administrative assistant with the Hamline University English Department, and she’s in charge of the running of Hamline Lit Link. As a staff writer for the blog, she loves the opportunity it gives her to interact with different perspectives and learn more about the realm of English. Her essays “Why I Write” and “I Couldn’t Say No” were published in Wise Ink publishing’s anthology Why We Ink in 2015.
She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Professional Rhetoric Focus at Hamline University and plans to graduate in 2019. Along with managing the blog, she runs the social media outreach and accounts for the department. Outside of the English Department, she writes for The Oracle newspaper and Odyssey Online.