Jane Binns may have grown up in Michigan, but she’s now a Denver writer with a completely Colorado pedigree: She got her MFA from Naropa in Boulder, teaches writing at Arapahoe Community College, and has just published a memoir called Broken Whole. It’s her deeply personal and insightful look at her experiences with post-divorce romantic life — something plenty of Denverites have faced at some point. We sat down with Binns ahead of the launch of Broken Whole on Sunday, December 2, at BookBar, to talk with her about life, writing, teaching and love, right here in Denver.
Westword: You're about to launch your new book, Broken Whole. What does it mean to you to be able to start your reading tour here at Denver’s BookBar?
Jane Binns: BookBar is a wonderful support to local authors who self-publish or who publish through independent presses, and I am delighted to have been able to reserve a time and space with them. They are highly sought-after for literary events and are an extraordinary positive influence in the community.
Broken Whole is largely about romantic relationships and their complications. How does Denver specifically play into that, since The Great Love Debate named it the “Worst City to FInd Love” not too long ago? Do you agree with that assessment?
I’ve lived in Denver for over twenty years, and most of my dating experiences have taken place here. A couple of things that Denver has going for it are the number and diversity of people, and this has grown enormously in the last five years, especially. I remember hearing that statement about Denver being the worst place for dating a while back. I think it’s a matter of perspective. What are you looking for? What do you expect from someone you're interested in? Are you limiting yourself, or are you not being specific enough? I think Denver offers a variety of people, and opportunities for meeting them are plentiful, as well.
So how did you decide to write Broken Whole as a memoir? How do you decide where to begin, what to include, and where something like that ends? Real life doesn’t easily lend itself to literary techniques like expositional openings and denouement, so how do you impose form onto something so fundamentally formless?
I played with different forms while writing the essays. I think of the memoir as a collection of essays written over a dozen plus years. Some of the pieces were drafted in a fictionalized form early on. In the end, the pieces dictated the form. The series of personal essays about various people and events, with recurring characters throughout, made the most sense ultimately. Life is messy, and we do walk around with a lot of loose ambiguities that don’t get resolved easily or ever. Literary techniques are an artistic palette for reconstructing and deconstructing what has happened so that we can look back, assess, and move toward a decision or conclusion for an event. Reflection is key.
Speaking of reflection, did you find yourself having to do research about yourself and your own history? Do you have to think about your past with a more judicious eye, since memory can be a tricky thing?
I did a lot of research about myself and my history. I didn’t trust myself, as I grew up hearing often enough that what I thought or felt was “ridiculous,” “simply not true” or entirely ignored. When I first started writing these pieces in 2003, instinctively I knew how I was in relationships was rooted in early childhood experiences. I worked backwards and wanted to know why I was so easily agitated, reflexively shut down during conflict, and was fixated on perfection. As cliché and perhaps predictable as it sounds, I was not afraid to seek professional help to start unraveling this. The entire investigation took years, truly, but I kept going back in, attempting to unpack a bit more here and there. And I needed that third-party soundboard to tell me whether I was clear or crazy, justified or overreacting. Writing helped enormously, because it was my voice not in competition with the refutations of others. I could hear myself and began to trust that.
What was the story of this book in terms of its path to publication? How did you find She Writes Press?
My longtime friend and author Candace Kearns Read (The Rope Swing) recommended She Writes to me. I investigated who they were and was extremely impressed with how much they had grown as a publisher since 2012 when they got their start, Brooke Warner’s responsiveness to my initial query, and the presentation of the breadth of what they offered. They’re a hybrid publisher, which means in part that many of the processes involved with getting a book out the door (editing, book cover, blurbs, marketing, etc.) are collaborative. I would be hard-pressed to name a decision that was made in which I wasn’t included. She Writes has a team of very talented staff who came out of Big Five publishing devoted to making a difference in the world of publishing, notably for women authors.
What does that experience suggest about the state of publishing today?
With the nascent evolution of the Internet and social media, publishing is more anyone’s game than ever before.
How about Naropa? How does your education there play into your writing now?
I came out of the Jack Kerouac School for Writing and Poetics at Naropa with many techniques and practices that I still use today. I learned to write without fear or inhibition through several different kinds of free writing. Jack Collom was a big promoter of the pass-around free write. He would start us off with an idea or phrase, and then announce when to pass the paper. Sometimes he would announce words, and we had to drop them in wherever we were. Both techniques of passing around writing and inserting random words taught me to free up my thinking and approach to whatever my intentions were. That I should not be attached to an outcome, and that there might be a variety of ways to arrive at my intended expression.
Thaisa Frank taught us how to arrive at unique phrasing by having us write sentences with verbs and nouns that normally had nothing to do with each other. For example: The corn flakes stood up from the cliff and swam into horses. Nonsense that with repetition fifteen to twenty minutes per day over a couple of weeks interrupted the reflexive maneuver to choose a cliché or common analogy when working on a story, poem or essay. I still enjoy doing Thaisa Frank’s exercise. It takes the pressure off needing to make sense and stretches me into pairing up objects and actions I wouldn’t normally associate.
And you’ve taught at Arapahoe Community College for a while now, right? The creative-writing faculty has always been strong there. How does that writing culture help?
I’ve taught at ACC since 2004 as an adjunct in English Composition. Kathryn Winograd was the Coordinator of Writers Studio at Arapahoe Community College for many years, and she has always been a great support of my writing. In 2007, when my book was in its infancy, she invited me to be the Featured Reader for Writers Studio. It was a great honor. I have participated many times in their open mic events that are offered once per semester. In general, I have a nice rapport with the English Department. And my writer’s group is primarily comprised of English faculty and staff from Community College of Denver. Two members, Nicole Servino and Pete Lindstrom, are former classmates from our time together at Naropa.
Back to romance for a moment: What are your favorite romantic comedies? What are those movies that make you stop flipping channels and watch for a while?
Bridesmaids is one. I love anything with Melissa McCarthy in it. What a talent. She’s not a central character, but there are a number of scenes where she steals the show. He’s Just Not That Into You is another. As a movie that follows several tangentially related relationship stories, it’s not predictable, but it is fun. It also doesn’t land on that happy ending for some of the stories, which tinges it with reality. Love, Actually is the last one I’ll mention. Again, as an ensemble cast with a variety of intersecting story lines, this one is fun, smart and doesn’t get old. I could watch Sam running through the airport a dozen times and not get tired of it.
So what advice would you give to those Coloradans who are out there in the dating pool?
Make a list of what you must have, what you want, what you can live with, and what you absolutely will not do, and stick to this. Don’t compromise when you’re just looking. Be open, but step carefully. Say enough about yourself but not everything. Ask open-ended questions and listen to the words in the answers as well as the body language. Know that time is not a healer for everyone. Bitterness can persist for eons.
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But have a life and things that you like to do outside of dating. Don’t let dating be your only lifeline to socializing with people. Hang out with your friends, too. If you don’t have many friends, find an organization that you like, join it and make friends. Dating can be stressful, and having friends to talk to can alleviate this and put things in perspective.
Any final recommendations for a great Denver-specific date?
A best Denver-specific date is not in Denver, but on a trail. Three Sisters, Lookout Mountain or Mount Falcon – places not too far from town. Not a first-date activity, though. I like to get to know someone a bit before hiking with him.
Jane Binns launches her memoir Broken Whole at BookBar, 4280 Tennyson Street, at 1 p.m. Sunday, December 2.