Former Flyway Nonfiction Editor Aimee Burch discusses running, writing, and the creative process with Author Jacqueline Alnes
Professional runner Alexi Pappas devotes an entire section of her memoir Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas to the idea of mentors. She writes, “knowing that I may never be in the same room as people has never stopped me from making them into mentors. I’ve learned how to look up to women I admire from afar.”
This is the way I’ve always looked at writer Jacqueline Alnes. Years before I ever talked to her, I followed her from afar. Her “tiny art” of other women that I admired (including Pappas) started popping up on my social media feeds. Her Instagram page featured a mosaic of her art, delicious baking masterpieces, and photos of her Garmin watch around her wrist—her mileage and pace in focus, the road and her shoes blurred in the background.
Following her, I learned that we had more in common than running and obscure track fandom. She was a writer, specializing in creative nonfiction. Her writing braided together ideas of place and health into captivating narrative essays, similar to my own writing goals. When I started following her, she was balancing her athletic and artistic pursuits alongside earning a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. Now teaching creative writing at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Jacqueline continues to share her artistic and athletic pursuits, one piece at a time. Her book, Fruit Cure: The Story of Extreme Wellness Turned Sour, was acquired by Melville House in October 2021, with a publication date forthcoming.
Browsing through the Flyway archives where I served as Nonfiction Editor in 2021, I came across Jacqueline’s name. However, instead of the nonfiction I was accustomed to finding under her byline, I was surprised to learn that Flyway had published Jacqueline Alnes’ poetry. I wondered—was this the same Jacqueline Alnes or just someone with the same name?
So, in a very uncharacteristic move for me, I decided I was going to contact Jacqueline and see if she would be willing to talk to me. I wanted to know how she navigated her many roles and how her running influenced her art.
–Aimee Burch, Flyway Nonfiction Editor, 2020
AB: I’ve been running since middle school, which is over half my life at this point. So, I was wondering how you got started with both writing and running. I really liked the piece you wrote for the New York Times about your dad; it reminded me of my dad because he would always do that too—map out the cross country course so that he could find us.
JA: It’s magic! I do not have that skill. I hate looking at maps so I’m like, “how do you do it? How do you do it so well?”
Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting question. I tell my students this, too, but when I look back it’s obvious that I loved both things [running and writing], but I think when I was younger I didn’t know that either thing would be a major thing in my life.
I was just that kid in elementary school—I think I had a series of books I used to color that were called, something like “Jackie the Jaguar,” which was loosely a memoir but it was in jaguar form so no one would know.
I used to be a huge swimmer. That was my sport. I was obsessed with it. I was just all for swimming. And I remember, I was kind of a nerdy kid—I kind of still am—but I was in that awkward seventh, sixth-grade year where I didn’t really know how to be a middle schooler yet. I was not having the whole middle school thing. So, I remember we had the Presidential Fitness Test, which I know is horrible for so many people. But for me, I remember my P.E. teacher afterward was like, “Wow, everyone! Look at Jacqueline’s gait,” or something like that. And then I beat all the boys and I thought, yes. I feel so powerful, I feel so in control of myself. And I used to wear glasses, but I took them off while I was running, so I couldn’t really see anything. So, it was also this weird sense of being totally in your body, which is a really nice feeling.
I think as I’ve grown older the two of them have definitely started to intertwine a little bit more, where I kind of have to run to write, or I see similar rhythms, or I get similar metaphors from them. For example—I’m sure you know this from running, too—some days you just show up and it’s absolute shit, but you’re like, well, I showed up for three miles, that’s fine. And the same thing with writing, where the more often that I show up I realize, oh, I have this crap on the page, but at least I have some crap on the page. It feels better than not having anything at all.
AB: So, I think we started talking about it a little bit, but where do you find your ideas for writing? How do you find those opportunities? How do you decide who to interview, or how did you find your way into things like publication?
JA: That’s a really good question, too. I feel like I have three ways I go about publishing. One of them is the most literary way—at least that’s how I classify it in my mind—which is that I don’t expect to make money off of it. I write it without thinking of an audience. I write it solely for myself. However I want to do it and however long it turns out to be, whatever I’m writing about—it’s all fair game. I don’t have any preconceived notion about what it’s going to turn out to be. Like over Christmas break, for example, I read a Pam Houston essay, and she mentions how you should just chase whatever glimmers all around you. And I thought, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t written in five months because I teach a 4-4 load and as much as I would like to think that I would write, I don’t, just because I’m always giving too much in the other direction.
So, after that prompt I ended up with seven thousand words about the idea of diagnosis. It’s this nebulous, weird little thing I wrote, but—I’m sure you relate to this—I was just in some archives and tooling around in, like, the 1800s just to see what was going on during that century. And I was also watching a Netflix show, so I threw that in there. And I ended up feeling like, I like this thing. I think it’s going to be something.
So that’s one way I do it. The second way is that I get pretty obsessive about studying things. So, for example, the New York Times thing you brought up, I think I studied a year’s worth of the Well/Family Ties column. And [with] every single one of them there’s a formula, so I would write down the title and notice how many words were in the title. I would look at how they started out—they always start out right in the action, and then you have to have some sort of family thing, and you have to talk about some sort of health problem. So I thought, perfect, got it all, here’s my thing.
So sometimes I write things like that where I’m targeting a market. For example, I wrote something for the Boston Globe where I saw a call for 600 words about a relationship and I thought, okay, let me try. So, sometimes if I’m feeling stuck I’ll just go see what’s out there and try to write something to those parameters. Not that they always get picked up, but at least it keeps me writing—like, okay, I wouldn’t have thought to write about my cat otherwise.
And then the last way is that I’ve gotten really lucky—and I remember one of my MFA professors told me this could happen, how when you forge a relationship with an editor over time, they’ll start asking you for stuff, or if they move to another publication, then they’ll connect to you at their new place. And in my mind, I thought that sounds like a fantasy—people emailing me to be, like, “hello, will you write for me?” Because normally I have to send out fifty pitches before one gets a “no” via email response. So, I got really lucky with an editor at LongReads and she would just contact me and say, “yeah, write another reading list, keep going.” And then through her and through that work, I started a relationship with someone at—I’m not saying starting a relationship like, in a relationship, but starting a writing relationship—with someone at Electric Lit and so she’ll just send me book titles and depending on how busy I am, I’m say, ooh, that one, that one, and that one.
AB: That’s cool!
JA: Yeah, so I think for me, that’s how my brain works; it’s one of those three. The third one where I do interviews is the only thing I can do during the semester, not because I think it’s lower stakes, but because you don’t have to use the super creative part of your brain. You just read a book, talk about it, transcribe the conversation. It doesn’t take the deep dive into whatever thing I’m getting into.
AB: Yeah, and thinking about the deep dives—because I know for me, sometimes I almost get too into the research, and then I create a mess for myself—so do you ever find yourself in those situations, and how do you combat that instinct? Because I’m still figuring things out—I just want to learn everything!
JA: Gosh, this is such a hard question and I totally agree with you. I’d rather just stay in the weeds sometimes and resist thinking, let me just research a little bit more. Honestly, I do that [research extensively] and it just takes me a really long time to write things. There’s an essay I wrote for Guernica and it took me six years. I started it and it took me six whole years of figuring it out—I thought it was about one thing and then I kept doing research and I kept thinking and I kept doing research and I kept thinking, and eventually it turned into something that is similar, probably, to the original idea I had but, I think, more crafted.
So sometimes, I just remind myself of that experience and I remember that you have to wade through it for a long time, in some cases. But part of knowing the difference comes back, I think, to audience or intent. So, I’m working on a book proposal right now, which means I can’t do all of the writing beforehand. I just had to write the proposal, which is totally not me because I’m [more] like let me write 30,000 words and come back to you. So writing the proposal made me have to do my research, and do enough that I knew the book was there, but then also write [the proposal] in a sort of sexier version so that someone on a sales team would say, “yeah! That looks salable!”
So, I think it’s something I’m maybe getting to understand better for myself—when to let myself go into the weeds and when to watch the thing and not do the whole deep dive. But I definitely know that it’s not easy to set the research down. And I think that can be a good thing sometimes.
AB: Definitely. So, I feel like, at least the way I write—it doesn’t fall neatly into any camps. And because I follow you on Instagram I know a little about what you usually write about. So when I was looking through the archives on the Flyway site and I saw that you had published poetry with us, I wondered how that came about.
So, I guess it’s two separate questions: how do you manage that kind of divide, and then how did the poetry come about?
JA: Yeah, when I was in my MFA and Ph.D. program part of my brain was thinking, well, what does this do for my CV? Especially in my Ph.D. program I thought, okay, great, job market in two years. Your CV has what on it? And so that’s when I started becoming more serious about publishing, thinking I gotta get something out there or I’m going to have nothing for my creative nonfiction job interviews.
And in some ways, being in academia can silo you and then you’re expected to be, like, a super-specialist in the thing that you specialize in. Which obviously I love because it’s a supportive, creative community, but on the other hand I teach creative nonfiction almost exclusively, except for when I’m teaching an open-genre class, and I’m expected to publish in that genre. So that means I lose touch with the person I used to be in undergrad or in my MFA where I was dabbling in other genres to just see how it informed my other work; I feel like I learned so much. I took a few workshops of poetry in my Ph.D. program, and I learned so much about myself as a prose writer by taking those classes. And I wish that I more regularly practiced poetry in my own life now, because I loved the way it made me think about language, the way that I would just walk around sometimes creating lines and thinking about the sound of them. I was so attuned to language when I was in those classes, and some of that falls away when I tell you about my bloated 7,000-word thing that is obviously not poetry—it might have some poetic lines but it’s not very short.
So, yeah, my poetry came about when I was in these really great classes in undergrad, taking poetry and I loved it. I was in my MFA and Ph.D. programs and [they] were both supportive of people taking classes outside genres. So that’s how that came to be.
AB: Cool. [My program was] similar in that they’re really supportive of taking things outside of your genre. I came in knowing I mostly wanted to do creative nonfiction, but you want [or] need to take something so you end up in a different genre workshop just to make sure you keep writing. I took a fiction workshop, I took a scriptwriting course, and both helped me be more descriptive in my nonfiction writing, because coming from journalism a lot of that kind of writing gets stripped away because you just focus on the main facts. So, it helped retrain my brain to be more open to exploring that language a bit more.
JA: That’s awesome, and such a good way of describing it, too.
AB: Thanks! So how did you learn about Flyway?
JA: You know, I actually think I learned about it in my undergrad. We had this professor, Cassie Kircher. She was always doing the environmental stuff, which was the best. I loved taking her class, and I was obsessed with writing about the environment when I was in undergrad. Not the environment, like, saving planet Earth, but, like, I was obsessed with place—kind of like you, it sounds similar—my family moved around a ton, but we had this land in Missouri that we would always go back to, so it was the one place that I knew more than any other place. So, I would always be writing about that place and Cassie said, “Jacqueline, you should probably start submitting to places that care about place.” And she told me about Flyway, and I think someone in my undergrad won the competition at some point.
AB: Yeah, I always kind of wondered, when I got to be one of the editors, how did you find us? Because we sometimes liked to joke, “who is thinking of Iowa?” And then we get these really cool pieces.
JA: That’s awesome! People know I guess! Because I found out in North Carolina, so yeah, you’re definitely out there.
AB: That’s reassuring! So, I was wondering if you could talk about the intersection between writing and running, or in a broader sense between your art and writing, running—all of that. How does one contribute to the other? Because I know for me, I’ll be running and I’ll think of an idea and then try to remember it by the time I get back to my apartment. I’ve definitely worked out problems while I’m running.
JA: But is it like this for you that as soon as you get back in your chair it’s gone?
AB: Sometimes, yeah. I’m trying to use my phone more. Just stopping and typing it out and then going back to what I was doing.
JA: That’s awesome.
AB: But it’s a work in progress.
JA: Yeah, I have these brilliant ideas when I’m on my run and then by the time I get back in my chair I wonder, what was I thinking? And was it brilliant or was I just high on endorphins and I thought that it was brilliant?
But yeah, I think in a physical sense, running is a barrier or a break between my writing and my other life. I usually write early in the morning, around 4:45 AM, and I listen to the same playlist and no one emails me, no one texts me, because it’s too early. And so, it allows me to pretend like I’m in this little bubble where I can actually experiment and no one’s around to look at it (even though no one looks at it anyway). But it’s my secret way of pretending.
I don’t know if this happens to you, but whenever I write I get in a super-weird kind of space. Like I’m just so into whatever I’m writing that to immediately flip into anything else is impossible. So usually by the time I finish writing, I go for a run and then I can start my normal day, which is teaching or seeing people, or just doing normal things.
So, yeah, on some level running works like a practical and nice break to get rid of whatever I was writing about. But in other ways, running and painting are nice practices that feel like they help me learn more about my writing practice.
So, you have probably seen me on Instagram obsessing about painting lately, and I’ve been painting abstract paintings, which I’ve never done before. And I have learned so much about writing through it. Because I had gotten to the point where I’m scared of making mistakes and I don’t know how to just play anymore. And so, painting gets me back into that play space of, like, who cares? I don’t know what I’m doing. I haven’t learned yet, so I’m allowed to mess up! And I think, you’re allowed to do that in your writing too. No one has to see this.
And then in running, I think, it’s that feeling where you just have to trudge through the bad stuff, and some days you get to have that experience where it’s wildly magical for absolutely no reason. And then after time passes, no matter what, you have this body of work that you can look back on and think, oh my God, I did that. And it doesn’t feel like you could have done all of that yourself.
AB: So, the last question I have relates to any advice you have for writers, anybody that is looking to maybe start publishing, or just any advice you would give, such as what advice you give to your students?
JA: That’s a great question. I think what I would probably say first not to stop after the semester ends. So, I try to say this as much as possible in my classes, but I feel like when I was in school, [it] was so engrained in me that when the semester ended I felt like “I’m done, I’m never looking at that paper again.” Instead I encourage my students to view the semester as a process. So, even though fifteen weeks are over, I’m not expecting something that’s done, I’m expecting something that hopefully they still have the energy and enthusiasm to come back to and do what they think they want to or find a writing group to keep working on it or send it to me in a few months. So, I would say, one of my [pieces of] advice would be to keep showing up for yourself, even if no one else is there to guide you or help you. Just trust that what you’re doing at some point is going to be something.
In terms of publishing, I think my advice would be to read a lot and not be afraid to reach out to people. The more I’ve been writing the more I’ve learned to send emails to people and say, “Hello! I really liked your thing here, this is why. Do you know how I could do something like this?” Or I just reach out to people and have conversations that allow for transparency or allow for learning, like someone very kindly guided me through how to find an agent, and it was on her own time and her own generosity—she emailed me and took me through every step. And I feel like that is something I try to pay forward, and a lot of other writers do, too.
Originally from Springfield, Illinois, Aimee Burch is a graduate of the University of Illinois-Springfield and the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. Her creative nonfiction draws on her journalistic background to focus on such topics as family relationships, the importance of place and identity, sports, and physical and mental health. She currently lives in Ames, Iowa, and works as a retention content specialist for Dotdash-Meredith’s Parents magazine.
Jacqueline Alnes has lived in Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Indonesia, North Carolina, and Oregon, but feels most at home when running long distances. She is a former Division I Cross Country athlete and once ran a marathon by herself in 3:15:07 as a means of celebrating her birthday. Her tiny art of inspiring athletes has been featured on NBC during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and in Runner’s World.
Currently an Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University, Jacqueline earned her MFA from Portland State University and her PhD from Oklahoma State University. Her essays have been published by The New York Times, Guernica, Iron Horse Literary Review, Tin House, Women’s Running Magazine, and elsewhere. She won runner-up in the 2017 Black Warrior Review Nonfiction Contest judged by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, and she used to write a regular reading list column at Longreads. Jacqueline is working on her first book, FRUIT CURE: The Story of Extreme Wellness Turned Sour (Melville House), about how mysterious neurological symptoms derailed her D1 running career and sucked her into a thriving, online fruitarian (fruit-only) community.