Start at the Top and Work Your Way Down
An interview with former online student Jim Ringley
by Sara Button
Jim Ringley grew up telling stories. Raised on a rural farm in Arkansas, he knew his children’s upbringing would be much different from his, and he wanted to preserve his family’s tales.
“When they get told, they’re sort of in short hand, there’s not a lot of detail because we—my siblings and I—were there, so we remember them. I started writing these stories in detail so they would really get a sense of what it was like to be there.” That was about ten years ago.
But in 2014, he enrolled in his first prose workshop, with the goal of learning more about shorter forms. The first assignment for that class—Barrett Swanson’s Advanced Memoir and Personal Essay—was to write about grief.
The essay that came out of that assignment, “What You Don’t Know for Certain,” ended up in The Sun this past March. It is an intimate, introspective piece about coping with the dissipation of his marriage after his wife realized she was a lesbian.
When I ask how he approached such a personal subject as his very first workshop piece, Jim says even though his artist training helped—he was used to putting himself out there—it was still a little uncomfortable. “But I also realize it was a story that I wanted to tell; I really wanted to tell my side of things and it seemed as though it was a perfect subject for the assignment.”
When he thought it was ready, Barrett suggested Jim send it to The Sun. “As an artist, I've always tried to aim high. Polish your work, know the market, and take your best shot,” Jim says.
It was a long process—The Sun doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions, and it took more than eight months before he heard anything. Eventually the essay was accepted, and Jim had the opportunity to work with an editor. At first, seeing changes to something he had worked so meticulously on was difficult. “I was invested in the way I had written it; everything I had written I had slaved over.” But the biggest lesson he got out of that experience, he says, is that “it’s probably a good idea, especially for a beginning writer like me, to trust the editor. They really know a lot more about how it’s going to look in the magazine, how it’s going to come across, than I would.”
The publishing experience, as well as the support from online classmates and his instructor, allowed Jim to recalibrate his own identity as a writer. “I take myself more seriously now than I did before...it’s easy not to take yourself seriously as a writer. And I think it’s important to get over that.”
Although he’s on the newer side when it comes to writing, Jim is no stranger to artistic rituals and processes. He is an award-winning painter, and although he focuses now on pencil portraiture and painting houses, he thinks of visual art and writing as similar beasts.
“I think the same observational tendencies I have that make me a painter also make me a writer...it’s a way of looking at something and trying to get to the important essence of it, right? Whether I’m drawing a person’s face or if I’m describing a scene in words, I’m still trying to figure out what the really important or emotionally impactful thing is that’s here.”
Jim writes early every morning if he can, getting up at 5 a.m., a habit he developed when his children were young. He focuses on one project at a time, imposing deadlines for himself. Right now, he’s working to craft a standalone essay that might evolve into a book. For help, he says he’s going to try Creative Nonfiction’s mentorship program to try to take his writing to a higher level.
“Going forward, I’m going to keep writing, keep sending work out. I’m just trying to make my work better and better. I think that’s what keeps me going anyway is always the sense that I’m improving.”