Creator Spotlight - Jillian Hess
English professor, author and Noted publisher Jillian Hess answers a few questions!
Today’s Creator Spotlight features CUNY English professor Jillian Hess. Jillian is the publisher/author of Noted, a new but rapidly growing Substack newsletter focusing on the art and power of note taking that was recently featured in the Substack Reads publication. Jillian is also the author of How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information.
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When you were a teen, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a teen I had this fantasy for my adult life: I’d be a writer living in a small, but stylish Manhattan apartment with lots of books. I’d also have a toy-pig because I thought that was a quirky thing that a writer would do. (Side note: Patricia Highsmith brought snails in her handbag to dinner parties and Oscar Wilde walked his turtle on a leash around Oxford.)
With some slight exceptions, I’m living that fantasy life now. I live in Brooklyn (not Manhattan) and I have a cat, not a toy pig.
Have you been a lifelong reader and writer or were you more (or less) inclined to read and write when you were younger?
Definitely! My mom tells this story: I was around 1.5 yrs old when she was pregnant with my brother. She would take naps on our living room couch and wake up to me sitting next to her, surrounded by a bunch of books I had dragged to the couch. I couldn’t read yet so I would make up words and pretend I was reading to her.
As I got older my love affair with books intensified. I wouldn’t go anywhere without one. I’d buy small books so that I could always fit one in my bag.
How did your educational/academic background (degrees from Bryn Mawr and Stanford) impact your current career... is it as natural of a progression as it seems?
I was an English major at Bryn Mawr and loved it. My advisor asked me one day if I had thought about getting a Ph.D. in English literature and becoming a professor. I was floored. It seemed like a dream job, and one that I never imagined was possible for me. There aren’t other professors in my family, so it just never dawned on me that this might be a possibility.
Stanford was a wonderful place to get a Ph.D. — it’s such a vibrant campus filled with brilliant, generous people. The beautiful California weather didn't hurt either. I wrote most of my dissertation sitting outside under palm trees.
What drew you to the study of older texts and handwritten notes?
In undergrad, I took a course on material texts with Roger Chartier — a really important scholar of book history and material culture (basically, histories of printing, writing, and reading). He taught this class on UPenn’s campus in their special collections library. That meant that every class, we got to see rare, old texts. Like a first edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography or Early-Modern editions of Shakespeare’s plays. I was completely enamored.
Chartier’s class was the first time I saw a commonplace book —H.A.T. readers will know what this is because of your own commonplace book post. Commonplace books were/are a tradition of keeping collections of quotations and other information. It was especially popular in Shakespeare’s time. I recognized the impulse to have a more personal relationship with great works of literature by copying quotes into a book of one’s own. I had been doing this since I was 16, and I was fascinated to learn that I had been partaking in an old tradition.
You've written your own book about commonplace books, scrapbooks and albums, focusing on the Romantic and Victorian eras. Please tell us the story of how this project came to be.
Early on in graduate school, I became obsessed with commonplace books and travelled all over the UK and US to see as many as I could (around 300). As I revised the dissertation into a book, I shifted my focus from individual authors to different strategies for organizing information.
I was really interested in how writers started to cut and paste newsprint once paper became more affordable. I also loved how friends would write poetry for one another. These notebooks are incredibly wacky, whimsical, and gorgeous. They are a great window into the minds of 19th-century thinkers.
In today's digital age you can't beat the keyboard for speed and flexibility. Does pen and paper factor into your creative process?
I write best with a keyboard, but I learn best with pen and paper. I almost always take notes by hand and then transfer the important stuff to my Scrivener file.
Public schools rarely seem to teach cursive handwriting any more. Are we losing something important by abandoning cursive writing?
Undoubtedly, yes, we are losing something when we lose cursive writing. Just writing that sentence makes me sad. That being said, as a teacher, I know that when you add something to a syllabus, something else has to go. So, I think it's important to ask what is being taught instead of script.
As much as it pains me to write it, I'd rather kids learn how to write with computers and type efficiently than learn script. I can't tell you how many of my students (who are college-age and older) type their papers with just their index fingers. It takes them so much longer! For some of them, learning how to use spell-check can also feel like a revelation. So while I'd love for students to learn cursive, I'd rather them have the digital writing skills they need to be successful in school and beyond. Whether we like it or not, these days, most writing is digital writing.
What's an ideal work day for you?
This is the pattern that I developed in my 20s and I've stuck to it, more or less. I start writing immediately after I make coffee. I'll write for 2-3 hours (all notifications silenced) and then I'll go for a run or take a class at the gym. In the afternoons, I usually teach.
A perfect teaching day would be one in which all the students are super excited to talk about the day's reading. If I'm not teaching, I'll spend the afternoon reading in preparation for tomorrow's writing session. And, of course, I love to meet up with friends for a work session in the library, a cafe, or (sometimes) a bar.
This all sounds much more regimented than it is. In general, I try to hold the first 90 minutes of every day reserved for writing. Then, things fall however they fall.
How long have you been a runner? Is it a necessary part of your routine? What's the longest distance you've run?
I've been running since 2004. It's been such an important part of my writing process. I've had my best ideas while on a run. I ran the NYC marathon in 2019. Haven't gotten back into racing since, but I can see a few more half-marathons on the horizon.
Pretend you wake up one morning and the Internet has been destroyed. What's the first thing you do?
Honestly, I'd probably panic for a minute. Then, I'd breathe a sigh of relief and read a Dickens novel.
Thanks so much to Jillian Hess for agreeing to this interview!
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