Jennifer McGaha: Homesteading Is Where Her
Heart Is

by Marie Hefley


Careful readers know that setting is important to a story. It can create a mood, show why a character behaves as he does, or determine how the plot unfolds. A less-appreciated aspect of setting is also crucial to a story. Eudora Welty, in a 1956 essay, says place, or setting, is essential to the writer himself, because “place is where he has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.”

Jennifer McGaha, a self-described “memoirist, essayist, teacher, mountain biker, fan of craft beer, goat cheese, and Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Crunch,” can’t separate her writing and storytelling from her roots, her place. A Western North Carolina mountain girl by ancestry, birth, and education, McGaha is most comfortable outdoors in her beloved Transylvania County, a largely rural county southwest of and adjacent to Buncombe County, home of North Carolina’s art mecca, the city of Asheville. She lives a simple life, hewing to the examples and traditions of her Appalachian grandparents and great-grandparents, learned from the stories of their lives. “I come from an oral tradition where people told stories at the dinner table,” she says. “We gathered and passed along the stories from non-formally educated family members.”

Her love for this tradition has inspired her to find ways to adapt her family’s folkways and wisdom to life in today’s version of their mountain havens, and then to share that transformed knowledge with her readers. Although she is a woman of many interests, McGaha’s core interest is Appalachian history and culture, and how they are changing. Much of her writing has its focus there. She starts from what she calls the “dated and fading way of life” of her parents and grandparents, captures it, and carries it forward to explore how those traditions can thrive in current times.

A recurring theme in her work is mothering and home, and how those elements define a culture. Consequently, she says, “Food always shows up in my life and my work. It’s a great part of the culture.” While she doesn’t cook the same way or exactly follow recipes from her mother and grandmother, she echoes their reliance on the land by growing some of her own food and buying from local farmers, thereby hoping to perpetuate a piece of her cultural DNA. She points out that growing one’s own food is an effort accessible to anyone, and that it allows eating well without spending a lot of money.

McGaha has combined teaching and writing throughout her career. Educated in universities in North Carolina and Vermont, she has earned an MA in English and this year will finish an MFA in nonfiction writing. She has also participated in the Great Smokies Writing Program as both a student and a teacher, and calls her association with the program “pure pleasure.” Currently, she teaches teens at an independent school in Asheville.

McGaha considers teaching a natural companion to the academic life and to writing, since it allows for continuing research and learning new things. After she had her children, she earned her MA and thought she would “teach a class here and there.” She realized that she really needed to teach full-time, but at that point, she says, “The environment was that everyone was hiring adjuncts, which put me into the adjunct lane.”

Adjuncts are non-tenure track lecturers, instructors, or professors who are contract, part-time employees at colleges and universities. They are hired by the semester and often are paid by the class and/or by the number of students in the class, at a rate much lower than permanent faculty salaries, although they have the same responsibilities as full-time, permanent faculty members. Many adjuncts teach at more than one school at a time. They usually don’t have offices at school and few receive employee benefits.

“It’s a very insecure thing,” McGaha says. “You never know ahead of time what you’re teaching and you don’t have a real home. You’re constantly thinking about the next semester and where the money is coming from. It’s like being a free-lance writer.” In addition to watching her colleagues “making more money and having an office and known schedule,” she had to find creative ways to manage the nomad adjunct life. She recounts that not having an office or reliable workspace caused very practical problems. One major strategy she employed was working out of her car. Sometimes working in different locations in one day, she kept the armfuls of student papers in a laundry basket that lived in her back seat, and schlepped them to and from class every day—in good weather and in bad, in hot and in freezing temperatures.

A fortuitous offer changed McGaha’s circumstances. This fall, she began teaching English and writing to upper grades at the independent school. “Teaching teens is a challenge,” she says. “Younger students need more going on, to move through things very quickly. In an adult workshop, you would spend longer on pieces and would take more time on one piece or prompt. The challenge is to get teens to sit and go through a longer process of revision, and to stay with a piece longer. They don’t relish the process, although adults do. So, I have to mix things up to keep the teens engaged.”

In an effort to meet this challenge, McGaha applies strategies she learned at an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference. A session on engaging the one-time creative learner led her to offer her students a menu of genres to choose from; they’ve dabbled in poetry, vignettes, creative nonfiction, and flash fiction. She also attended an AWP session on the lyricism of hip-hop and finds that using rap is a good way to connect with her teen students and to teach them “music’s rhythms and feelings [in relationship] to what goes on the page.” She continues, laughing, “My students are very interested in music, so I make them listen to Dylan. I keep bringing him in. My argument is that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature!”

She teaches her students elements of craft, but doesn’t label them as such. Instead, they might discuss literary devices or how plot development differs in flash fiction and short story. A lesson in point of view required them to research a dead family member and write a piece from that dead person’s perspective. McGaha says that teens are very creative in finding subjects to write about, but have to do that writing in short and varied spurts.

One concern McGaha has is “kids don’t do a lot of reading, or they read summaries, and they don’t understand people whose lives are different from theirs.” She believes that both reading and writing teach empathy, necessary for a writer to be able to “step into someone else’s shoes.” She adds, “Kids have to hear stories of the past from people they love and admire. To write good characters, they need to know how others live and operate.”

McGaha has been published in a variety of academic and creative outlets, but as she sought ways to broaden her audience, in 2014 she looked to a new platform: blogging. She sent a sample blog to The Huffington Post. The process was easy; she filled out their online form and attached her sample to it. Once accepted, she could then send in new submissions when she wanted to.

Her first piece grew out of her need to find practical information on aspects of homesteading. After she and her husband “lost everything to foreclosure in 2012,” they moved to a 100-year-old abandoned cabin on 53 acres near the Dupont National Forest and became homesteaders. Faced with having to be the source of some of their own provisions, they needed to learn how to grow vegetables, keep chickens and goats, and make soap, yogurt, and cheese. Despite living without a hot water heater, television, or reliable phone and Internet service, McGaha turned to the online community. She quickly found out, however, that most homesteading instruction came with a religious slant. Wanting to find “secular suggestions,” she embarked on an Internet search and then wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about it, contrasting the information she found and its disconnect with the Zeitgeist of the Asheville area.

To date, she’s published fifteen pieces, most of them in the HuffPost Comedy section. As ideas struck her, McGaha wrote pieces on topics as diverse as going gray, raising children while being ADD, dognapping, and sex tips she’s learned from her goats. “I got some really interesting emails,” she laughed. After the going gray essay, Huffington Post asked her to be a participant in an interview with Lorraine Toussaint, who, McGaha learned from her daughter, is a star of the television hit “Orange is the New Black.” So McGaha set up a Skype connection at a friend’s house and discovered, as the interview was about to begin, that she was interviewing Toussaint, not the other way around, as she had thought, and the subject was sex after fifty. “First of all, I’m not fifty,” she thought. “I’m not ready for this! My blog was just about my hair! Somehow, I was able to ask Toussaint something, like who influences you, who are your role models, how do you age gracefully? She was lovely, and talked about her mother as a role model, so I was able to come up with something. It didn’t turn out as I thought.”

So, how does one write humor? As E.B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog; few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” The plethora of available articles on how to write humor reinforces that allegation. Advice—such as, exaggerate real life, juxtapose the unexpected, use wordplay, riff on the obvious (like Seinfeld), set up your audience and then surprise them—can lead to a side-splitter or to a very boring recitation. What makes the difference?

Woody Allen thinks the writer’s worldview enters into the equation. “I think if you have a comic perspective, almost anything that happens you tend to put through a comic filter,” he says. McGaha tends to agree with him. She thinks the ability to write humor is probably innate, dependent on the writer’s ability to see and describe the ridiculous in a situation. “Humor has always been a part of who I am and how my family interacts. I have an exaggerated sense of irony, so pretty much everything seems funny to me. In writing a memoir, I can use that as my lens. I think that circumstances, people’s behavior, and a writer’s way of looking at things can make them funny.”

She goes on to relate an event that, on its face, could be distressing, but her telling of it, with carefully chosen details and a heaping dose of self-deprecation doled out with exquisite timing, makes it funny. The story is that a possum got into the barn where her six baby goats were sheltering. “Being Nigerian dwarf goats [a miniature dairy goat breed from West Africa], they were tiny, tiny, tiny babies. I was so afraid the possum would severely bite them or eat them. Now, this wasn’t a funny story on its own, but when I started writing it, all the interaction that went on between me and my husband was funny.”

Where was the humor in that interaction? Picture this: The baby goats were in imminent danger and the McGahas argued about how to get rid of the possum. “I wanted to dump it on the Blue Ridge Parkway and he wanted to let it go in a neighbor’s field. So he put the possum in a tub and threw it in the back of the car. Then we argued about who would sit in the back and hold the cover over the tub and who would drive.” Meanwhile, they had a live possum scratching around in a tub in their car and no definitive plan to get rid of it. This all transpired at midnight, with McGaha dressed in a negligee, her grandfather’s old flannel farm shirt, and Chaco sandals. “I realized later how funny it was,” she says. “Part of that comes from seeing the weirdness in situations.”

Ironically, McGaha’s publications in The Huffington Post have won her more attention and opened more doors than her previous literary and academic work, possibly even leading to her getting an agent for her upcoming book, Flat Broke with Two Goats, scheduled for publication in October 2017. Also ironically, since she began writing the book, she hasn’t had time to submit more HuffPost pieces.

Like her first piece for that publication, McGaha’s upcoming book grew out of adversity. The memoir starts with the foreclosure in 2012. While the memoir outlines the facts of the aftermath of the foreclosure and the radical life changes it precipitated, the story goes further to explore a lifestyle and marital sea change. She and her husband had to “learn to live together after blaming each other for the circumstances that led to the foreclosure.” Her three young adult children had to learn to adjust to visiting a home with “five people and one fuse.” She explains: “We can’t run the microwave and toaster at the same time.” The cabin, located on property that includes a 150-foot waterfall outside the door, is a draw for snakes—never McGaha’s favorite creatures—especially ringnecks, although at one point a copperhead did try to take up residence.

Another adjustment, one which pleases McGaha, is her livestock program. However, she says, the chickens and goats are more like pets who earn their way. She adds, “I am ridiculously attached to my chickens.” She’s learned to handle the vagaries of dealing with live “inventory.” For example, experienced homesteaders told her to “order the big package” of chickens—twenty-five—“because they die.” She figured she’d end up with a dozen or so chickens, enough to keep her family in eggs, but only three of the original flock died. Now, when she finds her diligent flock overearning their keep—which they often do—she gives away the surplus eggs.

Her goats also have created unexpected challenges for her. She has a total of ten goats, “eight girls and two boys.” Last year, six babies were born. This year, three does are in milk, which McGaha uses in yogurt, cheeses, and soaps, but the only adult male is “an impotent old goat,” so she’s considering buying a young buck for breeding.

As with most of what happens in her life, McGaha sees the obstacles and opportunities of her new lifestyle as material for her writing, especially her humor pieces.

Since she’s experienced writing from both the academic and practical perspectives, McGaha can and does offer specific advice for writers at any level of expertise. “Find a writing community, either through Great Smokies or with other people with your same interests. Rejection is such a big part of the life, so you need support and feedback. You can talk with non-writer friends, but it’s hard for others to relate to such a weird life, so you really need to surround yourself with like-minded people.”

She says that non-writers don’t always understand why writers choose a profession that generally is “not lucrative and is so discouraging.” For those who are interested in having their work published, she emphasizes how important “dogged persistence is in having your work noticed. The numbers are against you, so submit often and a lot, but not indiscriminately. You may be rejected in ten places but shine in another.”

She continues, “Some writers have instant success, but for most of us, it’s a process of years of plugging along and hopefully getting better as we do it, but mostly it’s figuring out which is a good venue for your work. If one place rejects it, submit somewhere else. You don’t want to be that person who sticks work in a drawer and doesn’t try.”

McGaha is the embodiment of her advice. Academically trained, she submitted a lot of work in different genres to different types of publications before hitting her stride. She stayed at it, expanding her targets, until she found a successful formula. Where she is in life, in geography, and in the Appalachian culture have all joined to create her place, where she has her roots and where she stands.

Jennifer McGaha lives with her husband, five dogs, twenty-three chickens, a herd of milk goats, a collection of beehives, and one high-maintenance cat on fifty-three wooded acres bordering the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Baltimore Fishbowl, theNewerYork, The Brooklyner, Little Patuxent Review, Lumina, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other publications, as well as online in The Huffington Post. When she is not writing or teaching or milking goats, she can be found mountain biking or hiking on the trails near her home. For more about McGaha and her work, visit her web page.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville. She has had several articles published in The Forest Companion magazine. She invites you to read her interviews with Wiley Cash (Issue 9), Megan Shepherd (Issue 12), Denise Kiernan (Issue 13), and Robert Beatty (Issue 14) as well as several other authors, found in the Great Smokies Review Archives.