By Ala Kaymaram
A writer, musician, and instructor, Jas Obrecht has taught advanced composition and creative writing for 16 years.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What made you want to teach at WCC?
A: A dream. I moved from California to Michigan in 2000, and I was just writing all the time. My wife said, “Jas, you need to be out among people,” so I had a dream one morning that I went back to teach in college, which I had done in the ‘70s. I called WCC and asked for the English department and got the chairperson on the phone and I told her who I was and that I wanted to teach. She hired me during that phone call. I jumped right in and found that I really liked teaching. It was good to be social and among young people, and I haven’t missed a semester since then. I love teaching here. It’s fun.
Q: What’s the favorite part of your job?
A: Showing people their potential to transform their lives in a meaningful way. Most people want to have their lives matter. When you teach people how to write well, you open up opportunities for them to have better jobs, better communication skills, a better understanding of words, and that helps them through their life.
Q: What did you want to be growing up and why?
A: A writer. By second grade I knew I wanted to write books. My mom gave me a book for Christmas called “All about Archaeology.” I was a little kid who loved archaeology, and I thought this is so cool; somebody got paid to write this book. This is what I want to do, and I never want to be doing anything else.
Q: Were you good at school and writing in particular?
A: In the 6th grade, I had to prove that I didn’t plagiarize the first essay. The teacher was convinced that I had plagiarized, so he made me sit in the front of the class and write another page to add on to that essay, which I did, and when he started to read it out loud, he was like “Oh, my God! I’m really sorry. You did write this,” and that man took me under his wing and helped me become a better writer.
Q: Did you have any inspirations when you were growing up?
A: E.E. Cummings, William Butler Yeats, Mark Twain, Shakespeare were my main influences, and Homer who wrote the Iliad and Odyssey was a huge influence.
Q: Do you have any writers in your family?
A: My brother is a writer and editor, too. Nobody from previous generations was a writer though; I’m kind of the maverick — the only musician and writer really besides my brother.
Q: Can you explain your passion for music?
A: Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, it always felt sort of white bread. It felt bland. But I had a transistor radio. As I listened to the radio, I would become excited by the music I heard: folk music, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles. It allowed me to explore a different way of viewing life through the lyrics and the poetry of the songs. It showed me tremendous potential on how to not end up working in the steel mill like everybody in my neighborhood. It was an escape to a better world.
For the last six or seven months, I’ve been writing for 10 or more hours per day. And when I’m done writing, I’ll typically go upstairs and pick up my guitar. I just play music for 10 to 15 minutes to turn the channel and be on a different frequency. And then I’m ready to talk to my family and do things. Because I play an instrument, I can write about music and interview musicians at a much deeper level than someone who doesn’t play music. For instance, It made a big difference to Eddie Van Halen that I played the guitar because he could talk to me as one musician to another whereas if I was just a journalist he wouldn’t have given me the same answers.
Q: Did you ever want to be a rock star?
A: When I was about 18 years old, I played in a band, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like everybody looking at me. Being a writer really requires you to spend a whole lot of time by yourself, being a rock star means you will never have a moment to yourself. I’d rather be alone than be surrounded by (a lot of people). I don’t even like compliments. It’s a distraction. I asked Keith Richards about it one time, “what’s the most dangerous aspect of fame?” and he said, “believing it, man. That’ll get you every time.” So I learned really early on, don’t do anything for the compliment of others. Do it because it’s the best you can pull it out of yourself. It’s your excellence. It’s what you’re here for. It makes your time matter.
Q: What is the number one item on your bucket list?
A: To write six books in six years. I’m on number four. I wrote poetry when I was young. It taught me economy of language, which has helped me my whole life. All I do now is write about music.
Q: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your job as a teacher?
A: To be inspirational. The job of the teacher is to inspire students. It’s not to frighten them. It’s not to punish them. It’s not to terrorize them. A teacher should help a student become the best human being possible, and give students real-world skills that can help them for the rest of their lives. That’s what it’s all about. If you’re not doing that, quit.
Q: If you could change one thing in the educational system, what would it be?
A: I would make it a requirement for all students to learn how to write in the active voice by sixth grade. If that occurred, we would be a nation of much better writers and thinkers. I did not even know about that until I was in graduate school. And I went to a good college and a good high school, but no one taught me that until I was 23 years old.
Q: How did your middle school and high school writing teachers help you improve your writing?
A: There were two or three teachers who showed me how to cut unessential words, and when you do that what’s left is really beautiful, strong writing. The important thing isn’t getting the words on the page; the important thing is what you do with them once they are on the page: how do you fix them up, how do you make them as beautiful as possible. That’s what these people showed me.
Q: Is there anything alarming to you in the current educational system?
A: Hand-held electronic devices. I think in time that’s going to be seen as a great scourge. It changes the way people communicate, the way they focus, the way they can spend their time. I’ve never owned a cell phone. I can sit down and work for eight hours without a single distraction. When I’m away from home, I think. I think, and I take hikes. No one distracts me. I can think. It’s wonderful. We have a generation of people who don’t know what that experience is like.
Q: What’s the main element of being a good writer?
A: My definition of being a really dedicated writer is you look out the window, and you realize that suddenly the season has changed. In other words, when you’re writing a book, you started in the spring time, and you’re so focused on it that by the time you finish that book, It’s October or November. You say, “Oh my God, it’s snowing outside. Where did summer go?” Because you’ve been so involved mentally, spiritually, intellectually, and passionately with the work that you’re doing. Writing a book takes you on this spiritual, intellectual journey that’s all encompassing in a way. You know you take breaks, talk to your family, watch TV, and have dinner and all that, but you have this really big mission that you have to accomplish, and you don’t let anything get in the way. The other thing you learn, if you want to be a really great writer, is to say no and mean it. Say no to distractions; say “no” to the stuff that’s going to get in the way of your creativity; say no to relationships that sap you of your energy and desires and things like that. So you have to be disciplined and make sacrifices, but the rewards are wonderful. And when your life’s over, it matters that you were here on the Earth.