Alumni Spotlight: Jill Christman

Headshot of Jill Christman

CHC Class of: 1992

Major: English

Home: Muncie, Indiana

Current jobs: Author, editor, English professor at Ball State University

Song on repeat: “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls

Coffee or tea: Coffee first thing in the morning. But then if I’m going to go into … anything I know is going to agitate me, I switch to chamomile tea.

Guilty pleasure: Watching shows with her family during dinner instead of sitting at the table.

Advice for CHC students: Follow your curiosity. I mean that like in every minute of your life. Allow yourself to be curious to the point of absolute silliness.

The Ball State University professor is working on a fictional novel and raising a family.

Jill Christman sits in her daughter's bedroom as she speaks, surrounded by bookshelves. Snow falls outside her home in Muncie, Indiana.

“I try to have empathy for myself as a character,” Christman says about her writing.

In her years of producing nonfiction, Christman—a 1992 Clark Honors College graduate—has pushed herself to “say the truest thing” she can. Her essays, she says, are often centered on questions. But instead of searching for an answer, she pushes herself to face her question head-on, being as honest as possible. She isn’t satisfied until she arrives at a question that can’t be answered.

But with experience, she’s also learned to be gentle with herself. In her teaching, she gives this advice to her students, as well.

Christman is a nonfiction writer and a professor of English at Ball State University. Since graduating from the University of Oregon, she’s published two memoirs, along with several essays. She’s also a senior editor at River Teeth, a nonfiction magazine adopted during the pandemic.

The daughter of two artists, Christman spent much of her youth moving from place to place. As a teenager, the family’s nomadic lifestyle found them living in a marijuana growing community on a mountain in northeastern Washington. She rode a horse to the one room schoolhouse where she and 12 other children attended school.

It could be seen as a hard life, she says, recalling how she washed her hair with melted snow. She began writing on the mountain, “literally by lamplight.”

Christman began reading at a young age, saying she “can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading.” Her love of books led to her try her hand at writing. Still, she had no intention of pursuing a career as an author when she began thinking about college.

Her family eventually moved off the mountain before her junior year, so she could have a more typical high school experience. While deciding on a college, her guidance counselor told her about Clark Honors College. Excited about the small college experience she could get at the CHC with all the resources of a large university, she chose to attend UO. She entered her first year as a journalism major.

“My version of rebellion was to want to have a regular job, you know, with money and security,” she says now. Compared to the lives of her artist parents, journalism felt like a more traditional career path. But the structured nature of journalistic writing clashed with her style.

In her sophomore year, the future she’d planned for herself came to a screeching halt. She had recently been engaged, but her fiancé was killed in a car accident during the academic term. “So, I dropped out,” Christman recalls. “I was—I didn't know what I was, I mean, I was broken by grief.”

She traveled to Central America, trying to “find a way to live again.” When she eventually returned to UO and the Honors College, her worldview had changed. As she prepared to restart her sophomore year, she chose to pursue what she loved: reading.

For the next three years, she worked toward a degree in literature. For her CHC thesis, she wrote a collection of short stories, titled “Voices.”

After she graduated, Christman attended the University of Alabama for her master’s degree. There was no nonfiction program offered, so she pursued a Master of Fine Arts in fiction. Still, her mentors were happy to guide her when she decided to write a memoir for her degree. Later, she would revise and publish it as her first book, “Darkroom: A Family Exposure.”

She also met her future husband, Mark, at the University of Alabama. The two hit it off during a class together where they started chatting about George Eliot’s novel, “Middlemarch.”

“It’s absurd at this point how many things we do together,” she says. They have two children and are both members of an eight-person creative writing faculty at Ball State. There’s also “built-in writer accountability” in being married to a poet, she says.

“I just get jealous,” she says, when her husband sits down for his daily writing on days she feels she’s too busy. “I’m like, ‘How am I living?’”

Having released her latest book, “If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays” last September, Christman is already hard at work on both a new memoir and her first novel. At the start of her writing career, she’d felt that in order to write fiction, she needed to be “more sure of things.”

“I was trying to write … myself kind of out of a pretty frightening childhood,” she says of her first memoir. “I didn’t understand enough about it to make things up.”

The new project has been a step outside her typical genre, but it’s been an exciting challenge. She’s still working to say the truest thing, as she always has in her nonfiction works before. “It’s never too late to try,” she says.

- Story by Elizabeth Yost, Clark Honors College Communications

- Courtesy of Jill Christman, Clark Honors College Communications