Senior Employee Services Coordinator
Eastman Chemical Co.
Hometown: Walla Walla, Wash.
Education: B.S., home economics education, Washington State
Single. Lives in Kingsport, Tenn. Daughter, Sarah, is a professor; son, Fred, is a newspaper reporter.
Jean Petke was raised in the Pacific Northwest where blunt and to-the-point honesty in conversation was the norm. Fiercely independent, as a young bride and mother she took the move to the South very hard when she found her inner thoughts and aspirations were at odds with others’ expectations. For her, keeping a journal—soon to become a publishable memoir, she hopes—has been her way to examine and resolve the problems of fitting in.
“I grew up in a very practical, problem-solving household—Dad was a mechanical engineer and Mom was a home economist—so there was not a lot of encouragement for pursuing literary creativity. But in the mid-1970s, when I was in my 30s, I began doing some journaling. It’s not like an event diary, but rather what’s going on with me and my world, and how am I dealing with it. It became my place of pondering, of trying to understand the people and situations in my life and my responses to them.
I found it was very helpful since once I figured out why I was uncomfortable with something I had the possibility of changing. The journal became the one place where I was absolutely honest with myself. I may not like it—it may not be pretty—but it’s better than using the excuse of being a middle child between two brothers for my adult behavior.
Sometimes I write a lot and less during other periods. Writing in my journal feels like living on the edge—that’s where the ‘integrity’ gets worked out. When I’m mulling over something, not sure what to do, I will eventually work it out. At one point early on, I read Writing Down the Bones, short essays on the writing process by Natalie Goldberg. One of her essays refers to the ‘inner critic,’ that internal voice that says ‘you can’t write squat.’ Of course you can write and you can write anywhere—and I do. Another book that influenced me greatly, Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico, is about tapping into the right side of the brain.
For many years this journaling was very private. Then, a few years ago, I decided to have a small writing group that met once a week. I led using the exercises I’d learned from Rico’s book. We only had two rules: 1) You don’t have to read it aloud, and 2) There’s no criticism whatsoever. It was fascinating, and I discovered I could teach others to tap into their creative side.
About that same time, my friends celebrated my 60th birthday a year ahead of time by mistake. I realized that I’d really be 60 the next year—and what was I doing? So I determined that year—almost three years ago—that I want my writing published and I need to start that memoir process. So the most recent brainstorming exercise I did was to generate ideas for this book. The theme is along the lines of ‘How to be a Blue Horse in a Brown Horse World,’ inspired by a painting I remember from my nursery school years. About 10 years ago, I had a ‘light bulb moment’ as I was journaling. The blue horse picture came to mind and suddenly I realized I’m not a ‘brown horse,’ I’m a ‘blue’ one. Man, I’ve been doing the wrong thing! I need to figure out what it means to be a ‘blue horse’ and be the best ‘blue horse’ I can be.
Early on, I’d been trying to be something else. When I was married and in my early 20s, we moved from the Pacific Northwest to the South. Then I was trying even harder to fit in—but it’s not who I am. In my background, we’re very straightforward; in the South, it’s seen as blunt or rude, so it was difficult for me to be a genteel Southern lady. And I felt I couldn’t be the stay-at-home mom. So the book is an account of what I did to fit in and the journey to reclaim myself with acceptance and confidence.
Everyone knows now that I am writing a book, even my boss. Within the last year, I have found a mentor for the project. I’m working very hard to finish the revisions and restarts, in order to get it published.”