Dr. Kelly Ann Jacobson considers herself “one of those people that always knew they loved writing.” She was 5 when she wrote, illustrated, and published her first book in her elementary school library. Book two, about a teddy bear, followed in third grade.
“I just wanted to tell stories,” she said during a recent interview.
Today, Jacobson writes young adult fiction about dragons, mermaids, and aliens. Her process, she admits, is “a mess.” Fueled by lots of coffee, she writes in two-hour, early morning bursts. It takes her about three months to finish a book.
“I’m the type of person [who will] write 30 books and only three of them will get published, and I’m more comfortable doing that than revising the same book 30 times,” she said.
“I learn by writing the entire book and then trying again. That’s kind of how I write because I have a lot of ideas and I get really bored with everything quickly.”
When writing her award-winning novel “Tink and Wendy,” which came out last year, Jacobson said she “knew the ending and the very first scene.” She also knew it was going to be “some sort of love triangle.”
The rest just sort of happened.
“It’s like watching a movie and I just write it down,” she said. “And the movie just plays in front of me, so it’s weird for me to think about altering it in any way because it just is what it is. I just hear a voice and then I watch the whole movie and I write it down for three months, and then that’s the book.”
Her own creative process is “very different” from how she teaches her Nature Writing, Intro to Creative Writing, and Fiction classes, says Jacobson, but there’s one thing the novelist and her students have in common.
“I do keep my ideas journal, and I make my students [keep one] too,” she said. “I definitely write all my ideas down. Sometimes, because I’m a parent of two kids, I can’t come back to the idea for six months, and then I’m looking back and I’m like, ‘What’s this about?’ And then I come up with something.”
There’s no lecturing when you take a creative writing class with Jacobson. There aren’t a lot of books or articles, either. “I don’t use many readings in my class,” she said. “If I could use none, I probably would.”
She doesn’t want her students to feel stifled by established — or perceived — notions of what constitutes a good story.
“Our idea of a really good story is not representative of everybody,” Jacobson explained. “I’d rather hear the students’ voices than feel like their voices are being shut down by some idea of what a story should be.”
That approach resonates with her students. Many of them attended a mock class she taught when interviewing for her job last spring and were immediately sold.
Westover Honors Fellow Mac White ’25, a history major with minors in English and medieval and Renaissance studies, is even considering adding a creative writing minor because of Jacobson’s class.
“She is quickly becoming one of my favorite and most helpful professors, and was a great aid in revitalizing my love for writing,” White, from Madison Heights, Virginia, said.
“She’s always willing to help us and give us extra time. Additionally, she never pushes us to share our work with the class, which fosters a more trusting and calm environment.”
Alison Morrison ’23, an English major and creative writing minor from Luray, Virginia, agrees.
“I love how she’s so positive and open,” she said. “She really fosters a community in the classroom.”
Jacobson, who has won multiple awards for her work and her teaching, especially loves teaching students who don’t like writing. She wants the experience to be fun, and she encourages her students to try new things — like writing in multiple genres, or collaborating on a silly story to practice their skills.
It’s going to be bad, and that’s okay, she says. “I just want to create a safe space.”
She also wants her students to have a say in what they’re learning, and how.
“I’m trying to figure out ways for students to have more agency in their own learning in the classroom,” she said. She calls it “co-creating” — students have input on what the grading rubric looks like and what skills they’re learning.
“I want them to do what they want to do. I’m there to help them do whatever that is,” she said. “That’s how I see my job — it’s part camp counselor, because I’m kind of there to be a cheerleader and to just help them stop being so anxious about writing.”
That fear, Jacobson added, is pretty common, and she encounters it all the time in intro courses or when talking to high school students.
It’s why her classes include lots of activities and games, and they always start with a prompt that “shows students they already know what the thing is that we’re talking about, because everyone in my class has already been a storyteller their whole lives,” she said.
English major and creative writing minor Luis Echeverria ’25, a transfer student from Woodbridge, Virginia, enjoys the prompts.
“The class has helped my writing skills primarily by giving me a small window of time — 5 to 10 minutes — at the start of class to really laser focus on a prompt Dr. Jacobson has given us,” he said.
It was surprising, he added, “how quickly I can fill out a page in that window with decent material, which I can reuse for my major assignments.
“Having that routine in every class helps people who are becoming writers, or those who are experimenting with writing, create a great habit of practicing regularly. I have also gotten the chance to experiment a lot with nonfiction, fiction, and poetry thanks to those prompts.”
Zeke Maddox ’23, an English major with a criminology minor from Moneta, Virginia, always looks forward to his fiction class with Jacobson.
“[She] approaches everything with a whole lot of energy and care,” the transfer student said. “I spoke to her once about how to handle writing certain types of characters, and it was such an amazing conversation!
“She’s an incredibly energetic person, and … that energy keeps me engaged and makes me really excited to have her class.”
Jacobson, who grew up in Pennsylvania, worked multiple jobs all through her undergraduate career at George Washington University. She was a full-time events coordinator at a women’s country club while getting her master’s at night in Johns Hopkins University’s part-time program.
Later, she completed her PhD at Florida State University in between giving birth to her two daughters.
The young family then moved to a small town in Alabama, where Jacobson spent a year as a visiting assistant professor and writing center director at the University of West Alabama. This summer, they arrived in Lynchburg for her first gig as assistant professor — a dream job.
“I get to teach the best classes,” said Jacobson, who also oversees the student literary publication The Prism and is active in the queer affinity group on campus. “I’m so lucky to get to teach in multiple genres. I did not want to get a job somewhere teaching three sections of fiction every semester. That would be really boring to me.
“I always say that I don’t understand how I’m getting paid to do this job because I love it so much!”
Jacobson started out as a literary writer, publishing such novels as “Cairo in White” (2014), the poetry collection “I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams” (2016), and the chapbook “An Inventory of Abandoned Things,” which won the 2020 Split/Lip Press Fiction Chapbook Contest.
She stumbled into young adult fiction by accident when talking about her first novel, “Cairo in White,” with a group of queer young adults. They asked her if she wrote young adult fiction, too. The answer was no.
“And they were like, ‘We feel like there are no books that represent us,’” Jacobson recalled. “And I was like, ‘I’m an author. I can fix this problem.’ And then I changed my whole career.”
She now writes the kinds of books she would have liked when she was younger — sci-fi fantasy adventures with characters she can relate to. “Tink and Wendy” is a queer retelling of the classic “Peter Pan,” but it’s more than that.
“I do complete reimaginings, like I basically steal the characters in your version of the story and do whatever I want with them,” she said. “I do not feel beholden to the original.”
In her version, there’s a love triangle between Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Peter Pan, and there are mermaids who drag people to the bottom of the ocean to die. There are questions about gender roles, love, and masculinity.
“The toxic masculinity elements that, I think, are very present in the original story, I basically amp up to 100% in the book,” said Jacobson, who as an undergrad switched majors from environmental science to English to women’s studies.
She admits that many of the gender studies theories she encountered in college have made their way into her books.
A new novel coming out in the spring, “Robin and Her Misfits,” is a queer young adult retelling of the classic Robin Hood story. “It’s not speculative, it’s just more like action-adventure,” she said. “I kind of see it as a ‘Fast and Furious’ queer young adult girl gang edition.”
Another spring release is her dissertation, the sci-fi novel “Weaver,” which deals with aliens who lose their home and are mistreated by humans. The story is told in the form of historical documents collected after the court has decided who is getting earth, Jacobson said.
She’s also working on a proposal she’s been asked to write for a textbook on young adult fiction. She’s still “in the thinking phase,” on that one, trying to decide what to do with it.
“I’m doing a lot of research and figuring out my feelings about textbooks, because it’s a mix,” she said. “I’m inside of traditional academia and then also trying to change a lot of things about traditional academia, and that can be kind of an interesting thing to figure out.
“But I think the University of Lynchburg is very welcoming to that. I feel very welcomed here with all my ideas.”