Friends with a love of written word form Prairie Fire Wordsmiths

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Granite Falls Advocate Tribune

Christine Utz, of Minneapolis, and Jessie Hennen, of Wood Lake, recently formed a business called Prairie Fire Wordsmiths, offering editing services and education to those with an interest in the art of the written word. 

Christine and Jessi both attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, graduating with Master of Fine Arts in fiction degrees in 2016 and 2014, respectively.  “We had a fantastic time at Iowa, but also (as in any MFA school) received lots of conflicting or overly proscriptive feedback about our novels and short stories. Both of us realized that we were interested in delivering editorial thoughts that are actually helpful,” says Jessie.  With that experience, the two both separately worked in the Minneapolis area on a freelance basis, Christine learning ghostwriting, and Jessie providing novel and essay edits to friends and students. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Jessie and her husband Miles moved to his family’s farm in Wood Lake and she considered what she could do in this area for a career. With Miles’s experience building websites and a plethora of time on their hands, Jessie realized that her multiple editing clients could benefit from her having a website that listed her rates. 

Meanwhile, Christine finding herself in a similar situation, was thinking the same thing. “Two years ago, I was working as the Business-to-Business Coordinator at an independent bookstore in Minneapolis when I was approached with the opportunity to freelance for a local publishing company. They needed a writer and editor for several of their nonfiction titles, and I was curious what that role might involve. Turns out I really enjoy helping writers organize their ideas and research into a cohesive narrative. Almost a year into the pandemic, Jessie and I started talking about forming a collective and promoting our services through an official website,” Christine says.

Christine Utz and Jessie Hennen

“We’re a good match. We have overlapping but different skill sets. For instance, as an editor, I’m more apt to focus on thematic concerns, and Christine has, among other talents, the gift of practicality: she’ll see that earlier on the page, it was day, and now it’s suddenly (in the span of a minute) night,” says Jessie. The two decided to collaborate, and from December to March of 2020, they spent time organizing their website, ideas, and rates. In April of 2020, the two launched their website, offering writers everything from big-picture drafting, to stage consultations, to ghostwriting, to proofreading. “By the end of April, I was using our new letterhead to write to my first official Prairie Fire Wordsmiths client, a retiree looking for feedback on his first romance novel,” says Jessie.

The site operates as a team of freelancers using one website to make contacts with those looking for services. “We delegate services depending on our skill sets and availability. We offer all writers an informal consultation for free; afterward, depending on who’s a better fit, Christine or I will be in touch. For example, she’s an ace ghostwriter, and I’ve never done it; I’m an obsessive proofreader who can get lost for minutes debating the placement of a semicolon,” says Jessie.

Jessie has also held classes at the Loft in the Twin Cities, such as a recent five-hour second draft boot camp. Locally, Jessie has been using the Emerging Artists room at the K.K. Berge Gallery of the Granite Area Arts Council to host evening writing classes for interested adults, starting with a class titled “Write Fun Fiction”, and more recently, hosting a memoir-oriented workshop. “I noticed in our first workshops, people in Granite Falls have interesting stories to tell,” says Jessie. “Expert forager Nicole Zempel has been coming regularly to work on a book about the natural world. One woman who worked as a science teacher and computer programmer in the 1970s has been simultaneously writing about her life and creating stories about Norwegian folk mythology for children.”

Currently, in-person classes are paused due to the rise in COVID-19 variant cases. “In the spring when everything hopefully settles out, we want to develop youth (child and teen) writing classes at the Granite Area Arts Council. Artist and writer Autumn Cavender-Wilson and I have also talked about establishing a Granite Area writers’ workshop where people meet biweekly or monthly to pass around their drafts,” Jessie says.

The most enjoyable part of the process of opening Prairie Fire Wordsmiths for Jessie has been watching clients improve their drafts with focused work and teaching classes to the community. “It's amazing how many things people are able to fix with a few hints, and how different the finished product can be from its beginning. Some writers have worked with me for multiple novels or memoirs; I can confirm that their skills level up with each new book,” she says. The most challenging part has been marketing, “In 2022, I’ve vowed to figure out how to attract more clients who find us via search functions rather than by word of mouth. However, that being said, I’d love to work with any Granite-area writers who aren’t sure where to go with their next draft: meeting in person is always delightful,” she says.

For Christine, the most enjoyable part is the work itself. “I love taking a rough draft and helping the author wrangle it into something more compelling and aesthetically pleasing.  While we often imagine writing as a solitary endeavor (and the initial generative process usually is), it’s also very collaborative and community-based. It takes a village – something Jessie and I know very well, which is why we want to help other writers along in the process,” says Christine.

In addition to Prairie Fire Wordsmiths, Jessie became a co-Director of the Granite Area Arts Council in September. “I have had a fantastic time planning arts events around Granite Falls, including our recent fairy-house village by the Christmas tree and our live events series at the Bluenose Gopher (Taste of Minneapolis), my portion of which is a storytelling and sketch comedy series called A Granite Falls Home Companion,” she says.

Jessie and Miles are also working towards turning their farm into a non-profit art farm that will host resident writers and artists. “My long-term goal is to foster the already-existing writing scene around Marshall and Granite Falls,” Jessie says.

For more information about Prairie Fire Wordsmiths, check out their website at: prairiefirewordsmiths.com.