Alumna Jennifer McGaha '90, Two Goats, and a New Book

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Jennifer McGaha

by Karrigan Monk '18

These days Jennifer McGaha ‘90 spends her time teaching at Carolina Day School, writing and maintaining a small farm, but it hasn’t always been that way. To get here, she had to rebuild her life after a home foreclosure — all with the help of a few goats.

McGaha grew up in a middle class neighborhood and in 1985 made her way to UNC Asheville for college.

“It was a cool time in Asheville. It was before Asheville really was the Asheville you know now. It was very different back in the ‘80s and it was just starting to become the kind of bohemian place it is today,” McGaha said. “It was a really interesting time to be a student there.”

McGaha began her college career as a communication and sociology double major, but soon dropped communication to focus on sociology.

She said her favorite moments on campus were spent in Governors Village hanging out with friends with nicknames like Kool-Aid and playing hacky sack.

“It was a laid back place. It was a place where you could kind of be yourself, which I loved,” McGaha said. “Some of my favorite classes were sociology classes with Keith Bramlett, who has since retired, I think. He just got me to think about things in such a new way and he was amazing.”

After graduating from UNC Asheville with a degree in sociology in 1990, McGaha went on to get a master’s degree in English and an MFA in Creative Writing.

Although McGaha said she never saw writing as a career, she soon found herself writing for literary journals and magazines and later blogging for The Huffington Post.

When the U.S. housing market reached an all-time low in 2012, everything changed for McGaha. The event completely changed her life and she writes about it in her upcoming memoir, Flat Broke with Two Goats, out January 2018.

“In 2012 we lost our home to foreclosure and so we moved to this cabin out in the woods. It’s a hundred-year-old cabin and so we really just kind of had this total life shift where we started homesteading,” McGaha said. “It’s a book about that process and about learning to raise goats because I knew nothing.”

McGaha said she relied heavily on stories about her grandparents and great-grandparents in order to survive in her newfound lifestyle. She included many of these stories as well as instructions on how to make goat cheese and soap and recipes in the book.

Poverty made the decision to start homesteading for them, according to McGaha. Looking back, she said she and her family may have had other options.

“I guess we had options and it didn’t feel like it really at the time, but I think we did. We had five dogs at our other house. We lived out in the country and we had five dogs and we had a cat and any other rental situation we would have ended up having to give them up and the cabin was almost free,” McGaha said. “It’s on 53 acres so we had full use of that land and so we just decided to try it and see what happened and we weren’t giving up our dogs. First things first.”

The cabin was given to the family by long-time friends of McGaha’s.

When the family finally got back on their feet, McGaha went back to school to get her MFA. It was here she wrote the first drafts of Flat Broke with Two Goats. She said this process was helpful as she was able to write about 30 pages a month and then have her mentors give their input.

In general, McGaha describes her writing style as chaotic. She said she cannot write in bursts of time, but rather needs to set aside large chunks of time to get through a first draft. It is only after she has written a complete draft that she will go back and begin editing.

The same kind of determination McGaha utilizes in her writing helped her to get back on her feet after foreclosure, keep her dogs with her family, learn from her own family history and create a homesteading lifestyle she still uses today.

In describing her current life, McGaha does so simply: “We have a farm. We raise dairy goats and we have chickens.”