Jan Owen claims Welsh and Cornish ancestry. She attended the Presbyterian Girls' College, Adelaide, and Ruyton Girls' Grammar, Melbourne. Owen left school before matriculating and worked as a laboratory assistant at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute 1957-1961. She then studied Arts part-time, gaining a BA at the University of Adelaide in 1963 and MA Qualifying in 1974. She travelled in Europe and Asia during 1965. Owen worked intermittently as a librarian 1961-1984, and in 1970 attained her Registration Certificate and Associateship of the Library Association of Australia, tutoring in the South Australian Institute of Technology Library Studies Department 1980-1983.
Owen has three children who, she says, are of paramount importance to her [personal communication]. She started writing in her late thirties - her first poem was written the day her youngest child started kindergarten - and had her first book published when she was forty-five. She was appointed to the Literary Arts Advisory Committee of the South Australian Department for the Arts in 1988) Owen travelled in Europe, spending a month in the Literature Board's Venice Studio in (1989), visiting Yugoslavia, Hungary and the UK, and spending six months in the B R Whiting Library, Rome (1994). She was writer-in-residence at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology (1990) and Brisbane Grammar School (1993), and at Kelly's Cottage, Hobart, for the Tasmanian Writers' Union. She has read on the ABC and 5UV, and has been a member of the Poets Union and Secretary of the Writers' Centre. In 1992-1993 she was poetry editor of the National Library journal, Voices.
Owen has been involved in numerous readings and workshops around Australia and, in various capacities, in the Adelaide Festival of Arts Writers' Week. In 1997 she received an Australia Council Literature Grant. She was writer-in-residence near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at Rimbun Dahan, the home of the Hijjas family who sponsor artists and the occasional writer. In 1998 she was a guest of the National Conference of the American Association of Australian Literary Studies, held at St Louis, and before returning to Australia she visited Canada, London, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Greece.
Owen works as a writer in schools from time to time and has acted as a mentor. She has lived at Aldinga Beach, South Australia, 'between the sea and the scrub'. She says of herself, 'I believe impossible things but sceptically; I often feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the world but I'm a cautious (dented) optimist; most of all I'm plagued and tantalized by what seems just beyond knowledge or understanding. I like poems because they are "small good things" and life is so short.'