Writing has been my professional path since 1985. That path is made up of a variety of forms: my first job was writing book reviews for a big Hollywood agency and then I went on to write a far number of unsold screenplays and one produced TV episode; a smattering of short stories, essays, and two (and a half) first drafts of novels; six non-fiction books with something like a million copies in print in nine languages; a national magazine column for three years; and fourteen years of a weekly online letter, sometimes more than that.
When I look back at all these years of work, the most vital thing I’ve learned, the writing wisdom I relearn every single day that I write (which is five days a week) is immediately clear to me: be stubborn.
You see, writing is very hard for me. Nobody said, “Jen, you’ll be a writer,” except my seventh grade English teacher who said, “You should be a writer,” over her shoulder. True, I devoured books, loved movies, loved figuring out how stories and people worked, but words themselves — syntax, spelling, putting it together in a coherent, readable way? Nope.
My struggle to write is due in part to my learning challenges (grouped under the label dyslexic) and a health condition that often muddles my brain. But honestly, I don’t care why writing is a challenge for me. What matters is I don’t stop.
I didn’t believe my high school friend when I told him my first book was being published and he said, “But you can’t write a book; you can’t spell.” I didn’t believe my college friend who said, “You’re not a writer; it’s too hard for you.” I didn’t believe USC film school when, after finishing my undergraduate degree, they turned me down for grad school in screenwriting. I didn’t believe the agents who turned me down, the people who didn’t buy my screenplays or the first draft of my first book proposal. Most of all, I didn’t believe myself when I would whisper, “You suck. It shouldn’t be so hard. Go do something more useful. Go do something easier.”
Being stubborn is my secret writing superpower
and it’s one I highly recommend.
Don’t believe anyone who says, “Quit,” especially yourself. Don’t assume you will stop needing to be stubborn after you’ve had some success either. Eight years ago I wrote five very successful books in fairly quick succession, but since then I have only published two books (one is a guided journal coming out from National Geographic in December – stay tuned).
So I bring on the stubborn. I bring on the discipline to write first thing, after yoga and meditation, before email. I bring on learning and good mentoring. I use my own medicine. Most of all, I bring on the daily practice of writing and I place my stubborn faith there.
Writing will rarely be easy for me. My dreams of crafting stories like Ray Bradbury or Lev Grossman or essays like Rebecca Solnit or Joan Didion remain dreams. Oh, well. Here is what I care about: that I keep learning. That I keep putting words down. That I never let despair win, at least not for long.
That I put my head down and keep going, word by word.
P.S. We open registration for the annual Taos writing retreat on November 13th at 10am MT. Please go here and check out the page so you can know if you want to grab a spot. The retreats sell out in about a day. Would love to see you in the New Mexico light.