“I like being slightly uncomfortable when I’m writing about something….It forces me to dig deeper and learn more than I’d probably ever use in the piece.”
— Jen. A Miller

 

Jen A. Miller is author of Running: A Love Story. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Runner’s World, espnW, Allure and SELF. She lives in Collingswood, N.J. with her Jack Russell Terrier Emily.

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Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation that can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

JEN: When I’m bored with work, I know I need to shoot higher. Before I even had the idea for Running: A Love Story, I wrote a travel guide about the Jersey Shore, and then I updated that book three years later for the second edition.

It was great! The books were fun and interesting, and lead to a lot of work that spilled over into my freelance life. I was known as Jersey Shore Jen for a while.

But it got a little staid. While things are always changing down the shore (especially after SaIMG_0163ndy), I could only write so many travel guides. When I was offered the opportunity to update the book for a third edition, I had a choice to make. It would have been relatively easy money, but I wasn’t excited about doing it. I had gotten comfortable being known as the Jersey Shore expert, but I started to feel hemmed in by it too.

I turned down the offer, and started talking about writing “the big book.”

It was a huge risk: professionally and personally, especially when writing is the thing that pays your bills. The path to book publication, even if you’ve written books before, can be an onerous one – not even including the idea! There’s writing the proposal to get the agent (I represented myself on my first two books), picking the agent, writing the proposal to sell the book, picking the publisher. One book project that I was told was a sure fire hit didn’t happen. That was a major blow, and it took me a while to try again. I’m glad I did.

When I reach that crossroads of do I stay or do I go now, I think about times when I took the shot and made it, and what a difference it’s made in my career today. Have I missed? Sure. But I don’t even remember all of those misses. So I take the shot.

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Meredith: How do you block out the chatter—yours and everyone else’s?

JEN: Sometimes it’s a matter of putting in your headphones, putting your head down and writing away. If I’m overwhelmed bIMG_3874y something, I’ll physically move locations, whether that’s to my bedroom, where I have a writing surface; to my mom’s sunporch; or even to a hotel. I wrote big chunks of Running: A Love Story while locked away in hotel rooms overlooking the ocean.

On a bigger level, though, I need to block out a lot of noise about trends, the writing industry, etc. Those things are important, but if I read every single piece about how freelance writing is terrible, how publishing is terrible, I wouldn’t have even started. It can be overwhelming, which is why running (and when I’m not training for a race, hiking) is so key to me. It hits pause on everything, even if it’s just a half hour or an hour, and makes everything not seem so bad. Of course that’s when I get some of my best ideas too.

I’ve taken a lot of long road trips too, that have had nothing to do with writing projects. They’ve helped take me out of my environment for a while, take me to somewhere new. When I’m back, I’m refreshed.

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Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book (memoir)? Corollary: how do you find the focus when the focus is…your life?

JEN: I can’t agonize over something forever, so I use deadlines to make me wrap things up. From the time I got the book offer for Running: A Love Story to when I turned in the final chapter of the manuscript was five months (that may sound short, but I had been working on the book for nearly a year before it sold). I also turned in the chapters on a rolling basis so that I was just about done with some of the early chapters two months after I sold the book.

Not everyone works this way. I do because I know that with long deadlines, I won’t work on it, and if I hold onto something too long, I’ll start picking at it, which can make it worse. Not to quote Frozen, but sometimes you really do need to let it go.

And if I’m at the end of my writing rope – with books or articles – I usually send it to my editor and say “tell me if this is finished.” Sometimes they see that it’s done – or not done – and I don’t. That’s why I’ve worked hard to build and maintain relationships with editors who are OK with that. It’s lead to some of my most popular (at least as they tell me) New York Times pieces. It’s so key to have that other person keep you in check.

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Meredith: The screenwriter, author and therapist, Dennis Palumbo, has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?

JEN: That’s interesting. When I wrote the Jersey Shore book, a criticism I sometimes heard was that I shouldn’t be allowed to write the book because I didn’t live there. I think that’s one reason I should have written the books. I’d been going to that area of the country since I was a baby, so I knew enough so that I wasn’t parachuting into the place, but I had enough of that visitor wonder and curiosity that I wasn’t skipping obvious things. When some locals read the books, they told me that they learned things about shops or buildings or landmarks they passed every day that they never knew.

I like being slightly uncomfortable when I’m writing about something – and that applies to article work too. It forces me to dig deeper and learn more than I’d probably ever use in the piece. It keeps me from being lazy.

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Meredith: What was the single most debilitating self-imposed rule you had to abandon in yourself and your writing—the rule that you thought made you feel safe and in control but actually didn’t—before you could put yourself on the page? How did you let it go—or maybe you didn’t?

JEN: Way back when I started out as a freelance writer, I told myself I couldn’t fail. On a macro level, that was “fail as a writer.” On a micro level, that was “fail in getting this assignment; fail at getting this interview,” those kinds of things. I quickly realized, though, that failing was OK. Not trying would have been a whole lot worse. And when I failed, I assessed what happened, and learned from it too.

I still trip up on this occasionally. I was 25 when I became a full time freelance writer, and I had much lower overall life costs then. If I failed, I could have slipped back into an office job. I don’t know anyone who would hire me know. Even though I’m further advanced in my career, that idea of failing is still there. I temper it by having some what I call “gimme” work. It’s not the most exciting stuff, but it pays the bills, and it allows me to take those chances I still need to take.

Visit Jen at JenAMiller.com.

[THANKS, JEN!]

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The Fiction Writer and The Muse

by Meredith Resnick

To celebrate Kim’s debut novel PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME, here’s vintage Hooper as she writes about writing. [And there’s also my interview with Kim.]

by Kim Hooper

In writing, there is much discussion of “the muse.” Who is it? Do we wait for him/her/it to appear, or go to work anyway? Does the fact that we talk to this muse make us schizophrenic?

When I think of my muse, I think of a very lazy queen, sitting atop her canopy bed, in satin pajamas. She smokes those long, skinny cigarettes and sips champagne at all hours of the day. She is snotty and judgmental. She has ideas, see, and she is not happy unless they are brought to life in the way she envisions. She doesn’t help with much of this bringing-to-life business. If anything, she gives me one line, usually at an inopportune time, like in the shower, or on a walk when I am without a pen, or in the middle of the night. How many times have I patted around my nightstand at 2AM in search of paper and a pen to please this demanding bitch?

The thing with muses is that, despite their demands, they are passive, not active. Mine is immortal, like a vampire (and judging by her preference for middle-of-the-night visits and the way I feel she sometimes sucks the creative life out of me, maybe she really is a vampire). She has all the time in the world. She teases me with ideas and just waits. She is happy if I finish that short story or novel, but I think she is also happy just sipping champagne and smoking long, skinny cigarettes.

It is my job, as the writer, to be active. It is my job to take what she gives me—inspiration from that news article I read, that tidbit from the family holiday gathering, a thud on the head with that same novel idea I’ve been mulling for months—and make it into something. If I take the initial first line she gives me and go with it, she’ll give me more. When I open a new Word document, she’s thrilled (or, actually, I think she’s the type to be “titillated”). If I set the table, in essence, she’ll continue to feed me.

Some days, I don’t have mental energy, and I may wait for that to return before I embark on a project, but I don’t really wait for the muse. To me, this phrase doesn’t even make sense. The muse is always there, waiting to be beckoned from her canopy bed. She might not come right away when I call her (she may be giving herself a pedicure), but she will come. She’ll hear the whir of the computer, or my pen scrawling across the paper, and she’ll come.

Visit Kim at Writing By NIght.  Also visit Kim at Writing By Day.

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Jeffrey Eugenides on writing The Virgin Suicides: “You write your first book in a great state of innocence.”

This video, part of The Paris Review’s My First Time series, moved me as a writer … but also as a person living life. It’s of Jeffrey Eugenides talking about the internal process of writing his first novel THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. And about so much more. “Each book that you write, you swim a long […]

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Your Muse? Loves Risk.

“…what we call the Muse is simply a form of intuition.  Intuition is a matter of successfully sync’ing your internal and external worlds so you can easily move about your environment based on your previous experience.” —Kayt Sukel Kayt Sukel is the author of two books including THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX: THE SCIENCE […]

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The 5-Question [YA/Children’s Author] Interview: Nora Baskin

Measuring ourselves against those we admire and aspire to be is what making good art is all about. I reach as high as I can. —Nora Baskin Nora Baskin is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults. She has written more than a dozen books, most inspired by her life events growing […]

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Judith Handelsman Smith on the spirituality of writing: A narrative meditation on ways to undo the fear of un-writing, unblock writing blocks, and heal

Judith Handelsman Smith is the author of three books including GROWING MYSELF: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY THROUGH GARDENING. After creating a mountain sanctuary for meditators, and teaching Vipassana meditation for a decade, she has refocused on writing. Her fourth book is a memoir of her lifelong spiritual awakening. Her blog is the most current outpouring of her writer’s voice, […]

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The 5-Question [Poet] Interview: Patty Seyburn

“I believe that the body knows something that intellectually, I can’t access.”   —Patty Seyburn   Patty Seyburn has published three volumes of poetry. Her third book, Hilarity, won the Green Rose Prize given by New Issues Press (Western Michigan University, 2009). Her two previous books of poems are Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, […]

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Writers: readers will never hold clean, simple writing against you

Alan Gelb is a writing coach and widely published author of fiction and nonfiction, including his latest Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story (Tarcher) and Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps (Ten Speed Press). His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, […]

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