Featured Writer on Wellness: Jen Grow

Filed in Writers on Wellness by on June 18, 2015 • views: 2404

Jen Grow Main ShotMy biggest physical challenge is finding a comfortable place to write.

I get terrible backaches from sitting in the same position for long stretches.

I’ve tried different chairs, different desks and writing tables, different screen and keyboard angles. Sometimes I sit on my bed, my legs stretched out straight, my back propped up by pillows. Sometimes I sit cross-legged.

I’ve even tried standing up to write, but have a harder time concentrating while I’m standing. So I rotate through the house and sit in different rooms and then I get up a lot to stretch.

Write or Exercise Outside?

Another challenge is staying inside. I love to be outside as much as possible, but I usually don’t have enough time in the day to both exercise and write.

I have a demanding full-time job with limited free time, so I often have to choose between writing and exercising outside. In the spring and summer I like to write with pen and paper just so I can be outdoors.

Acupuncture and massage help my back. I take the dogs for long walks. I drink lots of water and eat healthy foods. I meditate and do yoga nidra (which is another way of saying I take naps while pretending to meditate). I’m all about feeling better.

Jen with her pets Byrdie (the dog) and Francine (the cat).

Battling Self-Doubt—and NOT with Sugar

Beyond my physical frustrations, my biggest obstacle to writing is my own head. Self-doubt is a giant pain in the ass. Some days, I have doubts about my doubts.

I used to really struggle with depression, but after I gave up sugar a couple of years ago, my bouts of depression decreased dramatically. I had a cause-and-effect moment and realized that what I was doing to “treat” myself in the moment (binging on ice cream and chocolate or watching hours of really bad television, for example) actually made me feel worse in the long run.

I still get low from time to time, but writing makes me feel better.

Even when the writing itself is not going well, I feel glad for having done it.

Maybe I Will Fail, But I’m Going to Do It Anyway

Now, when the self-doubt starts talking, I answer it by saying, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I will fail completely and make a giant fool of myself, but I’m going to do it, anyway. Let’s just see what happens next.”

I give myself permission to fail. That opens up a window, an opportunity. For a while, I went off the self-help deep-end and read all kinds of books to help me “overcome” self-doubt. But the more I focused on “fixing” it, the worse I felt. It was a form of self-rejection.

So I had to make friends with it. I had to acknowledge that even self-doubt has its uses. In some ways, it makes me a better writer. It makes me pay very close attention.

Sometimes I think I shouldn’t talk about self-doubt because it makes me sound like a nut.

There is this false notion (that I buy into, occasionally) that insists we should feel confident and self-assured all the time, that self-doubt is for weaklings.

But really, if I waited to write until I felt like writing, I’d never finish anything. It takes a lot of courage to do it anyway. The alternative is to give up writing because my self-doubt is larger than my will to write. That’s not really an option for me.

Also, the ten-minute rule helps. I tell myself I only have to write for ten minutes and then I can quit. That’s a great way for me to break through the stew of self-doubt and perfectionism. Knowing that I can stop is freeing and usually allows me to write for much longer periods once I get started.

The Darkest Moment: When I Quit Writing

After a really bad break-up in 2006, I gave up writing. I was depressed and angry and broke.

I had too many expectations for my creative career and was putting too much pressure on my writing to support me and make me feel better.

At the same time, I felt like a fraud calling myself a writer. I’d been having a hard time getting a collection of stories published despite the fact that it had been the finalist in a couple of contests. It was frustrating.

So I quit writing fiction. I mean, I really quit. I made a vow. But pretty soon, the need to write crept up, again. So, I started writing nonfiction just for fun. I told myself I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

I wrote short personal reflections about walking in the woods with my dog and emailed them to friends and family. I got a lot of positive feedback. Friends suggested I write a book.

Then, a dog-walking friend who owned a bookstore read my stories and encouraged me to put my work back out into the world, again. I’m really grateful to him for that. He doesn’t even know how much he helped me.

The other thing that was very important—crucial, in fact—is that I was helping someone else. A friend wanted to write a YA novel and asked me to be his writing coach, teacher and editor. I didn’t realize how much my willingness to help to him would really help me. His dedication allowed me to find my way back to writing again. I wanted success for him, and that fed me.

Staying on the Path: Don’t Let Bad Grammar Stop You

I haven’t been exceptionally true to the path of writing, except that I haven’t been able to quit. It seems like I don’t have much say in the matter. I get a little squirrely and anxious when I don’t write for long stretches of time.

There are so many more writers who are more disciplined, or more well-read, better with grammar, or more proactive about supporting the writing community, but I keep getting carried along by some deeper force that I don’t fully understand.

Also, I’m a glutton for punishment. I’m highly competitive and driven to succeed, an over-achiever disguised as a slacker, so I keep going at it. Some days, I think it would be easier to be a plumber. Or a gardener. But I love to revise. It’s the most fun for me, a healthy obsession.

Advice to Young Writers: Be Happy for Other People

For me, discipline, rejection, and professional envy were the three most difficult things I needed to grow through on the path to being a writer.

When I taught fiction writing, I’d tell my students that the hardest part is staying committed, putting in the time and hours when all your friends seem to be doing much more fun things. It is so easy to become distracted by everything else. Writing requires time. Lots and lots of time if you want to write well.

Also, in the early days, learning how to accept rejection again and again is hard. But it is important to learn how not to let it color your outlook or attitude in a negative way.

Finally, there will always be other people who seem to be publishing more than you, getting more attention than you. Instead of feeling envious, it’s more important to feel generous.

I heard the Dali Lama speak once, and his basic message was this: Be happy for other people.

That is especially true for writers. To live in a state of envy and negativity is to slow your own creative growth and stifle your success.

So I’d tell my students in every class—in fact, it was written on the syllabus—“Want success for your classmates as much as you want it for yourself.”

Along those lines, I’d also say, redefine success for yourself because it will not be what you think it should be, it will not look like how you’ve imagined.

* * *

Jen Grow is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review and many others. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. Her collection, My Life as a Mermaid and Other Stories, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition and is forthcoming in June 2015. She lives in Baltimore with the artist, Lee Stierhoff, and their two cats and two dogs.

For more information on Jen and her writings, please see her website or follow her on Twitter.

My Life as a MermaidMy Life as a Mermaid, and Other Stories: This debut collection stares down the dark side of what it means to live ‘happily ever after.’

The characters — among them, a suburban wife, an alcoholic mother, two homeless men, and an injured veteran — grapple with being voiceless and feeling trapped.

Available at Dzanc Books and Amazon.


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Comments (3)

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  1. liz says:

    What a fantastic post! It really resonated with me as I struggle with finding a comfortable position to write in too and self-medicate with sugar so you are definitely not alone!! Thank you so much for sharing – I wish you well in your writing and all you put your mind to! More please!

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    I love your approach to self-doubt! Making friends with it and giving yourself permission to fail are far healthier than trying to eliminate it completely. I also really love your encouragement to be happy for others. You are doing your students a tremendous service in teaching them that lesson while they’re still young!