Jennifer J. Stewart on Writing for the Long Haul

Jennifer J. Stewart published her first middle grade novel, If That Breathes Fire We’re Toast, around the same time I published mine, and we’ve been part of one another’s writing support systems ever since meeting at a book fair not long after. So it seems especially appropriate that today Jennifer contributes a post about the importance of community and support to the Writing for the Long Haul series.

The Importance of Writer Friends

When my first middle grade novel1 was published, waaaay back in 1999 by Holiday House, I wasn’t part of a community of writers. I didn’t know any other writers. Not a single one.

You see, I hadn’t told anyone I was writing a book, except my husband and my three small daughters who had demanded that I tell a story about a dragon.

In fact, when the book came out, I was working in Nepal as a medical volunteer. It’s probably not a promotional strategy anyone would recommend, although I did get another novel out of it.2

So if you think I was pretty hermit-like, you would be right. I didn’t work in a garret, though. The dining room table did the trick, holding my laptop and my printed out manuscript pages. From where I sat, green editing pen in hand, I could keep an eye on my youngest daughter, someone who could be trusted to get into trouble regularly.

Little by little, though, I started meeting other writers. And most of those writers became my friends. As it turns out, people who write for children and teens are nice, although not exactly normal, because they do spend a good portion of their day working with imaginary people.

I became part of a community, both in Arizona and online. And now, I couldn’t imagine managing a writing life without those writer friends.

Here’s the thing: you need to be able to talk to other people who get what you are doing. People who understand that sometimes publishing can be a rollercoaster ride. People you can celebrate with, people you can commiserate with, people to hang with on Fridays at an undisclosed location, where you can vent and laugh and drink coffee, after spending the week holed up in your home office.

I think no one gets through life without a year that sucks like a black hole. Mine happened to be 2011. My mom died unexpectedly, then my developmentally delayed aunt died as I was becoming her guardian, then another aunt was critically injured in a head-on collision, then a cousin, her son, died on Mother’s Day, then we found out that my husband’s job was being eliminated, and finally, I found out my sweet little dog had cancer, and I put him down one morning in September.

Not my little dog, too! I had reached my limit.

I called Janni3, and explained why I didn’t feel much like meeting for lunch and a writing session—I had only recently started working again on two projects I’d abandoned when my mom died. Janni asked me if I could use an emergency gelato delivery.

Could I. It was the perfect distraction. Until my middle daughter called, and seemed oddly oblivious to the death of her beloved childhood pet . . .

“Is Daddy home?” she asked.

“No, he’s at work,” I said. “Why?” I had talked to my husband about the decision to euthanize our dog, but I hadn’t heard from him since, which I had just realized was strange. Peculiar, even.

“On Facebook, people are saying to pray for people at Davis-Monthan [Air Force Base].” She started crying.

Googling, I found out that a gunman with a semi-automatic weapon was suspected of being holed up somewhere on the air force base, where my husband worked, and that the whole facility was on lockdown, as each building was systematically searched.

There are many thoughts that go through your mind in such a situation, and not one of them is sane.

I tried calling my husband, and couldn’t get through. I remembered that his cell phone didn’t work all that well from inside his building. No one was answering any of the landline numbers. It’s going to be okay, I told myself. My name is Jennifer, not Job.

Janni managed to use logic to help, pointing out that the air force base was a very large place, and that the odds that the gunman was near my husband were small. Not zero, but small. I was very, very, very glad she was there.

Fortunately, an hour later, my husband texted me that he was safe, although confined to a windowless physiotherapy room with the support staff and his patients.

Later it was determined that there had been no gunman, but the threat seemed very real at the time, and indeed Davis Monthan management had been emailing and texting its employees saying there might be not one, but two armed men.

Somehow, the experiences of that year put things in perspective. I had been through hell, and I had survived. What did I want to do now?

I had cried enough. I started writing again, racing against my grief. I finished two novels before that horrible year finally ended—one of which needs a lot of work and a very patient editor if it is ever going to see the light of a book contract, and a second which after revision still makes me smile and sometimes laugh out loud. That one is going out on submission.

Whether that manuscript gets accepted or rejected, I know two things: that if the latter happens, it isn’t the worst thing in the world; and that there are people who’ve got my back.

I can keep writing, knowing that.

Thank you, writer friends. You know who you are.

1. If That Breathes Fire, We’re Toast!
2. Close Encounters of a Third World Kind
3. Janni Lee Simner

Jennifer J. Stewart writes seriously funny books for kids, including If That Breathes Fire We’re Toast, which was on VOYA’s Best Fantasies of the Year list, The Bean King’s Daughter, the multiple-state-award nominated Close Encounters of a Third World Kind, and the picture book The Twelve Days of Christmas in Arizona. She’s an emeritus board member and volunteer with the non-profit Make Way for Books, which promotes literacy among Southern Arizona’s youngest readers.

She’s brought your series host emergency gelato at least as often as I’ve brought it to her.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

About the Writing for the Long Haul series

4 thoughts on “Jennifer J. Stewart on Writing for the Long Haul”

  1. Thank you, Jennifer, for contributing to Janni’s inspiring “Long Haul” posts. Both of you have been huge in motivating my own creative efforts. Here’s the thing—You are right. You DO have to mingle with others who understand the ‘world’ you live in.

    Janni said something once about how her ‘Faeries’ exist, not in her head, but rather she exists in their world. So it is with writers (and illustrators!).

    Thank you both for sharing your worlds.

    1. Hi, Tom! I’m glad my piece resonated with you. Janni and I have spent many hours talking about faeries and our characters, and they have to be as real as they can be for us to argue over what they would do or not do. Sometimes people look at us funny when we talk about hurting them (in Janni’s stories, more so than in mine).

  2. Jennifer, thank you for sharing these stories, and I’m so glad that you came out the other end of that terrible year still writing. I can’t wait to read a new book from you. 🙂 And I’m so glad you have Janni and other good writer friends in your life!

    1. Thank you, Tara. It’s funny. I used to think that writers existed in a vacuum, that all you needed was friends. You do, but you need writer friends as well.

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