Getting unstuck on the path to writerly success

Q&A with editor and coach, Janna Marlies Maron

Raise your hand if you’ve been working on (or talking about) writing a book for… a long time. Anyone? Just me? (I know it’s not just me.)

You might say it’s an unavoidable part of the writer experience, dreaming of having your name on the cover of hardbound pages, the weighty and physical representation of writerly success.

Janna Marlies Maron knows there are a million things getting in the way of you and that hypothetical or in-progress creative project. In the process of getting her own words on the page, she’s become an expert in helping fellow writers get unstuck and finish that big story we’re all dying to share with the world. Her book coaching services include a free community for freelance nonfiction writers and a bootcamp on finding your voice and finishing your book.

So I’m excited to introduce you all to Janna, who has some great advice on daring to do the work we’re meant to do.

Writers, meet Janna!

Janna Marlies Maron on getting unstuck and believing in your big project

First, can you introduce yourself? Who is Janna Marlies Maron and how would you describe your work? 

I am a writer, editor, publisher, and facilitator of personal storytelling. Everything I do is in support of telling and sharing true, personal stories. I do this work by publishing a literary arts magazine called Under the Gum Tree, featuring writers on my podcast More to the Story, and working with authors as an editor and coach to help them finish their book manuscripts. I believe in the healing power of personal storytelling, and the world needs more of us to share ourselves with each other. My work is in service of that purpose.

What is the most common challenge writers turn to you for help on? 

Getting unstuck and finishing their manuscript. Most of my clients have been writing and working on a book manuscript for a long time—sometimes years—before they find me. By then they are so tired, drained, frustrated, and burnt out on their creative work that they really need to reframe how they think about and approach their work so that they can be reinvigorated to move forward again.

Can you tell us about a specific challenge you helped a client overcome in their writing career?

One client started working with me because she had a ton of material but couldn't figure out how it all fit together. So what I do is implement deadlines and my clients submit a certain number of words for developmental review. This client’s material was fragmented, but organized strategically it built on themes of grief, loss, and identity in a beautifully lyrical way. I helped her find a sequence for her material, and by the end of working with me she had a manuscript of 50k+ words. 

Another client had the beginnings of an essay collection and she worried that her topic was no longer relevant. So, same thing, she started submitting a certain number of words to me on a deadline schedule and immediately I knew her work was ready. Not only did she start submitting her essays to be published individually, but she also finished with a complete essay collection that won a manuscript contest with a small press! 

Although these writers’ projects are different, they both needed the same things: a professional to offer them an objective perspective on their work and to remind them that they do have what it takes to accomplish the goals they set for themselves. Sometimes writers get stuck just because they’ve been listening to their own internal negative narratives for so long, and a lot of the work that I do is challenging limiting beliefs that hold them back—that mixed with some good ol’ fashioned editing can work wonders.

You write about being afraid "to wear the red boots." What is a fear that held you back in your writing and how did you get past it?

The red boots story was an anecdote I used years ago to describe the feeling of fear around taking a risk or taking bold action that might draw criticism or judgement. Over time they’ve become a symbol of that unashamed feeling that I aspire to for myself and that I hope to inspire in others. 

I have a lot of anxiety about how my family will react to my memoir, which I’m currently working on. There’s already been emotional trauma with my family (more on that below), and I anticipate writing about that time may cause further tension. When I’m dealing with particularly difficult material, this anxiety often trips me up. Recently I couldn’t get past one section, so I shut the file, turned to my journal, and wrote a letter to my parents explaining why this book is important and why I have to write it. This is a letter I will likely never send to my parents, but that doesn’t matter because ultimately it turned into a way that I’ve reminded myself why this book is important and why I have to write it.

Can you think of a turning point in your writing career when it started to feel like you could really pull it off, making enough money doing the work you love?

Yes, it was when I started to trust myself and my abilities. I’ve definitely spent years in jobs I didn’t love, but I was still writing, editing, working with words, and I know these were opportunities to develop my skills. But I also know I probably stayed in some jobs too long, because I felt I needed the so-called security of a regular paycheck. But there was a time that I was getting more and more dissatisfied with my job and I didn’t know what to do. I went on a yoga retreat and was even feeling stress and anxiety just about being there. I hadn’t been doing yoga as regularly as I normally do and worried I wouldn’t be able to do the intensive practice of two sessions a day on the retreat. At the end of one of the first sessions, I stood in mountain pose breathing and heard a voice rise up within me that said, “You don’t need them.” I knew that meant that I have everything I need, and that I didn’t need anything or anyone else, to be successful and do what I really want to do.

What do your strategy sessions look like with writers and what kind of writers/work do you think benefit most from your coaching services? 

I work with women writing nonfiction books incorporating their personal story. These are women who have often arrived at a place in their lives where they feel disconnected from their writing and from their creative self. A lot of them have been working on a book for a long time, sometimes years, and they desperately want to finish it, but they feel stuck and they don’t know what to do next. When they start working with me they are frustrated and depleted. My work is to help reinvigorate them, help them see immediate progress, and reconnect them back to their creative work. I do that by using a framework that I developed to get them to a complete draft of their manuscript within nine months. The very first part of that framework is to create a personal vision statement for their life as a writer and then identify goals that support that vision. From there, we continue through the framework and make a plan for executing on those goals.

It's easy to assume that people who offer coaching and educational services in certain fields are always thriving in their own careers. But I think it's safe to assume that as writers, we ALL continue to face challenges and frustrating times on our professional paths. Can you tell us about something that continues to challenge you as a writer and how you're working on it? 

I continue to struggle with my own book manuscript, which is a memoir about my spiritual and physical healing. I was raised as an Evangelical Christian and married an atheist, which is a big no-no in Christan culture. It caused a lot of turmoil with my family and one month after announcing my engagement, I presented with the first symptom of what would eventually be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. It was a hugely emotional time in my life, and it continues to be every time I revisit those events by writing about them. 

What might you say to a writer who is frustrated and considering quitting writing professionally?

This would be a pretty big conversation. I’d definitely want to know more about the situation, and ask first and foremost what the writer’s vision and goals are—similar to the framework I use with my clients, I always start there because I believe anything we want to accomplish in life, personally or professionally, should align with who we envision ourselves to be, otherwise there will be all sorts of consternation that might cause us to consider throwing in the towel. From there I’d simply ask questions to get the writer to reflect and think about what changes they need to make to be more aligned with that vision, regardless of whether that involves quitting writing. 

What is your favorite part about the work you do?

Witnessing the transformation that my clients go through, and the excitement and relief they feel at the end of our time working together. One of my clients recently said to me that before working with me she didn’t think of herself as a creative or an artist, but she does now. That she has answered the call to prioritize her writing, and that the more she writes the more she understands herself as a writer. This is huge, and this is why I do what I do.

What is your least favorite? 

Admin stuff, but isn’t that the way it is for most small business owners? Beyond that, my least favorite part is just working alone, trying to figure things out on my own. I’m such a collaborative person and used to working with others to brainstorm ideas and problem solve. It’s why I’m so excited to be working with my colleague Karen Beattie, who works with me and is getting more and more involved with the business.  

Can you share one piece of writing that you're particularly proud of and why?

I wrote this piece and published it on my site as a way to announce my diagnosis with MS back in 2012.

It was pretty experimental for me when I wrote it, not my typical style, but I ended up loving how the fragments really get at the disjointed nature of the experience.

A big thank you to Janna Marlie Marons for joining us for a Q&A today!

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