The Determination to Tell a Story

I was introduced to Jane Devin by Deb. We were discussing business on the phone one day and she mentioned that another blog had recently finished her own year-long tour of the United States, only she’d done it alone and in a car. Deb warned me that Jane hadn’t discovered any patriotic utopia on her journey, but I followed the breadcrumbs anyway.

And I found a writer.

By the time I met Jane online, she was writing a book from a borrowed truck in the parking lot of a Starbucks. She seemed to be living on nothing more than fumes and words, and I was intrigued by the idea that one could write a book without a book deal and survive without a backup plan. She was just writing.

Several months later, Jane sent a tweet that had many in my corner of the Internet in tears.

“It’s done,” she said, and writers and wanna-be authors all over the world gasped and cheered and realized that finishing that damn book was possible. Writing and publishing are not the same thing, and Jane had proven it to all of us by boldly doing one without the promise of the other. She didn’t just write on the side; she didn’t dabble. She threw herself into telling the story until the story had been told, hoping there might be some reward at the end of it all.

I emailed her within the week and asked her if I could interview her. I didn’t know why or what part of her story I was so desperate to share, but I knew there was something… something magical and rare in the story of her writing her book. I hoped that by interviewing her we would all be able to touch a little piece of that magic, and maybe one or two of us would be changed by it.

This is that interview.

When did you decide to write your book?

While I was on my road trip one of the things I grappled with and had a lot of time to think about was why I had failed so many times to write this particular story. Over the course of the last ten or so years, I probably started to write some version of Elephant Girl a half a dozen times, but I would get three or four chapters into it and then just find myself blocked. The great thing about spending endless hours driving highways alone was that I finally came to terms with my own nature and what some might call my failings. I’m not a person who’s good at multi-tasking or segregating my roles in life. I realized that to be a writer—to finish a book—I needed to focus on being a writer. I needed to surrender the notion that squeaking by paycheck-by-paycheck, doing work I found mentally and physically exhausting, was somehow benefitting me, because it wasn’t. When I realized how much I could live without—when I came to realize that writing made me feel more purposeful and human than a pair of new shoes or a full refrigerator—the commitment followed. The blocks disappeared and I found myself determined to write the book as soon as my road trip ended last August.

What is this book about?

The one sentence description is “the story of a challenged life lived with imagination.” The more visceral description comes from a memory I have of myself at 10 years old, frantically scouring the library shelves for answers: experiences and feelings that reflected my own. I didn’t find more than scraps of my own life in other people’s stories, though. Not at 10 and not at 45. Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” So I finally did. I told the unsanitized truth about the long-term affects of childhood trauma. About poverty, dead-ends, broken systems, being on the outside looking in, having no place to turn, and making desperate decisions—and, of course, the wellspring of hope, fantasy, and idealism that made my survival and recovery possible.

Why did you decide to write this memoir first and not write about your trip around the US?

I’d been carrying the skeleton of Elephant Girl around for years. I felt like I owed her a flesh and blood finish before I moved on. There’s also the matter of letting a story marinate for a while and letting time bring a fuller, richer perspective. The road trip story, I think now, will be a novel and it will be less about traveling than about love, women, contradictions, and bridges built and burned.

How long did it take you to finish the book?

It took eight months of ten to twelve hour days, seven days a week, then another two months of rigorous editing and polishing after that. I’m still making minor changes and probably will up to the day of publication. I think most writers feel there’s always something they can tweak to make their manuscript better.

Where/how were you writing it? Why?

I spoke a bit about this joyful misery on my blog, but I wrote the entire book in Los Lunas, New Mexico, in a Starbucks parking lot. It was simply the only place I could go where I felt comfortable. Would I have preferred a space of my own? God, yes. (I have had a near life-long dream about having a tiny place by an ocean and a mahogany desk). But one of the things I learned on the road is that I could spend a lifetime waiting in vain for the “right” or “perfect” circumstance. I was done doing that, so decided that no matter how uncomfortable things got, I’d stick it out until the final page, and I did. The funny thing is that now I really want a car of my own to write in—I kind of got used to writing in a cramped space.

What were the biggest obstacles you faced during the writing?

Oh, Britt… there were so many. Some were expected, like the times I went hungry, or was in pain from an abscessed tooth I couldn’t afford to fix. Others, though, caught me by surprise, were much more critical, and had to do more with my own internal workings and my relationship to the world and other people. While I was on the road, I had fallen deeply in love for the first time in my life with someone who (I later learned) didn’t love me back. I had to fight dwelling in that heart-ripping rejection and wasn’t always successful. Then there were some people around me with problems of their own, who weren’t being truthful with me or with each other, and I had to put blinders on instead of getting wrapped up in dysfunction. In short, my biggest obstacle was myself—my thoughts, my feelings, my focus. It took a conscientious, every day, sometimes hourly effort to push back my own demons and give myself over to gratitude for what was positive—the people I love who love me despite my imperfections, the support I receive from friends and readers, my writing, and all the possibilities in my future.

How did you get past them so you could continue on and eventually finish?

There’s just that one word again. Determination. When you reach the end of one road, you can either go find another or you can stall there waiting for some miracle to come along. I’ve come to the belief that it’s people—not God, not the Universe—who make most of life’s miracles happen. I’ve been blessed to know some miracle-makers and aspire to be one myself.

Now that you’re done and waiting for a publisher, etc. – do you feel like it was worth it? Why or why not?

If no one ever reads my book, it will have been worth it because I finally told the story that was in my heart to tell. If a few thousand people read my book and some of those people say, ‘Yes, you’ve told the truth of part of my story, too’, then it will have been worth it because I truly believe that the real stories of many disenfranchised women’s lives aren’t often fully told, or are told from the privilege of a bird’s eye view. If a million people read it, then perhaps that will be one of those miracles I spoke of earlier and I’ll finally get that room of my own and a mahogany desk.

I pray that she gets her car, her room, and her mahogany desk.

And I pray that all of us with a story to tell find the determination we need to tell it completely.

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