OW! readers are in for a real treat this month. We had the opportunity to sit and chat with Jenny Block. Jenny recently released, Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage (Seal Press, June 2008).
Her essay, “On Being Barbie” is included in the anthology It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters and she blogs weekly about open relationships at www.tangomag.com.
Her Tango essays, “Portrait of an Open Marriage” and “Portrait of an Open Marriage, Take Two” are slated to appear in an anthology edited by Rebecca Walker about modern families (Winter 2009).
Jenny holds both her Bachelor's and her Master's in English from Virginia Commonwealth University and taught college writing for nearly ten years.
Jenny chatted with our own Chynna Laird about her book, Open, as well as sharing her writing pearls of wisdom with our readers on how we can get our work out there and noticed. Sit back, grab a cup of your favorite java and enjoy, as much as we did, getting to know blogger, columnist, and author, Jenny Block.
WOW: Welcome to WOW! Jenny. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy book tour to sit with us for a chat. We’re thrilled to have you here. I usually like to start from the start…when did you get bitten by the writing bug?
Jenny: I think I’ve always liked to write. As a kid, I would write and illustrate stories and then craft my own books. My mom still has one of them about an ant, I believe. That love of writing stayed with me and led to my being an English major in college. I feel like I have to write.
WOW: That is so cool that your Mom saved one of your first creations! At what point did you decide to focus on your love for writing and make it your career choice?
Jenny: Relatively recently, actually. I was a college writing instructor for nearly ten years. I wrote academic publications like test banks and workbooks and I had a few pieces of memoir and magazine writing published. But about three years ago, my mentor (the executive editor at a major publishing house who has taken me under his wing) said flat out, “If you keep working on other people’s writing (i.e., teaching) you’ll never do your own.” So, I left teaching and pursued a full-time writing career. That was the summer of 2005.
WOW: Very wise advice from your mentor and so true. How did your educational and teaching backgrounds help to prepare you for your current writing endeavors?
Jenny: I can often hear my own lessons in my head, “Just write. Don’t censor yourself in early drafts. Don’t be scared to lose pieces in the editing process. Editing is where the real work gets done. Show, don’t tell. Write honestly. Everything else will come.”
WOW: You know, I think it’s important to take note of those lessons. A lot of us first-time storywriters get so caught up in perfecting the work, we forget about the story we’re trying to tell. I especially like, “Just write. Write honestly. Everything else will come.”
Now, let’s talk about your nonfiction article work. How did you get started writing for magazines and newspapers? Are there any subjects you specialize in or avoid? How did you handle rejection (if you had any)?
Jenny: Quite honestly I went to the James River Writers’ Festival and I cornered an editor. I nicely, but persistently, pitched ideas until he said yes. That was my first, major, nonfiction article work and was a piece about Nimrod Hall (a family resort and artists’ retreat) for Virginia Living Magazine.
I tend to write about arts and travel and sex. I don’t necessarily avoid anything. But, I tend to stick to what I like and know, which means I don’t write anything about sports or accounting. I got plenty of rejection letters. And it’s never fun. I just try to remind myself that even George Orwell had a hard time finding a publisher. Rumor has it that he once received a rejection letter that read, "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A."
WOW: [Laughs] Boy, I’ll bet that publisher kicked himself later on! And I agree—it’s so important to write about what you like and know. I think it comes across in our writing when we dislike the subject.
Another area that you fit into, and that we’ve covered here at WOW! is as a “writer mama.” Do/did you find it difficult writing and being a mommy? How did/do you balance the two?
Jenny: I don’t think it’s any more difficult than any other mommying role. One of my best friends has three children and her schedule is definitely worse than mine. It’s hard, no question. But writing is something I have to do. And when I feel fulfilled, I can be a better mommy. So, I work every day to balance those roles.
Some days, I’m better at it than others. I’ve gotten used to hearing my nine-year-old daughter saying, “Can you play with me or do you have to write now?” But I’ve also gotten used to her saying, “My mommy’s a writer. Isn’t that cool?” It’s afforded me the opportunity to take her to places and events that I likely would not have been able to otherwise. I try to remind myself of that when I’d rather be playing cards with her than writing about whether you can die from eating the silicon packets that come in your shoes. But parents work. I work. And I think we both are better for it.
WOW: Oh, I don’t know. Discussing silicone packets can be quite an exciting time! [Laughs] Seriously, though, I hope our writer mamas out there take note of your advice. That’s fantastic. Okay, you’ve written several articles on the subject of family as well as the various views of marriage. Was this how you prepared your platform for your latest book, Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage?
Jenny: Definitely. I wrote a piece for Tango magazine that was about my open marriage and that became the inspiration for Open. But, I also wrote a number of essays and memoir pieces that really helped me get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, depending on the topic you are attempting to tackle. There is really no way to prepare for your first book. No matter how ready you think you are, the journey brings surprise after surprise.
WOW: Trying to break in a future book idea with essays and memoir pieces is definitely a great place to start! Do you have any advice for the novice writer on how they can develop a solid platform for their books?
Jenny: Write. Blog. Sell articles on the topic. Become the resident expert, the go-to girl. Read. Keep an ear out in terms of trends on your topic. And believe it’s going to happen.
WOW: I’m so glad you said to believe it will happen. I think that’s a lot of the battle: confidence in ourselves and our work. Okay, let’s jump right in and talk more about Open. The subject matter can be considered controversial for some people. Did you find it challenging finding an agent or publisher who would take on your project? How did you finally win one over?
Jenny: I am a lucky girl. Seal Press came to me after seeing the piece in Tango and other writing I had done and asked if I was interested in writing a book on the subject. I was a known quantity when it came to that topic.
I recommend going to conferences and festivals and events where you can meet and talk to writers and publishers in person. But, the key is to do your homework. Know the market. Follow each agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines and always keep in mind that publishers and agents want to sell books. So, what you have to do is be prepared to explain to them why it will sell over the other 400,000 or so books that come out each year.
Get a mentor. Someone who has been around the block, if you’ll pardon the pun. And surround yourself with writers. Writing begets writing.
“Unless you’re a rock star, there has to be something both universal and unique to make your story worth sharing with people other than your Aunt Shirley.”
WOW: Some fantastic advice to make note of there. And no apologies necessary for puns around here. Memoirs are such a tough sell right now. But, I wouldn’t exactly put Open into that category. To me, it felt more like a reference tool that you put your personal insight and experience into to make it feel more real. Was that your intention?
Jenny: Honestly, I set out to write more of a memoir. But, you’re right; it can be a hard sell. That’s why I was so lucky to have such an incredible editor at Seal Press, Brooke Warner. She kept me from falling into the pit of self-indulgence and forced me to really look at my story and what I wanted to say. Daily, she pushed me to answer the question: So what? Why should my story be told? Unless you’re a rock star, there has to be something both universal and unique to make your story worth sharing with people other than your Aunt Shirley. A good editor can help you to do that. And I couldn’t have done it without Brooke.
I also couldn’t have done it without my writing group—the Wild Writer Women of Nimrod Hall. Keep people around you who keep you honest. That’s what helped me to create what I hope is a healthy balance between memoir and reference.
WOW: Those of us writing memoirs should cut and paste the advice you got from Brooke and put it on our computer monitors. I think that is such inspirational advice.
Now, I have to say, I just loved the voice you wrote Open in: honest and shoot-from-the-hip, but in a gentle way. Did you present it that way to ease those readers who don’t know about the subject matter or may be adverse to it, to make it easier to “absorb”?
Jenny: Absolutely. I wanted it to be accessible. But, that’s also just my voice. Everyone who knows me and read it says, “Your book sounds just like you!” The worst thing you can do in your writing is pose as someone else. People respect genuine writing whatever the subject.
WOW: I totally agree with you. How did you know now was the time to write Open?
Jenny: Well, I think Brooke knew when she contacted me. But, I also sensed there was something afoot, if you will. People seemed really interested in my piece in Tango. I believe it is still the most commented on and emailed piece on their site even two years after it was published.
Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan (Germany) reprinted it. But, in a more general sense, people (at least some people) seemed ready. There is a general dissatisfaction with the failure rate of marriage and the prevalence of affairs. It was just the right time. My spiritual advisor, Jimmy Belasco, would tell you it happened as it was supposed to and it was simply time for me to share my story.
“The worst thing you can do in your writing is pose as someone else. People respect genuine writing whatever the subject.”
WOW: Wow. You are surrounded with wise people with great advice. That must certainly help smooth out any bumps you’ve come across. Speaking of which, do you find that you have a thicker skin now, in terms of being a freelance writer, by writing about this subject? How do/did you handle any sort of backlash?
Jenny: No doubt. The first nasty blog comment I received sent me into tears. I would get flushed and tense the minute I read anything negative. But, then the positive ones started flowing in. And, little by little, I was better able to handle the nastier notes. Don’t get me wrong; it can still make my stomach sink.
But, after talking to friends and family and other writers and supporters, I have come to understand how much those comments aren’t about me, but instead about the commentors themselves. What else would explain that sort of venom? After a while, I could read into their comments: “Oh, that guy’s having an affair and feels guilty.” “Ah, ha. That woman’s first husband cheated on her.” “Oh, no. That man’s father was a sex addict.” You get the idea.
WOW: I totally understand what you mean. And you’re right. Sometimes, people make nasty comments because they see themselves in what you’re writing.
My Dad, who’s become one of my biggest fans, said to me once, “It’s important to know what your readers think. You’re making people think and feel, even if they don’t like it. That’s an important skill for a writer.” So, kudos to you, Jenny!
Any advice you can offer to those of us who are currently tackling a more edgy, controversial subject and facing opposition?
Jenny: Write it plain. Don’t apologize. Don’t defend yourself. Or make excuses. We all have our own stories and if people don’t like them, they don’t have to read them. My spiritual advisor always tells me, “There’s always a tape running through your head. So run a positive one. ‘I’m a good writer. People are interested in what I have to say. I will succeed.’ Only you have control over the way things turn out for you. People will be mean. But, it’s all part of your path.” He’s a smart guy.
WOW: That’s very powerful and so true. We all need to play those positive tapes more often and keep going forward.
In your book, you don’t discuss it outright, but you seem to have a very close relationship with your father. How has that—particularly the conversation you had on pages 88-90—helped you with your writing, especially with Open?
Jenny: I couldn’t have written the book without my father. He is always up for discussing things and is never worried about what other people might think—much to the dismay of some congregants throughout the years. I do have a very good relationship with my father. But I also have a very good relationship with my rabbi and life counselor (so to speak). He just happens to be my dad.
WOW: You are so fortunate to have such a gem of a relationship with him. It was one of my favorite passages in the book. What main message do you want your readers to be left with?
Jenny: That living honestly is the only right way to live. Everything else is up to you.
“That’s what every writer truly needs: real people standing behind her and refusing to give up on her.”
WOW: Fantastic and inspiring, Jenny. Thank you. Let’s switch gears now. What inspires you in life as well as with your writing?
Jenny: Other people. Watching how other people navigate life. Reading their stories. And listening, listening, listening to everything around me.
WOW: Isn’t that interesting? I think that’s the number one thing most of our writers say they do: listen. Do you have any advice for any of our up-and-coming writers and novelists?
Jenny: Another one of my writing mentors, Charlotte Morgan, always says, “The work must be done. The only good writing is honest writing.” And my personal favorite—“Butt in the chair. That is the only way the writing is going to get done.” She also says that you should only write a book if you have to. That is, if the work doesn’t compel you, why would it inspire anyone else? Her words have served me well.
WOW: Very true. Especially the “Butt in the chair.” part. LOL Jenny, do you have any upcoming work, events or announcements we should watch for?
Jenny: I blog every week at www.tangomag.com and I will be in New York at the end of September (the 29th at Bluestockings and the 30th at KGB Bar.) I also update my website and blog with upcoming writing and events. And you can sign up there for newsletter updates too. It’s all happening.
WOW: I know I’ll be sure to keep checking your site to see what you’re up to. One last question for you: How does your family feel about your writing success?
Jenny: They are incredibly happy for me and incredibly supportive. I could not do what I do without my husband and girlfriend and daughter and parents and sister cheering me on. That’s what every writer truly needs: real people standing behind her and refusing to give up on her. Writers can be a sensitive bunch. And when we start to give up on ourselves and our work, we need people to bring us back around. My family and friends do exactly that for me.
WOW: That’s so inspiring, Jenny. You are one lucky woman to be surrounded by such love and support. We should all be so lucky. Thank you very much for finding the time to chat today. This has been such a wonderful experience for me. I hope you contact us with updates both about the book and life. And we’ll be sure to check out your blogs.
For more information about Jenny Block and her new book, Open, please be sure to check out Jenny’s website at: http://www.jennyonthepage.com and her blog at: http://www.open-marriage.blogspot.com. She also contributes to a number of publications and websites, including American Way, Cosmopolitan (Germany), Dallas Morning News, Dallas Voice, tangomag.com,huffingtonpost.com, ellegirl.com,and literarymama.com.
CHYNNA TAMARA LAIRD – lives in Edmonton, Alberta with partner, Steve, and four children [Jaimie, Jordhan, Xander, and her new baby girl, Sophie]. She’s a freelance writer and completing a B.A. in Psychology. She wants to specialize in Developmental Neuropsychology to help children with special needs. Some of Chynna’s work can be found in Mothering, Angels On Earth, Pure Inspirations and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Children With Special Needs.
She is most proud of a children's picture book she's written called, I'm Not Weird, I Have SID where she describes—through the voice and perspective of four-year old Alexandra—what it's like to live with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (Sensory Processing Disorder).
Please visit Chynna’s website at www.lilywolfwords.ca to get a feel for her work and what inspires her. Chynna’s advice: “Write what your heart tells you to.”