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“5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an author”, with Jeff Henigson and Chaya Weiner

Become a morning person. I wasn’t. I’m still not. I always told myself that I was more productive at night. But a writer friend persuaded me to try waking early for a week — keeping my phone switched off and dedicating the first two hours of each morning (after ten minutes of meditation and two cups of […]


Become a morning person. I wasn’t. I’m still not. I always told myself that I was more productive at night. But a writer friend persuaded me to try waking early for a week — keeping my phone switched off and dedicating the first two hours of each morning (after ten minutes of meditation and two cups of coffee) to writing. Those hours have proven consistently to be my most creative and fruitful. I can’t say I’ve happily converted myself into a morning person (some people can assure you that I haven’t), but with persistence and some really good coffee, I’ve reaped major benefits from working through those wonderfully productive morning hours.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Henigson, the author of the critically-acclaimed forthcoming Young Adult memoir, WARHEAD: The True Story of One Teen Who Almost Saved the World (Delacorte Press). Jeff attended university at the London School of Economics and graduate school at Columbia University. He’s worked for UNICEF and the United Nations in humanitarian emergencies and is now a full-time writer living in Seattle.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

My English teacher back in middle school told me I was destined to be a writer. Another in high school made the same proclamation. I had a sense I’d ultimately be heading in that direction, but wanted a little life experience first. I certainly didn’t anticipate a three-decade-long diversion! Still, that time experiencing the world has given me a suitcase or two full of stories.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

In 2008 I was at a low point, having recently split with my partner and, due to the onset of seemingly insurmountable health problems, ending my career at the United Nations. While my ex and I were going through our things, I stumbled upon on old U-Haul box with NOSTALGIA written across the top with a Sharpie. It was a box I’d sealed shut twenty years before, as a teenager emerging from a long battle with brain cancer. Inside the box I found something extraordinary: a package of handwritten letters, all in Russian, sent to me from citizens of the Soviet Union in the Summer of 1988 after they had read a story about my peace mission there earlier that year. I’d packed the letters away back then, wanting to free myself from my experience with cancer. But in 2008 those letters not only brought me back, they also ended up determining the next decade of my life — and that ultimately produced my forthcoming memoir, WARHEAD.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I spent the last six years working on my memoir — nonfiction, of course — while a crazy little story has been forming in the back of my mind. I’ve jotted down notes on it from time to time, even written a few scenes. It’s a teenage love story, a tragic one, set fifty years into a future we seem intent right now on creating. I’m excited to get started on it full time.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I met several aspiring writers while working on my book, a number of whom had graduated from MFA programs or had considerably more writing experience. Many were better writers than I was at the time. What helped me was my persistence. No joke — I could’ve made it through a very cold winter by simply printing out and burning all the rejection letters I received. When I finally secured representation, a process that took ages, my agent had me rewrite my book from beginning to end — three times. My editor at Random House Children’s Books initially said we’d go through two editorial rounds; it ended up requiring four. I stuck with it, listening throughout and doing whatever I could to soothe my sometimes battered ego, and ultimately put together a memoir I’m proud of.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I’d hate to spoil WARHEAD for you!

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

For this project, I took a deep dive into the world of the memoir. Sometimes it involved memoirs on writing, like Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car. There were a number of useful how-to books — William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and half a dozen others. And then there was the long list of memoirs. I loved Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer, reached deep into my head and my heart. A friend recommended The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, which I devoured and loved and, for a time, attempted to copy. Cheryl Strayed’s powerful memoir, Wild, energized me. Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, drained me — through tears — and filled me back up.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

I’m eagerly awaiting the world’s answer!

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

Don’t. Get a job at Google or Amazon or Facebook that allows you to amass a fortune and retire at forty. But if you must write, find your own voice. Read deeply, expanding your mind by exposing yourself to a broad array of literature you find inspiring, but then write…and write…and sleep occasionally…and, also, write. It took a long time for me to trust myself, at first sounding a bit too much like narrators from books I loved, but ultimately, I found — and came to trust — my own voice.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Write every day. You’ve probably heard that writing is a muscle that quickly atrophies when not regularly exercised. I heard that, too — and initially ignored it. Writing every day translates into significantly increased productivity. When I finally got around to making that daily commitment, my progress went through an extraordinary acceleration.

Find (or create) a writing circle. There’s nothing more motivating than connecting with a group of talented people who are doing what you want to do. It’ll take some effort to build your cohort, but they’ll keep you moving. Heck, you might even have some fun.

Retreat. Not from writing, but from your regular world. It’s not the easiest thing, especially if you have bills to pay and major work commitments outside of your writing, but if you can carve out a moment (or a week or a month or more), it can set a path for your writing project that gives you direction and clarity. After two years of very slow progress on my memoir, I disappeared to an island in Southeast Asia and threw myself wholeheartedly into my project. Without all the distractions of my everyday life, I completed my manuscript in two months.

Become a morning person. I wasn’t. I’m still not. I always told myself that I was more productive at night. But a writer friend persuaded me to try waking early for a week — keeping my phone switched off and dedicating the first two hours of each morning (after ten minutes of meditation and two cups of coffee) to writing. Those hours have proven consistently to be my most creative and fruitful. I can’t say I’ve happily converted myself into a morning person (some people can assure you that I haven’t), but with persistence and some really good coffee, I’ve reaped major benefits from working through those wonderfully productive morning hours.

Consider investing in professional help. I’m talking about an editor in this case (though I probably could have used a therapist as well). I started my writing project determined to do everything on my own. Things improved when I got involved in a writing circle — and that definitely made the writing process more enjoyable. But you can’t bring a whole manuscript to a writing circle and expect everyone to read it, so I ultimately sought outside help. An editor helped me clean up my manuscript and put together my pitch package. It proved to be a very useful investment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Here’s an indirect answer. We might see the world as a dark place, with a global economy that’s uncertain, ecological nightmares abound with more on the horizon, conflicts that might lead to larger, more deadly wars; and political instability at home and abroad. There’s much to worry about. But step into a library, or a bookstore, and you’ll find literature, sometimes centuries of it, in which humans have explored these very same challenges. Relevant, timely, and deeply important discussions about these topics have taken place in every human language and recorded in literature across time, whether through fictional characters or analysis of the real world. Look — everywhere — and you’ll find proposed paths to a better future. Learning what has been proposed, what the collective human experience offers us, simply through reading and exploring and gathering wisdom, is a pathway to progressive change and, ultimately, to human enlightenment.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

facebook.com/warheadmemoir

www.instagram.com/jeffhenigson/

twitter.com/jeffhenigson

jeffhenigson.com

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

— –

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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