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Terry Sue Harms: “Trust yourself”

Trust yourself. Writing is like a fingerprint; our words are unique to our own experience. With so many literary giants to look up to, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel there’s no way to measure up. What I came to understand is that what makes the giants so magnificent is that they were able […]

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Trust yourself. Writing is like a fingerprint; our words are unique to our own experience. With so many literary giants to look up to, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel there’s no way to measure up. What I came to understand is that what makes the giants so magnificent is that they were able to capture something that had not been done before. They followed the lead of their own inclinations. Trust is the organic soil from which great writing grows.


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 Terry Sue Harms.

Terry Sue has been a hairdresser for over forty years who didn’t start reading until she was in her twenties but then went on to get a bachelor’s degree in English from Mills College and is now the published author of three books: a work of fiction and two memoirs. Fifteen years ago, during the competition/elimination-based Reality TV craze, she made a casual statement to one of her clients that she wished she “could contribute something to popular culture where the losers were the winners.” Little did she know, those wistful words would spring to life and set her on a path to publication. With the release of her third book, The Strongbox, a memoir about finding and facing rejection from her biological father following the untimely death of her mother, Terry Sue shows us what it took to overcome the obstacles in her life and how those efforts have paid off.


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

I did not grow up dreaming of being a writer one day, but when I found myself waking from a sound sleep with the story line, atmosphere, and complete conversations firing off in my imagination and I couldn’t go back to sleep until I’d captured most of it on paper, I knew a writer in me had come knocking. Initially, I thought I was writing a short story, but it kept growing. This interior world played like a movie in my mind, and I could slow it down, take it frame by frame and ask: What do I see? Who’s there? Why? How does it feel? What’s expected? What’s not expected? Information kept coming, so I kept writing. The short story turned into a novel, Pearls My Mother Wore, and within a year, I had a first draft. I took three more years to work with editors, critique groups, and advisors in order to polish it into something that was worth releasing to the public. The time and energy I gave to that book-length project was a challenge, but I approached it like an endurance athlete might approach marathon training; I dug deep. As a hairdresser, there were times when I thought of my writing as if it were hairstyling: combing out tangles, smoothing the lines, seeking a pleasing aesthetics as well as a sound structure that could hold up over time.

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

Pearls My Mother Wore is a quest story about tracking down a stolen pearl set that had belonged to the protagonist’s deceased mother. My third book is a memoir centered on my decades-long process of identifying, locating, and pursuing my biological father — a man who preferred to remain hidden. When I was sixteen, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly, basically taking his name and their story with her to the grave. Prior to her dying, I understood that my father was an unspeakable subject, and, at the time, I was too young to challenge her position. I was completely in the dark about who my father was. Many months after her passing I saw my birth certificate for the first time, and on it, my father’s name was skewed just enough to make identifying him a puzzle. During many years of endeavoring to unravel the mysteries surrounding him, I learned that his wife and my mother both had the same first name, one of several disconcerting details I uncovered along the way. But it was right after I published Pearls My Mother Wore that I learned my father’s wife, who had recently passed away, had Pearl as her middle name. That coincidence blew my mind.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I have the unusual detail — especially for a writer — of not being an avid reader as a child. In fact, I didn’t read my first book until I was in my twenties. I was functionally illiterate. With great effort, I could pick words off a page, but it was always a struggle, and reading was never something I did for entertainment. It was only as a young adult that I became embarrassed by my lack of vocabulary and education. With ego and pride on the line, I secretly vowed to teach myself how to read. I went to the local library and checked out the biggest book I could find and committed myself to reading it — every word, every page. 
The difficulty I have with reading is that my brain tends to fixate on the white space of a page instead of the black letters, something known as figure/ground perception disability. Of course I didn’t know I had disability when I was a kid; sadly, I just thought I wasn’t smart enough. I was passed from one grade to the next in school mostly because I was quiet, did a fair job of cheating, and had parents that weren’t paying attention. It was almost a dare when I self-imposed the challenge to read the six-hundred-page book I’d checked out, but with that dare, I managed to discipline my eyes and brain into focusing on the letters. I stuck with it. I told myself not to go on to the next sentence until I understood the one I’d just completed, and with that, the story began to develop in my mind’s eye. For the first time, I experienced what good readers always get; I was transported to another world, another time, and another reality. 
 Ironically, my inability to read forced me to cultivate skills of perception that have served me well as a writer. To compensate for my deficits, I learned early on in life to pay close attention to every detail. Tracking behaviors, noticing location markers, and listening for nuances of speech, as an adaptive strategy, has become an invaluable tool in my writing life. I’ve been studying plot, scene, and dialog for as long as I can remember.

My reading difficulties showed me that perseverance pays off. Similarly, perseverance is an essential ingredient for every writer whether they’re good readers or not.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

With Pearls My Mother Wore, once it was finished, I approached a single agent with the hopes that she’d represent me. I was intent on this one particular agent. When I sent her the first chapter, a few days later she asked to see the whole manuscript. A couple of weeks later, she called and said she loved it, that she wanted me to come to her office to discuss how we would “present it to publishers.”

Before we could meet, she first had to go to New York for the big, annual book fair. When I hung up, I thought I was golden. I couldn’t believe it — first time out, agent of my choice — it’s unheard of. I told everybody I knew. Then, (wah, wah, wah) I got an email from her taking it all back. She was apologetic but explained that while in New York, she’d had second thoughts. Fiction was getting harder and harder to sell, and representing an unknown author was just too risky. 
Of course I was crushed, but this was 2009, and self-publishing was all the rage. Rather than trouble myself with any more of the traditional publishing routine, I decided I’d go with a print-on-demand option, and I published the book under my own imprint. 
 I learned all I could about self-publishing, my husband and I created the cover, and I hired a book designer to format the layout. Near the end of the year my novel was ready for launch. I was so pleased with myself to have gotten it done before year’s end. After four years of a consistent writing practice, entering 2010 with a clean slate was my goal. I’d crossed the finish line; let the praise begin. On December 28th, all of my files were uploaded to the print-on-demand website, and I pushed the “Go live” button. That turned out to be a huge rookie mistake because four days later, I had last year’s book, and it was old news. Doh!
Note to self: It’s okay to ask for help; independence can only get you so far.

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

While writing about the rejection I received from my biological father and once I began openly discussing how empty and isolated it made me feel, I was struck by how many people had stories of being stonewalled in one way or another themselves. My candor invited people to open up about their own encounters with dismissal. I was moved by how readily available these events seemed to be, how near the surface they were, and how, frequently, I was told that I had been the first person they’d ever talked about it with. I decided to start writing a blog around the theme of rejection, and I began explicitly interviewing people for it. I call the blog “Shut Out Stories.” Here is some of how I describe its intention on my website:

If you’ve ever been rejected, ignored, dismissed, banned, barred, denied, estranged, unwanted, unvalued, unwelcomed, forgotten, excluded, discarded, disregarded, shunned, snubbed, cast out, locked out, ghosted, or given up on, then you have a shut out story. We’ve all had them, incidents of wanting something we can’t have: the job, house, or mate; the health outcome we couldn’t control; the super talent we’d never possess; the loved one we couldn’t pull back from the dead. A door remains closed despite our every effort to have it otherwise. Those experiences usually come with some backwash of futility, frustration, confusion, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, resentment, anger, loneliness, grief, and more…This blog is intended to illustrate the many forms in which disconnection can occur, and to then offer an offset. It’s a way of redirecting the grief of severance…

I’m deeply honored by every story I’m given for that blog.

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

I write about my stepfather in The Strongbox. He was a man who frequently referred to me as “a bastard.” Although he was near penniless and we were always desperately poor, he had come from money. His ultimate demise was shocking and tragic. The arch of his life had him playing out an entire karmic package during his 62 years on this planet. Born to a successful, Catholic family with privilege and influence, he became an arrogant wife-beater and died a homeless, psychotic — literally in a straightjacket and diapers. I describe the last time I saw him; dramatic and disturbing, it’s a scene that readers discuss with great interest.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

In The Strongbox, I tell of my dogged search for the truth about my father, but it was in the hunting that I found myself. Mine is a triumph over adversity story, and those are always inspiring. In a way, the memoir is another fulfillment of my wistful statement from when I first began writing — I wanted to contribute a story to popular culture where the losers were the winners. Today, I have a beautiful life, but it started out rough. I didn’t let the sorry circumstances of my childhood determine the kind of adult I wanted to be, however. If readers find themselves motivated to make a self-affirming change in their life after reading my memoir, then I will consider my work a success.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

1) To be great means to be humble. None of us spring fully formed into this world. I could never have gotten where I am today if I couldn’t accept that every writing project starts out with beginner status.

2) Don’t give up. There are many times when I get stuck in my writing and can’t figure out where it’s going or what I want to say. I’ve learned that when that happens, I need to go back and see what I’ve written on earlier pages. Almost always, I’ll discover that I’d written something that didn’t quite fit. When I stall out, it’s my subconscious helping me; its not wanting to stifle my progress; it just wants me to do better, and I can. Once I find where I took the misstep, I get unstuck, and I can carry on with confidence that I’m on the right track.

3) Trust yourself. Writing is like a fingerprint; our words are unique to our own experience. With so many literary giants to look up to, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel there’s no way to measure up. What I came to understand is that what makes the giants so magnificent is that they were able to capture something that had not been done before. They followed the lead of their own inclinations. Trust is the organic soil from which great writing grows.

4) Find your writing sweet spot. There are many writing advice books that tell us how, when, and where to write. I love writing advice books and I have a shelf full of them, but I still do it my own way. I don’t write first drafts with a pen, and I don’t write in the morning. I can’t stand the sight of my own penmanship, so if I had to write longhand, I’d be sunk; I wouldn’t do it. I’m also not a morning pages person. Unless I’m really on a role, I like to eat breakfast, wash the dishes, open the mail, fold the laundry, and just make sure my house is in order before I can sit down and write for any length of time. My routine is to settle the house, eat lunch, take a short nap, and then dig in for several hours of writing at my computer. It’s what works for me.

5) Find your people. We writers are everywhere, and we gather up in countless ways. There are the performer types that create staged venues where we can read our work to an audience. There are writing groups that gather for writing at the same time. There are critique groups that workshop each other’s writing, some more critically than others. The Internet is an amazing tool for meeting and connecting with other writers. I’m partial to writer’s retreats. I’ve stayed in touch with many writers that I met through long weekend writing retreats. The point is to find people who support your particular writing needs and wants.

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?

Perseverance has been key. One of the ways I stick with the task of writing is that I make a writing commitment each week. I think about my week ahead of time and decide how much time there is for writing. If I only have fifteen minutes everyday, then that’s the commitment. If I have two hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then that’s my commitment. Once I’ve met my commitment, then I’m free to go to a movie, read a book, garden, go for a walk with a friend, whatever. It’s okay. I can always under commit and over achieve, but the commitment needs to be taken seriously. It might sound like that would let me off the hook, and I’d only commit to the bare minimum, but that turns out not to be the case. When I only harbor a generalized expectation of myself that I should be writing, then it almost never happens. My vague goal ends up an unmet intention floating in guilt-ridden, one-of-these-days airborne dust.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

The first book I ever read from cover to cover was a memoir, My Many Years by Arthur Rubinstein. People and life fascinate me, so history, memoir, biography, and autobiography sections of libraries and bookstores are where I gravitate. In fiction, for the same reasons — great characters and scenes — I’m drawn to Southern Writers: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Pat Conroy, to name a few. It’s when a passage penetrates deeply into the soul and psyche of character and place that I slow down and savor every word; it can be breathtaking.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

From what I see, television is still the greatest influencer of the land, and Reality TV is the most popular, but I’ve had a beef with their elimination model of winning from the very start. I’m not a fan, so I can’t sight specific examples, but I know there’s a fair amount of ridicule, backstabbing and double-crossing built into the storylines, and that bothers me. It’s cynical and plays on our darkest instincts — to dominate or be dominated. Programs where participants are summarily dismissed for not measuring up give me a pain in my solar plexus. I’d like to create a competition Reality TV show where the objective is to lift as many individuals as possible; the further they go then the more points are awarded. At the end of every episode, viewers should feel inspired to go out and help someone. In my reality, I see that most people are good, supportive, and kind; they want to help, they’re happy to pitch in, they care when someone is struggling, so I’d like to see more of that reflected and amplified through television. Humiliation is not entertaining. Give me a show where celebration of achievement is the name of the game, and I’d be all in.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you for this opportunity to share about my writing life. To learn more, I can be directly contacted through my website:

terrysueharms.com

I also have a Facebook Page:

Terry Sue Harms-Writer

And an Instagram account:

Terry Sue Harms

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

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