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June 30, 2024 12:00
Tara Conklin author of The House Girl and Community Board and writing coach at The Novelry
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Tara Conklin on Why You Should Keep Writing

Tara Conklin
Tara Conklin
May 5, 2024
May 5, 2024

If nobody has told you this today, may we be the first to say: please keep writing. There can be many setbacks on a writer’s journey—whether it’s disappointing feedback from your earliest readers, rejection from a literary agent, or realizing that as much as you love your novel, you have to let your manuscript go, the path to publication doesn’t always run smooth.

Keep writing.

In this article, author and The Novelry writing coach Tara Conklin shares her personal story about how she kept writing secretly throughout her twenties and thirties while she worked as a lawyer, before she published her first novel in her forties—only for the novel to become a New York Times bestseller, #1 IndieNext pick and Target book club pick!

If you’re in need of inspiration and motivation to keep writing, read on...

Early setbacks might stop you writing

I can tell you exactly when, where and why I decided not to be a writer. It was halfway through college, standing on the marble steps of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, scanning the list of students accepted into the fiction writing seminar that I was desperate to take. My name, for the fourth straight semester, was not on the list.

Up until that moment, I had always assumed I would be a writer (apart from a brief archaeology phase at around age eight, driven—I dimly recall—by pride over the fact that I could pronounce, and spell, the word archaeologist). I was good at writing, I loved it; what else would I do?

But this simple logic fell apart once I arrived at my university. I was a small-town, public-school girl who never had to work very hard for her A’s. At my Ivy League college, I was suddenly surrounded by students who had succeeded in radically different and much tougher environments than my local school. Kids from elite private schools and big cities, kids who’d been tutored since they could read, kids who’d already published books, won awards and national recognition, kids with clear-eyed ambition and unshakable self-confidence. These kids intimidated the hell out of me and I felt my own successes, my own shaky sense of self, diminish in comparison.

At the time, the English department offered only one fiction writing seminar to undergraduates. Admission was by application only—you first had to submit samples of your work and then wait to see if the professor accepted you into the class. Every semester, I submitted my pages. Every semester, I climbed those wide marble steps to read the list of names pinned to the professor’s door. Every semester, my name wasn’t there.

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After that fourth failed attempt, I decided to change majors from English to History. There were plenty of tears, bolstered by some cheap beer and pizza, and I told myself and the friends commiserating with me that clearly, I had made a mistake: I was not a writer. After all, if my writing wasn’t good enough to impress one college English professor, how could I possibly rely on it for my livelihood? Who was I kidding?

Instead of spending the remainder of my college years deconstructing George Eliot and working on my iambic pentameter, I focused on sixteenth-century European history, a time rife with drama and gore. I traveled and studied in Spain and France, I wrote my senior thesis about the European settlers’ impact on the Caribbean, where I was born. And, for the next 15-odd years, I got on with my life.

Here are some things I didn’t do because of those early rejections:

  • Get an MFA
  • Get published in my twenties or thirties
  • Find a mentor
  • Make friends in publishing
  • Build community with other young writers
  • Learn how to deconstruct George Eliot

Here are some things I did do:

  • Traveled to a lot of different countries
  • Held a lot of different jobs
  • Got a law degree
  • Supported myself financially
  • Bought a house
  • Had three amazing children
  • Kept writing
  • Kept writing
  • Kept writing

The secret is to keep going

Although I never considered myself a capital-W ‘Writer’ during these years, I was always writing. I maintained a daily journal, scribbled stories and parts of stories, bad poetry, and outraged essays. I treated this writing almost like a secret. I didn’t share or discuss it with anyone. I never thought of revising a piece for publication. My computer files were full of random scenes and half-baked short stories. The notebooks I used in my legal career contained my creative musings alongside client notes and draft arguments. My desk drawers overflowed, literally and metaphorically, with writing that I did purely for my own enjoyment and entertainment.

I maintained a daily journal, scribbled stories and parts of stories, bad poetry, and outraged essays. I treated this writing almost like a secret.

Maybe when I retire from my ‘real job,’ I told myself, I would treat writing as a serious pursuit. Back then, I considered writing a hobby. I reasoned to myself: some people knit or paint or ride horses, others collect porcelain dogs or antique biscuit tins or lava lamps; I write.

But one day, about 18 years ago now, I began writing a story that I could not simply file away and forget as I had with all the others. The story took place in 1850s Virginia and involved a doctor, Caleb Harper, and a woman he is hired to treat, the house slave and artist Josephine Bell. I thought the story was good, better than anything I had written before, and I wanted to explore the characters further. Josephine, in particular, compelled me in a new way. She took up residence in my imagination and would not stay quiet: she visited my dreams and came alive on the page quickly, as though I’d always known her.

Publishing my first novel

Over the course of the next several years, while I worked at my law firm and parented my children, that story eventually grew into my first novel. That book, The House Girl, was published a few days after my 42nd birthday, nine months after the birth of my third child, and approximately 22 years since I’d decided not to become a writer.

Being a writer means noticing the world around you and to do this well requires practice. You don’t need a book deal to be a writer. You need eyes, ears and heart and the willingness to surrender to a story that won’t let you go.

Looking back now at my 19-year-old self, part of me wants to shake her and say: believe in yourself! Don’t give up so easily! Don’t let one person’s opinion determine your future! But the other part of me wonders what would have happened if I had been admitted to that fiction writing class. If I had indulged my dream of becoming a writer when I was so young, how would things have progressed? Would I have lost the sense of joy and wonder that writing still brings me? Would I have become discouraged and given up, really given up, in a way that my 19-year-old self couldn’t quite do? Or would I now be writing my tenth novel and have a million social media followers, movie deals and awards?

It’s a dangerous thing to entertain the sliding-door ‘what ifs’ and I don’t do it very often. I don’t know the answers to those questions and, of course, I’ll never know. But what I do know is this: I can’t imagine a different life and, to be honest, I can’t imagine having anything to write about when I was 21, or 25, or even 30. I think there was a reason I didn’t get into that class, and I don’t mean a spiritual or fateful reason. I mean the simple, straightforward reason that, back then, I didn’t know enough about the world to write anything worth reading.

Luckily for me, writing is not fashion modeling or competitive tennis. Every bump along the road makes you wiser and your writing richer. Every writer’s journey is unique and necessary, no matter how convoluted it might seem. Being a writer means noticing the world around you and to do this well requires practice.

You don’t need a book deal to be a writer. You need eyes, ears and heart and the willingness to surrender to a story that won’t let you go. As a wonderful friend once said to me: if you write, you are a writer. So keep writing.

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry—the world’s top-rated writing school.

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Tara Conklin
Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels, personal essays, and short stories. Her books have been selected by Read with Jenna, the Today Show book club, Barnes & Noble book club, Target book club, as a No.1 IndieNext Pick and other accolades. Her work has been translated into eight languages. She is based in Seattle.

Members of The Novelry team