Fantasy author Helene Wecker can attest to the fact that magic happens when you let a jinni out of a lamp, as she did in her 2013 novel, The Golem and the Jinni. As part of the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences 2015 – 2016 Speaker Series, she shared with Johnson & Wales students how her wish to be writer was granted. (Spoiler alert: It involves harrowing career switching, taking critical punches, and determination in the face of uncertainty.) From a sci-fi obsessed kid growing up in 1970s Chicago to a published novelist today, Wecker offered, through her own story, lessons on how to pursue a writing career. Here are seven takeaways.
1. It’s Impossible to Ignore Your Intuition, Even When It Sounds Ridiculous.
Wecker admits that even though she remembers writing from an early age, she never let herself consider it seriously. “Saying, ‘I want to be a writer,’ was like saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’ ” she joked. After graduating from college, she took a job at a software company in Minneapolis, working in marketing and communications. “I went to happy hour, I had a laptop and even a 401K,” she said. “I told myself I had it all, but I knew there was a deep and personal desire inside of me to say something that just wasn’t going to happen in a four-color brochure about software.”
2. Your First Work will Probably Not be Your Best Work.
As a kid, Wecker recalls “writing short stories that basically copied whatever I was reading.” Even in college writing classes, she felt that “the stories in my head landed unevenly on the page.”
3. It’s OK to Tip-Toe Before You Jump.
After moving to Seattle, she kept seeking advice on how to improve her writing, eventually enrolling in night classes at the University of Washington. She began thinking of returning to school to pursue a Master’s of Fine Arts degree and applied to a dozen programs. To her surprise, she was accepted at Columbia University. She convinced her then boyfriend (now husband) to move across the country to New York City so that she could pursue the degree.
4. Write Where Your Heart Is.
Wecker described how she was struggling with her graduate thesis, a collection of short stories based around her and her husband’s familial immigrant experiences. After a writing workshop where the group basically tore apart her latest effort, a friend pulled her aside and asked her why she was trying to write in an unfamiliar style. Instead, the friend suggested that Wecker “write where her heart is,” which was in fantasy fiction, and draw from that instead. She reworked her short stories with that angle for the next workshop, and the group concurred: She had much more than a thesis — she had the beginning of a novel.
"It’s amazing when the things we create take on lives of their own."
5. Writing a Novel Takes Time.
Wecker spent the remainder of her time at Columbia writing and researching at the university’s library. She photocopied information on turn-of-the-20th-century New York City, where her novel was set; folklore on golems and jinnis; and details about immigrant American life. After graduation, she moved to California for her husband’s job and spent the next five years “working weird jobs so that I could write.” In 2011, her book was bought by HarperCollins, and in 2013 — seven years after she began the novel — she was able to hold the physical published book.
6. The Best Creations Take on a Life of Their Own.
Wecker said that “at some point, the book stopped being my own.” She joked that when readers outside of her family and friends started reading the book, they began to ask her questions at her public readings about her intentions of characters and notice ties throughout the novel that she hadn’t realized during writing. She likened the experience of picking her daughter up from preschool and watching her play with her friends. She said, “It’s amazing when the things we create take on lives of their own.”
7. Be Open to What’s Next.
It’s been two years since the publication of The Golem and the Jinni, and Wecker shared that she had just decided to start on a sequel. She had not intended to continue the story, but she said, “the characters are not done with me.” She’s wise to listen to that voice that tells her to keep writing — after all, it has taken her this far.
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