Skip to main content

Joani Elliott believes in the magic of stories, a good cup of tea, and the power of living a creative life. She has taught writing at the University of Maryland and Brigham Young University. She lives with her husband and two daughters near Salt Lake City, Utah. For book club resources, virtual author chats, and more, visit

Interviewed by Ian Curtis

Inscape Journal: What made you decide to write a book about writing and the writing process?

Joani Elliott: Well, you know, it’s interesting because I didn’t decide that I wanted to write a book about the writing process. It’s just the story that came to me. I received my master’s in English with an emphasis in creative writing. During that time, I wrote my first novel. Then I just really got busy with other things. It wasn’t like I ignored that part of myself, I just didn’t feel like it was my time to write. Then, I was teaching writing at the University of Maryland, but not even creative writing. I was teaching English 101 and I just felt like this was my time to go back to that part of myself. Now creativity has always been a part of myself. I taught piano. I was teaching, but I hadn’t done real creative writing for a long time.
A lot of my colleagues were good at writing while teaching, but I wasn’t. Maybe because I’m such an angsty writer. I don’t know, but I felt like if I was going to go for this, I needed to go all in. And so, I was talking to my husband, and I told him, “I think this is my time. I think I should go for this. I should just step away for a couple of years from my job and just put everything into this. We looked at our budget and we’re like, “Okay, I think we can do this. Let’s just go for it.” In September of 2015, that’s when I went to my computer instead of the classroom. I was super excited and thought I would be writing young adult literature again, too. And then, nothing came to me. I went back to that YA novel I’d written before. I tried a little bit with that. I tried new ideas. I had a lot of good starts and stops, but it just went from bad to worse. I felt really frustrated. That’s when I started procrastinating everything in my house and doing pretty much everything but focusing on writing. I started feeling sorry for myself. I thought, well, at least nobody cares that I’m writing this because I didn’t even tell a lot of people what I was doing.
That’s one day when I thought, “What would it be like to have a hundred people waiting for my book? Hundreds? Or thousands?” What if you had a million people waiting for you to fulfill this agreement to write a book? That’s when I imagined this sad sort of pathetic person with the weight of the writing world on her shoulders and that’s when Sara Grayson was born in my bathroom. I guess it was a home birth. I knew very quickly that it was her mother that had left this book to her. That it was her mother who was the iconic writer. That it was her mother who believed that she had this in her and that it was Sara who was plagued with self-doubt and believed that she couldn’t. I just thought, oh, this is the story that I want to write. After that, I became a much more disciplined writer, things really began to come together for me.
I never set out to write a book about writing. It just began with an interesting what-if question that happened to be about a writer. What was interesting is that it was the perfect book for me to write because I was diving back into the world of creative writing and because it had been a while, I felt like I needed to do this deep dive with Sara. I needed to go back to craft books like On Writing by Stephen King and I needed to read all these books that I hadn’t read before. I felt like I needed to rediscover the craft. I needed to listen to writers again. And so, I was doing that along with Sara Grayson, and that’s when I started collecting all these writing quotes because initially, they were for me. Then many of them ended up in the book as epigraphs.

IJ: I was wondering about how your writing experience lined up with Sara Grayson’s. Were there any similarities? Differences?

JE: Well, I wish that I had a great editor like she did to help me along. But there were similarities in facing the kind of self-doubt that I think we all face as creatives. It’s funny, now and again I’ll have people tell me, “I just wanted to slap her sometimes. Like just get over it and write the book.” And I’m like, “Me too.” That’s why I gave her Phil and Bernie and other people to tell her, “Will you get over yourself and write the book?” I resonated with that. There were times that I just needed to write the book. I needed to be patient with the process of writing the book, but I also wanted it to go faster.
It was an interesting thing because Sara was against her deadline and I had self-imposed deadlines, but everything always ended up taking longer. I needed to just trust my process, that it was going to take time. I wanted to write a good book and good novels that take time.
It’s easy to look in the other lanes, right or left, to be looking sideways. You’ll see other people who say, “Yeah, I just finished like 5,000 words just last night. It wasn’t very hard. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.” I think we fall into comparison, and self-doubt, and wondering if we can really do it.
I’m in revisions for my next book and even today, I was writing a pep talk to myself, reminding myself that I can do this and to look straight ahead instead of sideways. It’s a constant practice and that’s okay.

IJ: I love that answer. It brings me to this question. How do you think beginning writers can focus on our believers rather than get lost in their doubts?

JE: I just listened to a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Arthur Brooks. So, Arthur Brooks said that we’re hardwired to remember the negative over the positive. It traces back to our biology as protection. You know, if there’s somebody dangerous in the crowd, somebody who’s looking at you that’s scary, your focus goes right to it, you’re alerted to it. I’d never heard this, but I’ve always wondered why we always remember the one negative comment when we’ve had twenty good ones.
So, I don’t have all those answers, but, first of all, knowing that we’re wired to do that is helpful. Then I can counteract this with practices that will help me. One of the things that I do every day is I have prayer and meditation which helps me to focus on what I’m doing, what my intention is, and the voices that I listen to. I’m sure everybody has different things that they do, but for me, I begin any session, any writing session that I do with prayer and meditation because it helps me remember what I’m doing. I also begin every writing session with a short journal entry of sorts, that helps me to focus on what I’m doing that day and write through any concerns that I have. I also just keep notes of affirmation from the believers in my life.
I’ll just add this quickly. When I first began pitching my book to New York editors and agents, we had a coach who was working with us. When we started pitching, she was there so she would listen and give us feedback. After a pitch, I could only remember what the editor or agent didn’t like. But once I sat down with my coach and she showed me her notes, I was reminded of all the positive things the editor/agent had said as well. Once again, my mind had focused on the negative.
So it’s imperative that we keep all the good offered to ourselves and gift ourselves great self-compassion in our creative journeys. This can be our antidote to all the negative voices, including our own. We need prayer, we need meditation, we need written reminders. We need a practice that reminds us of the things that are true about ourselves.

IJ: One of the quotes in your novel talks about how successful writers must accept looking stupid for a long time. Did you ever feel silly during the writing process? How did you overcome those feelings?

JE: Yes, and sometimes I thought, “Why did I leave a good job where I was teaching students how to write, and now, I’m writing this silly book. Does anybody get to read it? Does this matter?”
But I felt from a spiritual standpoint that I knew through prayer that this was exactly what I needed to be doing at that moment. That helped me to move forward. You know in your gut and in your heart when it’s the right time and that helps you move past moments when you feel like this is silly or it doesn’t matter. I guarantee anybody as a writer, anybody who wants to do this incredible thing of trying to tell stories, that will feel dumb sometimes and you will feel inadequate. It’s just guaranteed. And so, you just plan on it, and then you keep writing all the way through it.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book, Big Magic, says, “Every job has a [crap] sandwich.” You choose a job that you love doing, and you’re going to be willing to eat the sandwich that comes along with it. Writing has its own sandwich. Part of that is rejection, having other people read your work and telling you it’s not good.
Sometimes I look at some of my colleagues at this conference and think “We must be insane to keep trying to do this. At the same time, it’s work that makes me feel totally alive. And so, I’m willing to eat the sandwich. And Elizabeth Gilbert had a friend who decided, I don’t want to do that anymore and that’s okay. It’s your choice. But the sandwich is in any job: A teacher, a doctor, an attorney, an accountant. There’s no good job you’re going to love that isn’t going to have a sandwich. So, you pick something you love, and be willing to eat the sandwich that goes along with it.
The other thing I’ll just add is that when it comes to creative work part of success is knowing which wave to catch. You’re kind of judging it, you’re watching it. In the movie Soul Surfer with Bethany Hamilton, there’s this conversation with her dad where he’s telling her about judging the waves. That’s part of the creative work we do, too. It’s knowing the timing of what to do and when to catch a certain wave. So, trust your heart when it is the right time for you to being your creative work forward.

IJ: Can I ask a follow-up to the previous answer about the sandwich? What makes the writing sandwich worth it for you?

JE: There are two parts to that. I love the actual work of creating a story that is meaningful and powerful, a story that says something about what it is to be human. To me, that is some of the deepest kind of magic. It’s stories that connect us all.
I was standing in a Disney store in Times Square, and it was crazy full of people. I was thinking, “This is an empire that’s built on stories. That’s what it is. It’s a shared story. So, getting to come to my computer every day and create something out of nothing. That is a beautiful and remarkable thing to get to be a part of.
It’s also sharing the story with the reader that makes it worth it. I had never experienced that until The Audacity of Sara Grayson. It becomes my readers’ story, but I’m connected to them now, too. I think that’s in any art form, whether we’re walking to an art museum or seeing amazing architecture. I feel like anything that the artist has put their heart into has the potential to connect to us and human connection and learning what it is to be human is, that’s everything. Those are the two main things.

IJ: Throughout the novel, we read about this idea of having audacity as a writer. Why do you think for Sara and then for other writers it’s so important to have audacity?

JE: That’s a great question. I believe that part of the often-told advice, “write what you know,” is true, but we also need to write about what we don’t know. That is part of the fun as well. At the same time, writing is ultimately writing about emotional truths. Doing that takes courage and audacity, to tell those emotional truths.
Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” There’s a point in The Audacity of Sara Grayson where both Nick and Phil are telling her that you’ve got to go deeper, if you’re not willing to go to those hard places, Sara, then your writing is going to remain shallow, and you need to go deeper. I think in that part of the book they were talking about finding those emotional truths. We’ll be writing about people and topics that we’ve never truly experienced, but we all know something about the overarching emotions: loss, pain, and friendship. Going to those places takes courage.
The other piece of that is that by doing anything creative, we risk emotional exposure ourselves. We put something out there that is a piece of us out into the world and other people then respond to it. There is no great art and not even okay art that we can put out into the world that doesn’t require some vulnerability on our part. Sometimes we might have vulnerability fatigue and that is okay, but if you want to live this life, if you want to pursue the life of the creative, you must be willing to expose yourself.