In 2014, Jean Hannah Edelstein moved back to New York City following news that her father was dying from cancer. Six weeks after she arrived, her father passed away. Six months after that, she learnt that she had inherited the gene that had caused her father's cancer.
Her memoir, This Really Isn't About You, is disarmingly funny, hopeful and heartbreaking in equal measure. It is a book about finding your way in life, which is to say, it's a book about discovering you are not really in control of that at all. Here, she tells us about her writing process, expectations versus reality and what she learnt throughout her literary journey.
My writing practice is a mess, by any measure. For years I’ve devoured articles by writers I admire in the hopes of learning the secrets to their success, and I’ve tried many of the most celebrated modes of discipline. Writing first thing in the morning. Writing longhand in Moleskine notebooks. Setting myself word count goals. Depriving myself of pleasures.
But setting these parameters never seemed to work for me, or not well: three pages or so into the notebooks I’d lose interest, and the days that I wrote the most words always seemed to be the ones on which I least expected it. When I tried to go on a writing retreat — real writers go on writing retreats, I reckoned, so I took a week off work and flew across the country to a place where I knew no one — I found myself in an Airbnb where the toilet was in the kitchen (dysentery!) and came down with a horrific sinus infection. I spent most of the time there wanly pecking at my keyboard in a coffee shop and rinsing my sinuses with a neti pot.
It may be disingenuous to advise writers not to follow writing advice, but I will say this: in my writing career I’ve found I’m most productive when I don’t try to mould my habits into those of people I perceive to be more successful than I am, but simply to let myself be. I wrote This Really Isn’t About You in a piecemeal way; some parts of it were drawn from long, standalone essays that I wrote over the course of years. Others from short scraps of thoughts. I have a full-time job — more authors do than you might know, because some are loath to admit it — so I did quite a lot of writing during my lunch breaks, or in those ten minute gaps when I was waiting for someone to answer an email; on Saturday afternoons and Tuesday evenings. (I’ll be honest: I never got up early to write. I am not a morning person.)
I wrote most of it on my laptop — my handwriting is terrible, and for this reason notebooks do me no good — but I also wrote a lot of it on in the Notes app of my iPhone, when I was riding on the subway or a plane. Sometimes when I was engaging in this disaster I’d think: Would this book be better, or at least written faster, if I was one of those people who could crank out a thousand words a day? And then I’d think: Probably yes, but I’m just not one of those people! and then I’d carry on.
Feedback was very important to me. Some people like to write in absolute private, not sharing their work until they’re really ready for it to see the world. But I’m a (geriatric) millennial: I got my start writing on the internet, and have always felt most confident about my work when able to interact with a community of other readers and writers giving me quick feedback as I go along. Much of the book grew from my weekly letter, which is the most disciplined thing I’ve ever written — which is to say, just about once a week for three years. I emailed sections of the book to friends and workshopped it with my writing group — three other women writers in Brooklyn who gather on a monthly basis to eat pizza, gossip, and share our work.
Here, Jean Hannah Edelstein introduces her memoir in her own words.
Listen to a clip of Jean reading the audiobook of This Really Isn't About You below:
Photo credit: Averie Cole