Welcome to the three hundred and forty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction writer, editor and publisher Jill Muehrcke. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Jill. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Jill: I remember writing my first poem at age five and my first story at age six. My mom would give me a sheet of paper and I would fold it into quarters, crease it really well, then tear along the creases to make a little book. I would put a cover on the front, a table of contents inside, and number each page. I don’t think I thought I would be a writer. I thought of myself as a “book maker”. I wanted to be in charge of everything – not just the writing! I suppose that’s one reason I started my own publishing company and self-published several of my books.
Morgen: I love that. I remember oddments but nothing as structured. What genre do you generally write?
Jill: Till now, most of my published books have been in the educational and nonprofit sectors. Most are nonfiction. I have written fiction, including a number of mysteries, but these are unpublished. Someday I may get back to that, as I adore mysteries, and I found writing them to be great fun. But my new book, Waking Up Happy: A Handbook of Change with Memoirs of Recovery and Hope, is my most personal book to-date, as it includes my own memoir plus the memoirs of my daughter and granddaughter. I doubt that it’s possible to write anything more personal!
Morgen: Three generations, that’s great. You mentioned that you’ve set up your own publishing company, what have you had published to-date?
Jill: In 1978, my husband and I co-authored the book Map Use and published it ourselves. Since then, it has been through seven editions and 14 printings. I loved the cover of the first edition, which was all in shades of gold and orange (my favorite colors!) I remember going to the printers as the book was just coming off the presses, and the whole giant room was aflood with orange and gold. I almost swooned I was so happy.
Morgen: “swooned” now there’s a word I’ve not heard in a while. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Jill: I’m doing all the marketing for Waking Up Happy. It was the part of the publishing process I dreaded! But it has turned out to be the most fun of all. I am really enjoying connecting to people and talking about my book.
Morgen: Me too. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Jill: No, I don’t have an agent. I am very glad that I self-published so that I didn’t have to go through the process of finding an agent – although my husband and friends have been my acting agents and have been extremely helpful.
Morgen: I submitted to a dozen or so but self-publishing (albeit eBooks) has been great. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Jill: Waking Up Happy is available as an eBook in all the popular formats. I made sure of that. I hired someone to help me through the process, and I’m glad I did. She did a wonderful job. Personally, I feel as though something is lost when reading an eBook. And Waking Up Happy is a handbook, so I do feel it is best held in the hand! It’s the kind of book you need to underline and write in the margins. It’s full of exercises that cry out for a pencil. But I know some people have both the eBook and the hard copy, and that makes sense to me. They can carry it around in eBook form to read whenever they have a spare moment and then go home and get out a pencil and do the exercises.
Morgen: It’s funny you should say that but I’ve never been one to write in a book… a magazine, no problem but not in a book. That’s why I love the bookmarking facility of the Kindle. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Jill: My first acceptance was getting a poem published at age eight. It was and is still a thrill.
Morgen: What a wonderful way to start. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Jill: I’m putting together a workshop that may turn into a full day of doing exercises from Waking Up Happy, discussing people’s results and insights, and sharing life stories. I’m very excited about how transformative such a workshop may be for people who are ready to embark on their journey of personal change.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Jill: Yes, I write every day. I don’t keep track of how many pages I write, so I can’t say what the most is that I’ve written in a day. I don’t think the quantity of pages written means much of anything. What’s important is to write something meaningful, even if it’s just one sentence.
Morgen: Absolutely. I only worked out recently that 300 words a day is 100,000 words in a year and that’s feasible for anyone (says she who doesn’t write every day). Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Jill: Of course there are times when the words don’t flow, but I simply keep writing. Or I go back and edit what I’ve already written, and that usually warms me up enough to write again. That is the cure. Just keep writing and editing, writing and editing, until something worthwhile takes shape. Reading an inspirational book like Waking Up Happy is also a good solution! That’s why I wrote it– to help people jog themselves out of a rut and move forward with energy and purpose.
Morgen: I have the purpose (this blog, writing generally) but I do lack the energy sometimes. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Jill: I am a voracious reader, which fills my head with ideas. I also get a lot of my inspiration from my dreams. I wake up at night or in the morning and fill sheets of paper with ideas that have come to me. The most amazing breakthroughs of my life have come from my dreams. I talk a lot about this in Waking Up Happy and include exercises others can do to remember, interpret, and shape their dream lives.
Morgen: I love exercises. I set three every other Monday for my writing group and we come up with some amazing things (albeit fiction). Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Jill: I’m in several writing groups, which I find invaluable. The members of these groups are my closest friends and supporters.
Morgen: I belong to four and they’re all great (I get different things out of each one). Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Jill: My husband Phillip.
Morgen: You’re lucky, I only have my dog and he loves everything I write which really isn’t helpful. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Jill: I do a lot of editing! It’s the key to good writing. I find myself editing in my mind even when reading books. Not all books, of course, but it seems like so many modern ones lack the excellent editors who used to turn books into true masterpieces.
Morgen: Which is one of the hot topics surrounding eBooks at the moment (some have had no editors at all!). How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Jill: My research for Waking Up Happy included reading hundreds of books on related topics, such as change theory, which I used to create the motivational exercises in the book. I also interviewed dozens of people to create the 30+ memoirs that form the backbone of the book. I’ve been receiving the most amazing feedback from readers of Waking Up Happy. They tell me that the combination of memoirs of people who have changed their lives, paired with exercises that show readers how they can make the same changes for themselves, has helped them create new lives when nothing else has worked.
Morgen: Wow, that’s high praise indeed. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Jill: I do most of my writing on my computer. But constantly throughout the day (and even the night, as mentioned earlier!) I am jotting down notes on scraps of paper.
Morgen: I used to send out morse code messages to my neighbours because I kept switching the light on and off as I came up with ideas. Now I go to bed so late and get up so early that I sleep right through. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Jill: Being a freelance writer and working at home while my daughter was growing up pretty much guaranteed that I would be able to write no matter what the distraction. However, I crave silence and seek it out whenever I am able. Many of the exercises in Waking Up Happy come back to the wisdom of finding pools of silence throughout your day.
Morgen: I share my house with a dog so I have plenty of that. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Jill: In writing Waking Up Happy, I found that I loved writing in first person. All the stories in the book are true and told in first person. I also used a lot of second person in the book, since the exercises speak directly to the reader (e.g., here is what you can do to effect these same transformations in your own life). Writing in the third person can also be very useful and is the basis for a number of exercises in the book. One of the memoirists in Waking Up Happy describes how healing it was for her to write her autobiography in the third person. She was able to feel kinder toward the innocent child of her story than she ever felt for herself as an adult. Feeling empathy for herself as a little girl helped her forgive herself for her flaws and foibles. It’s a powerful exercise for anyone, and you don’t need to write your whole life story. Just think of a time you felt angry with yourself or ashamed of yourself or disappointed in yourself. Write about that experience in the third person, using he or she rather than I. Consider yourself a character in the story. Imagine it happened to someone else. Viewing yourself with a more objective eye is a good way to see yourself with more clarity and compassion. And reading your story to someone else is even more powerful. When you say out loud the things that are hardest to say, and find yourself totally accepted, it makes anything possible. That’s why doing exercises like these can lead to leaps forward in your growth.
Morgen: It’s interesting what you say about writing an autobiography in third person but then I guess some of the fiction we write has pieces of ourselves in it. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Jill: I’ve been amazed at how much I am enjoying the marketing part. Doing readings of Waking Up Happy, talking to readers about their responses to the book, and comparing answers to the exercises in the book with readers – these have been my favorite aspects of the whole process. I suppose what I like least is dealing with the constant computer crises. That’s the problem with working at home; my computer guru is my husband, and though he is a wonderful help to me and has the patience of a saint, I hate to interrupt him with the never-ending problems with my computer.
Morgen: I had a series of PC laptops that drove me nuts then, after many months of badgering by my IT guru (my Swiss-based brother) I finally bought an Apple Mac and love it. I get a spinning rainbow wheel occasionally but everything talks to everything else. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Jill: One thing I learned when I was very young was that if I lost something I wrote, I could rewrite it and it would be even better than the first version. That is very useful knowledge because I seem to be always losing my work, especially in these days of computer viruses. I don’t need to panic when my precious computer files are wiped out. Of course I may use a few bad words and pound my head against my desk, but then I just start rewriting, and it comes more fluidly, eloquently, and gracefully than the first time. That is the magic of writing, which is a never-ending surprise and delight.
Morgen: You have a better memory than me then as I’ve so often gone to write something down and forgotten what it was (especially annoying if I thought it was brilliant, at the time) but then I suppose if it’s come out once it’s been in your brain twice (if that makes sense). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Jill: Take time to read and write for yourself. It’s the most important thing you can do as a writer, editor, and person. Read the great writers. Pay attention to how they use words and how they get their points across. Keep a journal. Allow your writing to be a living, daily part of who you are. Have patience; it will happen in its own time. Hold on to the knowledge that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. Doing what you love.
Morgen: That’s me. Is there a quote you like?
Jill: There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your work?
Jill: Visit my Website, www.WakingUpHappyBook.com
Morgen: If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
Jill: Although my life has been checkered with painful parts, and I have made some stupendous mistakes along the way, I wouldn’t do it any differently, because all that pain and error have made me who I am today – a woman who knows the joy of waking up happy! This is a theme in the memoirs in Waking Up Happy and the basis of many of the exercises in the book: Regret serves no purpose. All of us need to forgive ourselves for being flawed, imperfect human beings and move forward. We must learn to take the pain and re-integrate it into a story of triumph. No matter what we have endured, we can re-write our pasts so that we become the heroes of our own lives.
Morgen: Whenever an interviewee says they’ve always known they wanted to be a writer I’ve wished it hadn’t taken 30+ years for me too but then I remember I have 30+ years experience and I don’t mind. There are many who start this journey once they’ve retired… I’ve just taken that step 20 years early. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Jill: First of all, I wrote my book Waking Up Happy: A Handbook of Change with Memoirs of Recovery and Hope to provide readers with the tools of change. As one reader told me, “The people in Waking Up Happy don’t just tell what happened to them. They tell what they did about it and how you can do the same thing to change your own life.” The memoirs tell the true stories of change, and the exercises throughout the book provide the tools to create those same transformations. Although the storytellers in Waking Up Happy have all recovered from agonizing pasts, you needn’t have suffered to benefit from the book. We all need to keep changing. Constant evolution is what leads to a fulfilling life.
Second, I am donating half the proceeds of Waking Up Happy to the Recovery Foundation, which helps build new lives every day by providing scholarships to those who can’t afford to pay for treatment. So if you buy a copy, you will be helping to transform someone’s life!
Morgen: Please do, folks. Thank you, Jill.
I then invited Jill to include an extract of her writing and here’s a brief adaptation of the Introduction to ‘Waking Up Happy’:
There are many reasons why you may want to change your life. If you’re in a relationship that’s diminishing rather than enhancing your best self, or if you’re eating the wrong foods, hurting your body, or doing other self-destructive things, you know you can’t continue on that path. And as you pass through different phases in your life, adjustments are necessary.
Changing your life isn’t easy. It means creating yourself anew. Because you’re both the sculptor and the stone, it’s a wrenching task.
And yet every sculptor knows that the piece of art that’s meant to be already exists: It’s a matter of carving its essence from material that’s already there. When asked how the granite bear came to be, the sculptor says, “I just cut away everything that wasn’t a bear.”
Everyone’s life cries out for transformation. If you don’t change and grow, you die: Bit by bit, day by day, your innermost soul dwindles and perishes. The cost of not continuing to grow is ultimately feeling half-dead.
You’re the artist of your own life. All you need do is pick up the tools for change and begin to use them. Each false start is a carving crucial to the final piece of art, paving the way for you to sculpt your greatest creation: the beautiful self that lies within the stone.
Juliana (Jill) Muehrcke is the award-winning author of dozens of books, including her just-published Waking Up Happy: A Handbook of Change with Memoirs of Recovery and Hope. Founder and editor of the international magazine Nonprofit World (www.snpo.org), she has studied at the University of Colorado and the University of Michigan and has a BA degree, specializing in English literature, creative writing, and psychology, from the University of Washington. Jill is listed in Who’s Who. In her spare time, she enjoys teaching yoga and eating ethnic food. For many years, in several cities, including Seattle and Madison, she has written restaurant reviews. You can visit her website at www.WakingUpHappyBook.com and listen to Jill on the Joy Cardin Show.
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