• Jean Ellen Whatley
  • All You Need is Nudge: How She Writes Helped Me Go Off the Leash and on the Road to Publication (+...
All You Need is Nudge: How She Writes Helped Me Go Off the Leash and on the Road to Publication (+ a Giveaway!)
Written by
Jean Ellen Whatley
September 2012
Written by
Jean Ellen Whatley
September 2012

(First of a three-part series)

Affirmation is to writers what shoes are to Imelda Marcos. If we’re honest with ourselves, we admit we want it. We need it. We love it. We sometimes feel like we simply can’t go on without one little crumb of recognition and approval.

In the long, lonely hours which define the writing life, hunched over computers, staring into space as if the elusive word we need is floating above the couch or over the house across the street, where ofttimes our minds trail off to those toxic thoughts of “Why am I doing this?” we writers need to savor every precious nugget of affirmation we can get.

I never needed it so desperately as the night I heard the sonar “blip” of an incoming email which turned out to be the most positive reinforcement I’d ever received as a writer to that point. I gasped, “Oh my God!” reading the email from She Writes, which made my daughter jump a foot because we were all on high alert, a somber vigil, waiting for word about my brother’s passing. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just eleven months prior and the cancer was holding sway. I had just returned from visiting him in New Mexico, where I had the blessing of being able to say goodbye while he was still aware of who was in the room. I had stayed as long as I could, but with work, plus family demands and knowing that soon I would need to return for his funeral, I said goodbye and came home to St. Louis full of sadness. He passed away five days later.

In the midst of all this grief though, nestled deep inside my heart, was a bright spot; a shimmering, ice-blue sliver of hope for something I held as dear as my dog. The email from She Writes had informed me that I was one of eighteen finalists in the first-ever Passion Project contest. I was over the moon with excitement! The winner would be announced in mid-September. A week later, on Labor Day, where I had just delivered a eulogy to more than 300 people, and had not even begun my own grief work, we mourners sat in lawn chairs in Don’s front yard, parked like crows on the crispy summer grass,  dressed in funeral black, far too hot for the late summer sun, juggling plates piled high from the funeral buffet, catching up with long lost relatives. Would have been a great party if my brother had been there. All the while, in the back of my mind, was this tickle of hope  -- hope that for all the years I’d been working and dreaming of becoming a published author, it might finally come to pass. I’m sure you can relate.  

On the heels, or I should say on the “paws” of that shiny object we call affirmation, came a burst of inspiration. The morning after I got the exciting email from She Writes, my dog Libby delivered a message from the universe which would inspire me to stop living with regret, to challenge my fears, and to pursue my writing goals, no matter the cost. I was sitting on my front porch drinking coffee, with Libby at my feet. It was hot and quiet on this early Sunday morning, no work-a-day traffic, nobody up yet walking their dogs. I felt so overwhelming sad, steeped in regret that I’d lost my chance to take my brother Don on a road trip back to our childhood. He was the eldest, I’d already lost another older brother, and I’d wanted to take Don, the keeper of the family stories on a road trip to Texas and California where we’d lived as kids. Don was the only one who knew about that other brother, out there, somewhere, in northern California. But on this day, that trip was a pipe dream, Don’s remaining days were few. I was crying. All of a sudden, Libby jumps up, takes off like a shot across the yard, running and barking like a rabid dog.

It was the damn cat next door. The neighbors had let out their cat.The calico temptress was crouched under a boxwood bush not twenty feet away, but once Libby bolted past the driveway, where our two front yards blend together, she stopped short, yelping and writhing, running up and down along the drive, in restrained misery. She dared not go any closer to the object of her most fervent desire, because of the electric fence around our yard.

“You silly dog,” I mused. “If only you knew, that barrier has no bite! The battery in your shock collar has been dead for months.”

It was as if a giant billboard had dropped down from heaven with this headline: “What truly is holding you back?”

I sat there in stunned amazement at this message from the universe --a  stinging indictment on my life. What was it, really, that stood between me and giving it all I had to be a writer, a real writer? Not a journalist, reporting on the worst day of other’s people’s live, not a press secretary, writing talking points for some candidate, but a story teller, a story teller writing stories that I wanted to tell. And I had a few -- the backstory to my odyssey across America read like a screen test to appear on the Jerry Springer show: born an illegitimate child, abused as a young girl, the story-book marriage collapses like a house of cards with the former husband who ends up in prison for sex crimes, as family members dwindle year by year. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so God-awful tragic.

Aided by the nod from She Writes, (although I did not win the contest) and inspired by the epiphany play on my front lawn, my crazy idea to quit my job, grab the dog and hit the road became an all consuming obsession. Have you ever felt that way? Like you just didn’t believe in what you were doing anymore? Like the dreams you held were dying? That’s how I felt. I backed out the driveway, a few months after this obsession took hold, with barely enough money to survive on, and a fair degree of certainty I’d have a repo man waiting for me when I got back home, but I went anyway. What I didn’t know is what the open road would open up. It paved the way for a book I didn’t know I had in me, Off the Leash.

I’ve always taken things too literally. When I was growing up, I thought every elevator operator in the country was named “Otis” because of the brass plate on the floor which of course, read, “Otis.” Silly me. I guess I took “road to publication”  quite literally too, embarking on a two-month, 8,600 mile road trip with my dog, my muse, my confidant, my foil, my inspiration. But it took the spark of affirmation and encouragement from a group of my peers to help give me the confidence to believe in that inspiration. If there’s bit of advice I would give sister writers it would be this: lean closer to your inner voice, it will guide you, but don’t be afraid to open yourself up to external forces greater than yourself to help you along. Shortly before I left on my road trip to write a book, I used my last free flight, leftovers from all my corporate travel, to go to New York for a Meetup with other writers during the Book Expo of America. I wanted to practice my pitch for Off the Leash and gauge reaction to the concept. I needed to test my wheels, boost my confidence. In a noisy, somewhat dark bar on New York’s Lower East Side, a bunch of writers sat around a table and talked about their projects. This was heady stuff for a novice like me. I chatted briefly with a woman who had recently started a publishing company in St. Louis, who, more than a year later, would end up falling in love with my book and agree to publish it. Kamy Wicoff and She Writes organized the Meetup, which only goes to show that sometimes, all you need is nudge.

(+ Giveaway details: Tell us about what nudged you! What was your epiphany, the point of no return, when you decided to give it your all? 
To nudge you to comment, at the end of this three-part series on October 3rd, we will be giving away a free book to three commenters chosen at random. Seems pretty, uh, random, right?)

Jean Ellen Whatley is the author of Off the Leash: How my dog inspired me to quit my job, pack my car and take a road trip across America to reclaim my life, published by Blank Slate Press, October, 2012. Whatley is an Emmy award-winning journalist cum author who has been featured on Salon, More.com, and as a guest columnist for the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Winston-Salem Journal, the Albuquerque Tribune and KMOX (CBS) radio, CNN and ABC.  For more information about her ebook and print release events, please visit jeanellenwhatley.com.

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  • Jean Ellen Whatley

    Hello all fine writers,

    Just wanted to acknowledge your comments. So much honesty, bravery and determination here. I'm posting the 2nd of the 3-part series on Wednesday, but wanted to say a couple of things -- to Amyah's point about fear, and beginning to feel the smile come back to you, it's like a rejoining or reunion with the person you forgot you liked. This is one of the key messages I wanted to convey, this book is about breaking free from the fear that our lives are destined to be sad, or hard or screwed up. I have a tad bit of experience. (Here's some back story which appeared in Salon - My ex went to prison for sex crimes.) When you do let go of those frozen narratives I call them (shout out to my shrink) it leaves you open to so much more. Which is what Deidre referenced so eloquently --- and what appears on the front of my book: You never know what the open road will open up. But, we do need to be open!  Thanks for the comments, Lovenia, good luck in your travels, SO brave, SO exciting.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Good luck Shari! I have a writer friend who taught school and suddenly couldn't find a job (she's older)...she started writing YA (with a historical touch or two because that was her great love) and is happier than she's ever been. Now on her third book. She's learning the ropes from the bottom and has even self-published and is self-promoting; making launch videos and doing book signings at libraries. SHE IS SO HAPPY. So I hope the same thing for you. Warmly, author Kathryn Meyer Griffith 

  • Amyah L

    Good luck, Shari! A huge mountain of luck! It feels so good to hear women finally awakening to their power.

    Good luck and big hug!

  • Shari Cassutt

    I thought I was going to say it was my divorce that gave me the nudge.  After all, because of the divorce I went to China to teach for a year, started writing about my experiences, and met the most supportive man one can imagine.  But that was just the beginning, the first nudge.  

    The second nudge was the epiphany I had last year, right around this time. For twenty years I taught kindergarten for the public schools.  Last year was no different, except that for the second year in a row I was miserable. A new literacy program imposed from above was making my life crazy.  On this particular day I was teaching the "right" lesson i.e. the lesson that according to the pacing guide supplied by the Up On Highs I was supposed to be teaching. And I was doing it at the "right time" i.e the time that my principal had designated as the literacy block.  Problem was, I was teaching it to the wrong child, the child whose speech was so garbled we couldn't understand a word she said.  The child who was waiting for her mom to get her glasses.  The child whose family had just undergone the trauma of the birth of a seriously premature new baby.The child who had never been to preschool or any other organized program.  In other words, there was no reason to expect that this child should be ready to hear the beginning sounds of words.  But hey, I was doing what the experts had told me to do.  Those experts who had never taught kindergarten.

    As this poor little one was NOT hearing the sounds in the words I was saying, I was getting frustrated and impatient. With the crack of a bolt of lightening I realized that I was done.  I was done teaching in ways that I thought was wrong.  I was done being a cog in an education industry that is ruled by politics and corporate money.  I was done doing what I had done for twenty years with skill, creativity, integrity, and love.  

    At recess I called the retirement board.  I finished the year, which of course once I gave up caring what the experts thought, turned out to be a wonderful year (and yes, my little one eventually began to hear the sounds at the beginning of words).  Now I'm out here trying to figure out the next part of my life. Wish me luck.

  • Amyah L

    Hmmmm... a typo! I wanted to say: we might have way less... sorry :)

  • Amyah L

    Death is not necessarily physical and sometimes we might shave way less problem to deal with the loss of a dear one than with the dismantlement, the total shredding of our lives. We can continue to live after the departure of a loved one – even though it can take time to regain the freedom of mind – but when your life has been destroyed by deep terrible and violent events that leave you discrobumbled like an old puppet after the passage of an army of excited puppies, then grief and returning back to normal becomes an extremely hard task.

    Be it an attack, a murder attempt, a rape, regaining or rather reclaiming your previous life can become the most arduous task ever… mostly because you are so alone and so in fear. When your loved one die, your are surrounded by family and friends to help you survive this tremendous lost but when you have been subjected to violence, it is pretty rare you can get help (except psychiatrist that wants to get you numb with pills for ever) and you are often alone in your heart, in your life and in your frightened mind, and it becomes a gruelling venture to try to get over the insidious fear labyrinth that nested in your chest. This fear grows up so much that often it paralyses you and put your life on hold… and then, you get angry at yourself to have let this happened; at everybody around you because they are abandoning you at a time you need them so much; at the complete world because nobody cares.

    Desperate solitude you can’t extirpate out of your soul.

    But there is ways – when time is ripe – to regain a part of your life, to be reborn to life and writing helped me a lot. I am writing a story based on what I went through. Finally, I am able to take it out of my mind. I can now take the inside book and imprint it on outside paper. Seeing the words aligning themselves on the screen or witnessing the words – often mixed with tears – bleeding out of my pen (ya, I know, it is kind of a cliché but it is a nice one :) ) on the yellow paper give a strange feeling of relief, like if it finally cut the umbilical cord from emotions, bit by bit. I feel like Atlas when he, ultimately, put down the world he carried on his shoulders.

    I am a survivor and smile is coming back on my lips, sparkles of joy in my eyes and I can fill my chest with the beauty surrounding me. My inside writer is finally back home and it is so good to welcome the muse back.

    It would be an immense pleasure for me to read you as you to had the courage to move forward, to follow your instinct and do what you had to do, no matter what.

    Thank you Jean-Ellen!

  • Ripley Patton

    For me the nudge (or was it more like a shove off a cliff?), was leaving everything and moving with my husband and two kids to New Zealand. Five years later, I had started a national writes association there, won a short story award, and written my first novel while surviving two devastating earthquakes (and over 7,000 aftershocks). Now I'm back in the States and have funded the publication of my first novel, a YA paranormal thriller titled Ghost Hand, through Kickstarter. It is coming out in November and I can't believe it. But it is coming out ONLY because I didn't let anything stop me.

  • Lovenia Leapart

    I'm leaving the disillusioning world (at least for me it is anyway) of the 9-5 and going off to China to teaching English at the age of 43.  No, I've never lived abroad and I'll be new to teaching ESL too.  I don't know what country I'll be off to next and I also don't know if this totally life-changing enterprise will enhance/improve my efforts to become a published author, but I guess I'm going to find out....  ;-)  Thanks for your article.  Loved it.

  • Jean Ellen Whatley

    Oh you MADE my day! God love you!

    Hello SheWriters ---

    I've been slow on the uptake here, due to my freelance gig, which is helping me keep my head above water, ha. But in scrolling through these responses, it just makes my heart explode with gratitude, recognition, solidarity and a bunch of "Amen" sisters. Yes, it's unfortunate, not to sound cliche', because none of us ever want to trivialize the death of someone we love, they're far too important, but it does, sometimes take something dramatic like that to shake us free from "frozen narratives" in our head about how things are going to be. My God, some of the things you gals have been through, my heart goes out to you. I have had people ask me, "was writing your book a cathartic experience?" and I'm a bit flippant in my response --"no, that's what I pay a shrink for." Ha! But of course, memoir, will always be somewhat cathartic, right? It would have to be. By the same token, this story, through the grace of God and Subaru, literally unfolded before me. How is it, that on a day when I was doubting myself, I come across a traffic pile up on a California desert highway, and a trio of musicians gets out of their car, three cars ahead of me and start jamming by the side of the highway? By now it had become a parking lot. I get out, with my iphone video camera rolling. Their lyrics, "hold on, hold on, there's so much more than you've been wishing for. Sail on, sail on, there's so much more than your compass can explore...."  (it's in my video trailer on my site, and Chapter 11 of my book, The Privilege of Breathing.) I do not believe such things are random. A big part of my book talks about listening and heeding our inner voices, which will help us, heal us and makes us happy -- but at the same time, remaining open to the abundant signs which also help direct our path. Call me wacky, spiritual, enlightened, self-justifying --doesn't matter. When profound things like this happen, we make a choice -- listen or turn away.I am so grateful and frankly, not surprised, by all of you other smart, fine, strong women who are listening and moving forward, following your own true north. Thank you for your warmth.

  • Jean Ellen Whatley

    Hi Rachel,

    I SO hear what you're saying. I had good jobs, like really good jobs: a TV reporter, press secretary, media relations and commercial video production. I was very fortunate in the jobs and experiences which came my way, and truthfully, all these experiences helped shape me as a writer. Like you, I was relegating my writing to nights and weekends -- for 30 YEARS! I'd even had some small successes -- a near miss with an agent, a 2nd place in a screenwriting contest, a look see by somebody at CAA -- but never "the call" which was going to let me march in to my day job the next day and say, "I'm outta here."  Well you know, they say the definition of insanity, is always doint things the same way you've done them and expecting a different outcome. I came to the sobering, but inspiring and SCARY realization that that perfect time, that opportunity complete with a safety net, simply wasn't coming. My brother's death was such a painful wake up call. I simply could not live with myself and not try with all my might to tell the stories I so longed to tell. The funny thing is, I didn't know what was in me until I got on the road. In that way, I learned that sometimes the story comes to us. I am so grateful for the opportunity. I am still living with the repercussions of bailing on the "safe" life -- I have no health care coverage, I'm playing catch up like you wouldn't believe. I nearly lost my house. But I have something that is almost as precious to me as my children, my dogs and my blessed friends -- I have a book. Rachel, don't be afraid. The only thing worse than living in fear is living with regret. Good luck and God bless.

  • Ruth Berge

    I was at a seminar on leadership in California. The last exercise was a writing one. We were to write a description about ourselves exactly one year from that date. The first sentence I wrote was, "I am a writer." I sat stunned for the next full minute. That was my nudge - or more like a slap on the head - from the universe. It was time to pursue the dream I'd had my entire childhood that had been pushed aside for "practical" purposes. I'm now a columnist for a local newspaper, I have a blog, have published a children's book ("Betty Tales: The True Story of a Brave Bobblehead Cat"), am on the Board of Directors for the Writers Network of South Florida, am writing a collection of short stories to be published in 2013, signing up for Nanowrimo this year to write a fiction novel about the vacation from hell, was hired to write captions for a coffee table book of incredible pictures... It's incredible. All I needed was that shove from behind to get off of mine :)

  • Claire Lopez

    I quit my very secure job as a teacher to write. Scary? You betcha! But She Writes Press is publishing my first novel shortly. Woohoooooo!!

  • Colleen Hannegan

    I sold my retail business after 22 happy years; knowing it was time to enter the third chapter of my life doing something I'd dreamed about since I was 17, (40 years ago!).Writing! Seriously! It was time to get serious about finding the right editor for my memoir and getting it published. No more leaving it on the edge of the desk collecting dust after 5 years. The very next morning after I'd prepared my book proposal to send out to the world, She Writes announces the start of She Writes Press and interested writers could send in their manuscript for consideration. I knew this was my time. My book is currently being edited by a member of She Writes Press and my story is dust free and moving right along. Your story, Jean, sounds like a wonderful read. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Kathy McIntosh

    I look forward to reading your book. Like others posting here, I've had various nudges. This year, however, the nudge is, sadly, death. My ex-husband and his sister died this spring and the husbands of two dear friends died this summer. What more powerful reminder that my time is limited and I'd best make the most of it. I admire Rachel and ache for the losses of others. My first novel is out this month and these nudges have made me vow to get the second written by the end of the year. 

  • Deidre Ann Banville

    Oh my Jean Ellen, I wish you would have read my book so you can know what it feels like to read your words from this side of the page. Affirmations. Very potent word. I love your story and I caught myself leaning forward to grab all of the excitement when your beautiful and sensitive dog jumped off the front porch. This is what I got at that moment, if you will indulge me. Your brother made that happen. By that I mean your thoughts about girling up and hitting the road and writing your story, I feel came from your brother. Clearly I could hear him telling you exactly what it is you said. Just me, but "affirmation" is one of my favorite words. You were destined to write this story and that led you down your path to the road with your favorite best friend. How brave of you and how encouraging this book must be for all of the women who feel like spreading their wings and horizons. Good job and good affirmations in the future. If more people could see the signs and affirmations, their lives may not be in such a turmoil as they are. But then, not everyone has an angel in heaven who will make sure they fulfill their dreams as you do. 

  • Lynn Fisher

    I can't wait to read this book! Myself, I survived a three year battle with depression. When the clouds finally parted and the sun came out I was a completely different person. I appreciated every single day that I wasn't sick. I had lost my job and my marriage. I found another, less prestigious one job...I didnt care, I was productive and had friends. I couldn't have been happier to feel alive again. It was the creative nudge I needed to find a job where I could write and highlight the lives of women around me, which I now do for a regional magazine... I love it!

  • Rachel Dixon

    I am on the verge of something though I am not sure what. I am looking for that nudge, which may just happen over the weekend as I travel to my favorite city again. It's the town that doesn't sleep, the town which invigorates me enough that I feel I could stay awake forever myself. It's one of those places that I've always believed I could not afford to live in. A person I love is there and all of the complexity of that emotion is also drawing me while it pushes me away. 

    Here, I feel I'm spinning wheels. I'm being "safe" and this is its own kind of hell. I want to be a writer and a musician, and nothing more. I want to be able to truly give that my "all," and to grow from that place. I am trying to figure out how, and I'm sure when I get the nudge, I will stop trying. I'll just do it. I will. I will. I will.

  • Widdershins

    In 1983 a tractor-trailer ran my motorcycle (and me) off a mountain road. Almost 30 years and 10 operations later (one leg works, and the other not-so-well) I'm still doing just fine... but I still see that moment so clearly. My life came down to a question of centimeters. A few this way and I'd've lost my leg, a few more and I'd've been killed. It occurred to me that having come that close to Death, fear of living seemed a waste of energy and time. A year after the accident I completed my first novel.

  • Diane McElwain

    You women are brave!  I haven't given up my job.  Believe me I have wanted to forever. Right now all I do is write a blog and stories for my grandchildren. It's so hard to believe in yourself!

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Yeah for you, Jean! There's been a couple of these epiphanies in my life, as well. After my 15 year old brother was murdered in 1971; after my devastating divorce in 1978. After working 23 years at jobs where all I could think about was: I don't want to be here! I want to be writing! Usually such epiphanies come after we are reminded how finite, how preciously short, our lives can be by the death of a loved one or by the shrinking of our souls and spirits...and we realize we should be doing, if at all possible, what our heart wants us to be doing. I left those corporate jobs 12 years ago and have been writing full time ever since (I'd always been writing, but on the side...you all know what I mean) and it hasn't been easy. I've had to live a very simple "cheap" life, but I have been happier. And now I also have 16 books, a novella and 12 short stories to show for it. I might never "make it" rich financially, but my life is full. Happy. I will never say "if only". Never regret not trying. I wouldn't take back a minute. Kathryn Meyer Griffith

  • Rachel Machacek

    Three weeks ago, I quit my job. My perfectly fine full-time marketing job that pays pretty well and makes life around me comfortable because I never have to think too hard about how much money I spend. Perfectly fine, except every day I go to my desk wishing I were embarking on a writing project with a fresh spirit not already sapped by 8 hours of fatigue. I'd always boxed writing into a corner - something that was fine to do on the side -- I freelanced for newspapers and magazines, and wrote and published a book all while working full-time at one job or another. But writing was never THE thing that I did. Too scary. Too risky. What about healthcare?? I thought for sure that when my book was published, I would have the opportunity to make the leap to full-time writer. I could have some money coming in to make it a risk-free venture. But it didn't happen that way. In the wake of confusion, regret and sadness over the dream not happening in the exact way I planned, I took the reins. I got tired of waiting for the life I wanted to lead to begin. So I up and quit my job soon after I up and moved to a city where living is a little easier. 

    I'm about to do exactly what I've been talking about doing all these years. I have absolutely no idea if this is going to work out. I'm not afraid. Sometimes I think this makes me naive. Maybe so. But then again, maybe it's just right.

  • Elizabeth Towns

    I don't know what the exact moment or motivation was, but one day after the divorce and in the midst of the grief of my brother in laws murder; during the recovery from the 3rd and final surgery, I knew that I had to move forward with something that meant everything to me. I had to do something that would bring life to my situation that was all about what I believe my purpose is; I had to write. That was the catalyst to changes that saw me walk away from everything I had into everything I am. I don't regret one moment.