Nita Sweeney, author of You Should be Writing, was recently interviewed by Kate Foster on her life and writing career, read the interview here.
Who are you and what do you write?
I am the award-winning author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink and coauthor of the writing journal, You Should Be Writing. I coach creatives in writing and meditation, blog at Bum Glue, and publish the monthly email newsletter, Write Now Columbus. I live in central Ohio, USA with my husband, Ed, and our yellow Labrador retriever, Scarlet, who is also my running partner.
Where and when and how did the writing life begin for you?
A voracious reader, I caught the writing bug young and longed to have my name on the cover of a book. In fifth grade, our teacher had us write a story and bind it into a book. Hence, I own the sole copy of my first book, Sheshak the Wild Stallion, a story stolen shamelessly from another book I was reading. I did not yet believe my own stories had merit.
How has the journey to this point been? Can you give us a basic rundown?
How much time do you have? You might want to get a cup of coffee and a snack. Here goes.
After Sheshak was “published” I told my father I wanted to be a writer write. “Writing is a fabulous skill. It will help with whatever profession you choose.” I didn’t know any writers and I doubt he did either. To Dad, making a living was all that mattered. To me, at that time, what he thought was what mattered. Instead of creative writing, in college I studied the “practical” journalism then went to law school. Five years after I was admitted to the bar, I was a partner in a small firm.
At some point during the ten years I practiced law, I stumbled on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and began to use “writing practice” to draft legal documents. When depression, anxiety, and bipolar mania forced me out of the legal profession, I wrote a few magazine articles for large publications, but eventually began to write just for myself. And I flew to Taos, New Mexico to study with Ms. Goldberg in person.
In what was either a manic jag or a brilliant move, my husband and I relocated to Taos. In time, I became Natalie’s assistant. My husband and I moved back to my home state of Ohio three years later, but I continued studying and assisting Natalie. My ten years with her provided the foundation for my writing life. “Writing practice builds your spine,” she said. If writers need anything, it’s a strong spine.
I also discovered National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo,) the annual worldwide challenge to write 50,000 words of fiction during the 30 days of November. Most years I “rebel” by writing nonfiction. As a result, I have first drafts of several novels, several books of creative nonfiction, and several memoirs.
In 2006, I studied at Goddard College and in 2008 earned my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing through their low-residency program in Port Townsend, Washington. I rewrote and revised my first NaNoWriMo project, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links, the still unpublished memoir about playing golf with my father the last year he was alive. I became my MFA thesis. After graduation, I began to shop it around. I’d already been teaching writing practice and meditation to adult learners and I used my memoir course to fulfill Goddard’s teaching practicum requirement.
But depression struck again, compounded by grief when many people and one cat I adored died, including my 24-year old niece, my father-in-law, and finally, my mother. And that’s also when running found me. I took up this simple activity of jogging with my dog and it turned me around. I drew on the writing practice I did during those years to form the first very ugly draft of my award-winning mental health and running memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink which Mango Publishing released in 2019.
Since I’ve been studying, blogging about, and teaching writing for nearly two decades, when my editor, the award-winning author and Mango Associate Publisher Brenda Knight, wanted a coauthor for her quotation-based writing journal, she asked me to help. What an honor! Mango released You Should Be writing: A Journal of Inspiration & Instruction to Keep Your Pen Moving this June.
I made publishing sound easy, but it wasn’t. I pitched that first book to a ton of agents and editors and entered a slew of contests. I’m forever grateful Brenda Knight and Mango picked it up.
What’s been the hardest part of your writing/publishing experience so far? And the most enjoyable?
I love the way my hand, arm, and body feel moving a pen across paper. I love the sound of words, the feeling of them falling off my tongue and out of my fingers as I pound on the keyboard. I also love to revise. Shaping those awful first drafts into something intended to reach a reader provides unlimited rewards.
I also love to read which is essential for writers. I love the mystery of figuring out how an author made me feel a certain way or landed a surprise in just the right place and kept me turning the page. The language, the meaning of words, the sound and texture all lure me in.
And the smell of books. I write because I love the smell of books.
As for the hardest thing, it’s also what makes the rest of my life difficult. The opening line in Depression Hates a Moving Target “My mind was trying to kill me again” describes nearly anything I do, from making a sandwich to writing. Call it writer’s block. Resistance. Inertia and terror and sloth all rolled up into a mind state that, if I allow it, drives me to my bed, or worse.
I’ve learned an intricate dance, creeping toward the page, sneaking up on it so my mind does not freak out. Sometimes that means picking up a pen or opening the document. Inch my way in. Prime the pump. Set a timer. Ten minutes, go! Other times it means sit still. Do nothing. Meditate and breathe. Or I might go for a run. Doodle. Research. Outline. Take a shower. Read poetry or a different book.
Gratefully, since I’ve been at this for decades, I know the block is temporary. It will pass, but only if I trust my process.
Would you go back and change anything?
I would spend more time with my mother. In the months before she died, I was too “busy” (and annoyed with her) to have lunch or tea or even much of a phone call. I’d made a vow to put writing above everything else. I wish I could have found a balance. She was a fierce, creative, complex person and is now gone forever. I miss her every day.
Where would you like to be in 5 years’ time? And 10?
First, I hope to be alive! And I hope to be more of an ally to marginalized people. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white woman living in an affluent suburb of a Midwestern United States city. I need to do better.
As far as my writing life, I hope more of my books find their way into the world. You Should Be Writing, the writing journal I coauthored, was a gift project practically dropped in my lap and I’m so grateful. As it launches, the novels and memoirs and poetry and essays still in my drawer or still in my head clamber for attention. Every day I tell them, “Hush dears. You’ll each have your turn.” The project closest to my heart is a book of daily meditations about living in the moment I’ve been working on for nearly 25 years. Stay tuned! My journey surprises me all the time.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to new writers just starting out?
Take a long view and keep your day job. And if you can find a day job that’s not related to writing, that’s a bonus. Meanwhile, learn to love the work. Learn to love forming sentences. Learn to love the sound of words and the smell of books. but you probably already do or you wouldn’t be here.
And most importantly . . .
Ketchup or Mayo? – Mustard on ham. Ketchup on burgers but if there’s no ketchup then mayo and a tomato. Mix the ketchup with horseradish for cocktail sauce on fish.
Mayo in tuna salad and egg salad and chicken salad and potato salad. Can you tell I’m from the Midwest USA? On fries? Malt vinegar. Only ketchup on fries if vinegar is not available.
Night or Day? – Any moment above ground is a good one.
Inside or Outside? – I’m a marathoner. There is no inside or outside. There’s only running. I’ve done 20 miles on an indoor track (205 laps) and 26.2 miles all in the same day outdoors three times. I’ll take the fact that I’m upright and can run.
Dogs or cats? – I was a dog in a former life so dogs, but I love spending time with other people’s cats. I’m just too needy. Most cats turn up their noses at my need for affection.
Twitter or Facebook? – I used to prefer Facebook, but as my Twitter following has developed, I’ve become more of a Twitter fan because you get perspectives from strangers. Plus, the Facebook algorithms make it nearly impossible to reach people on my author page. I just started a Facebook Group, The Writer’s Mind. That might be my new favorite.
Ebook or Paperback? – Remember the smell of books I love? Paperback.
Sun or rain? – There’s nothing better than running in a light rain or standing on the porch and listening to a strong downpour. But give me the sun the other 80% of the time.
Keyboard or pencil & notebook? – Fast writing pen and notebook, you know, like the writing journal Brenda Knight and I just launched!
Comedy or drama? – Life is full of enough drama. Please make me laugh.
Chips or chocolate? – Chocolate covered chips. Dark chocolate of course. It’s health food.
A Journal of Inspiration & Instruction to Keep Your Pen Moving
Writing Inspiration from Incredible Authors. Gathered by Brenda Knight and writing coach Nita Sweeney, author of Depression Hates a Moving Target, You Should Be Writing provides you with writing wisdom from a variety of accomplished authors.
Writing Practice on Every Page. This journal is a must-have for writers everywhere. With quotes from a diverse group of historical and modern authors to use as creative prompts on every page, you’ll be able to bring your writing inspiration with you wherever you go. You’ll find plenty of great advice, such as Toni Morrison’s encouragement, “As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it.”