Jessica Lahey

How did you become a writer?

I'm not sure where the distinction between being "a person who writes" and being a "writer" lies, but I have always written. I was not a big journal keeper or diarist, but I've always loved writing nonfiction. I love telling a true story, whether mine or someone else's, and am so grateful that I get to do it for a living as a teacher and a practitioner of the craft. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I got serious about writing in high school. I was lucky enough to have two phenomenal teachers, Don Cannon and K.C. Potts. I specifically remember getting a paper back from K.C. in my junior year of high school. He'd written a note about a tiny moments in that paper, a description of clicking my cycling shoes into my pedals. He said it was beautiful, and that was it. I was hooked on the rush of rendering a sensory moment in words. Don and K.C. taught me so more than English and writing; they taught me about the real depth of language, the power language has to stitch ideas together and convey more than one meaning at a time. It's not coincidental that I became a teacher. I love writing, but I also love showing my students how to create the magic themselves. I have tried to model my own teaching after Don's and K.C.'s example, and still rely on them for advice on both my teaching and my writing.

When and where do you write?

When I was teaching full-time (English, Latin and writing), it was catch as catch can. Between classes, during lunch, during my prep periods, and in the moments between helping my kids with their homework and making dinner. Now that I'm teaching very part-time, I have established a much more productive schedule. I'm primarily a morning writer. I am clearest first thing, after coffee, and get my best work done before lunch, either at the dining room table, at my desk in the back room of our house, or at the little coffee table in our kitchen. I'm pretty hyper, so I have to get up a lot and move in between ideas, pages, or sections. When I have a serious deadline to meet, it helps for me to get out of my house, away from the temptations of laundry and gardening. I go to Dartmouth's Baker Library a lot, and wrote much of The Gift of Failure at the King Arthur Flour cafe in Norwich, Vermont. A little background noise is good for me; I'm pretty good at tuning it out. 

What are you working on now?

I write education pieces for the Atlantic and have a column called "The Parent-Teacher Conference" at the New York Times, so there's always something in progress for those two publications. I also do regular commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, and I love the radio work. I am also finishing up a YA novel that I'd started before selling The Gift of Failure and while it's much harder for me to write fiction, I love writing this book. It's a story that was born out of a friend's memory loss, and the parts that were hardest for me to write had to do with the experience of having no memory and dealing with the aftermath of a head injury. However, the day after I handed in my draft of The Gift of Failure, my husband and I went for a trail ride in the New Hampshire woods and I was thrown from a horse, on to my head. I had no memory of who I was, where we were, how to get home, what my book was about, or even where I'd been that morning. Suddenly, I had an insight into my main character. I don't recommend this kind of "method writing," but my own head injury offered its own silver linings, I suppose. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Not really. I've suffered from anxiety and worry when challenging edits come in, but I usually can go for a walk or go out and weed a flower bed and the answer presents itself. Once, when I was having trouble framing a piece I really wanted to write, I went for a long cross-country ski, and the piece just presented itself to me. I came home and simply wrote down the stuff that percolated up. I've come to understand that gardening, writing, running, skiing, walking, laundry, vacuuming, are actually a really important part of my process. For me, writing is about being quiet or doing something with my body so my brain can unhinge and do its thing, sifting through ideas and letting them settle into place.

What’s your advice to new writers?

At the risk of being cliche, read, write, and read. My friend and New York Times editor K.J. Dell'Antonia likes to talk about giving your best writing hours to your most important project, so I try to do that. I read a lot to get ideas about the subjects I write about (education and parenting), but I just love to learn stuff. I will read just about any nonfiction book - about mapmaking and history and extreme sports, and food foraging...I love to read about stuff I don't know much about. That, in turn, feeds the idea mill. Ideas for my own writing come from odd places, and I just have to read a lot and pay attention when those connections and ideas show up.

Bio: I studied comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and then law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I got my first teaching gig at Duke University during my time at UNC, and fell in love that very first day. I finished law school, but knew I would end up teaching. I wrote my first book and, like most first books, it was a valuable lesson in writing if not a publishable work. After that book went nowhere, I started writing about education, first at my own blog and then for the Core Knowledge Foundation for my first really wonderful editor, Robert Pondiscio  For the first time, I began to understand that editors are not there to make me feel bad about my writing, but to improve it. I published my first article at the New York Times Motherlode blog, and later, at the Atlantic. That article, "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail," went viral and helped me land my agent, Laurie Abkemeier (I'd chased her for years!) and led to an auction for my book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. That book will be released by HarperCollins in August of 2015. I live in the wilds of New Hampshire with my husband, a physician and writer, and my two boys, 15 and 10.