Author Jennifer Weiner Recalls Her Path to Success
The secret to Jennifer Weiner’s success is enjoying the climb—and not obsessing about staying at the top.
I don’t have the best memory in the world—just ask my husband or kids, who, on a daily basis, are recruited to help me find my glasses or keys. But somehow I’ve been gifted with an almost perfect recollection of the period of time, from 1998 to 2000, that I spent writing my first book, Good in Bed ($14, amazon.com; $16, bookshop.org). I remember every specific of being 28, single, recently dumped, and convinced I’d never love again. I spent my days as a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I spent my nights and weekends in the spare bedroom of my two-bedroom apartment, sitting in front of my Mac Classic and thinking, “I am going to tell myself a story, and the story will be about a girl like me, and I will give her a happy ending.” I can feel the heft of the book titled Guide to Literary Agents, which I took out of the library to help me find the person who would serve as a conduit between me and the publishing professionals I hoped would be lining up for a chance to publish Good in Bed.
I can remember walking into Kinko’s and having three copies of the (500-page! double-sided! single-spaced! bound!) manuscript printed for the top three agents on my list. All three rejected it; one included a gently worded missive suggesting that sending an unsolicited 500-page manuscript was not the Done Thing, and that manuscripts should never, ever be double-sided, single-spaced, or bound.
I can remember dozens of rejections: Not taking new clients. Not taking new fiction. Not taking new women’s fiction. Not taking you. I remember finding an agent who wanted to work with me—if I made my heroine thinner. “Nobody wants to read about a lonely, pathetic fat girl,” the agent instructed. She urged me to make my protagonist “normal fat, like Bridget Jones.” I remember, somehow, mustering the courage to decline her offer. I remember finding an agent who believed in the book as it was. “I loved your book! It spoke to me!” her tiny voice warbled, as I sat at my desk in the newsroom, holding the phone and wondering, “How?”
I remember exactly where I was (my hair salon, changing out of my robe) when my publicist called to tell me that Good in Bed had gotten a starred Kirkus review and I asked her, “What is Kirkus?” (It is a big, respected trade publication that gives books some of their earliest press.) I remember seeing the book’s cover for the first time as it rolled out of the then state-of-the-art fax machine. I remember seeing my book in the Borders on Walnut Street in Philadelphia for the first time, back when there were Borders stores, and watching a woman, a stranger, pick it up. “If you buy it, I’ll sign it for you,” I offered. I remember where I was sitting—the Bertucci’s restaurant in Avon, Connecticut, with my mother’s book club—when my brother Joe slipped into the store and handed me a piece of paper that read, “You are #35 on the New York Times best-seller list.”
Maybe the clarity of the memories of my early days is why it’s sometimes hard to believe that I am 20 years and 16 books past those days. Maybe it’s that every new book sends me right back to the beginners’ club again. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to forget that I am no longer a debut novelist, that I’m no longer the shiny new thing. Instead of appearing on lists of the best new writers—or the best new writers under 30 (or 40)—I’m sometimes the one creating those lists.
RELATED: The Best Books of 2020 (So Far)
Like many, many people, I believed that success would fix me. I thought there were achievements I could check off, benchmarks I could hit, that would silence the shrieking inside me, the voice that says, “You’re not good enough and you never will be.” If I finish a novel. If I sell a novel. If I’m reviewed here or profiled there. If the novel is made into a movie. If the novel is on the best-seller list. If it’s number one on the best-seller list. One by one, I’ve checked off the goals and waited for that to be enough. And waited, and waited, and waited.
Here is what I’ve learned: The climb is more fun than the tenure part. Getting to the top is more enjoyable than trying to stay there. And if you feel empty, if you feel less than, or invisible, or unhappy, or unworthy, then there is no achievement (at least, none I’ve found) that will fix it. If you’re chasing those benchmarks—a specific title, a generous salary, a big house, a fancy car—hitting them might satisfy you for a time, but there will always be something bigger and better to chase. The work has to be its own reward, because external validations will never be enough.
When I wrote my first book, I was lucky, in terms of both what I had and what I didn’t. I had a good job and enough money in the bank to rent a cottage by the sea for a week. I didn’t have children, a husband, anyone to feed and clothe and send out into the world. So off I went. “I am going to finish my novel,” I told my mother, who draped her hand across her forehead, threw her head back, and said, “Oh yes, your novel!” in a tone that indicated her profound disbelief that such a thing did, or ever would, exist. I piled my dog and my Mac into my Honda, and I drove to the Cape. I had an extension cord that was barely long enough to reach the splintery picnic table on the postage stamp of a deck where I sat for hours, typing the book’s final pages. I rode my bike along the shore and swam in the bay. I thought, “No matter what happens, I wrote a book. I started it, and I finished it.”
Everything that’s happened since then—the starred reviews, the best-seller lists—has felt wonderful, for a time. But the glow of finishing, of inventing a heroine and sending her on a journey? That joy has never faded. That moment of knowing, with unfading certainty, that I am a writer.
Today, as I write this, I’m watching the world change. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder—the death of another unarmed Black man at the hands of the police—people are demonstrating all over the country, in big cities and small towns. They are showing up and speaking out, demanding accountability, equality, and change. I know the power of a story, and how telling mine made women feel connected, valued, and seen. I also know how lucky and privileged I was, in everything from the schools I attended to the platforms I could access. I’ll always be a writer, but now I also want to be a mentor, who can help other women speak their truths and let the world hear what they need to say.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” the poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser asked. Her answer: “The world would split open.” Which sounds, on its face, like a terrifying prospect. But sometimes things that break can knit together more strongly. Sometimes those broken places let in the light.
Jennifer Weiner is the best-selling author of 17 books, including Big Summer ($10, amazon.com; $26, bookshop.org), which came out in May. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and children and no longer uses an extension cord for her computer.
This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Real Simple.