Essays / Features / Fiction

From Journalist to Novelist: Redefining Success

by Jennifer Haupt

I was a successful journalist when I went to Rwanda in 2007 to interview survivors of the genocide 12 years earlier and report on the nonprofits that helped them rebuild their lives. After close to two decades as a freelance reporter, I was very clear on what the term success entailed: My work was published in magazines and newspapers often enough that I could call this my career. I received checks in the mail on a regular basis, each bank deposit a slip of validation that kept me on track, kept me pitching stories to editors, kept me writing.

I wrote for dozens of magazines with name recognition: Oprah, Parents, Reader’s Digest, Redbook. My byline was far from a household word, but I was someone in the eyes of the world. In retrospect, I see that I hid behind that success. It was the shiny armor I pulled over my fears of being not smart enough, happy enough, or otherwise good enough. I had felt like an outsider as long as I could remember. Now it was my job to keep my distance from the people I interviewed. I did it well.

It’s funny, I made a living primarily writing inspiring profiles of women who pursued their passions, sometimes changing a corner of the world, yet for many years I was afraid to even acknowledge my own passion: writing a novel. Fear kept me in a comfortable place that looked like passion to the outside word. In retrospect, though, I can see that I went to Rwanda not just to conduct interviews for magazine assignments, but also to investigate my own untapped desires—in my career and my soul.

I was changed by my trip to Rwanda. I was changed by failure.

During my first week in Kigali, the bustling capitol city, all three of the firm assignments that took me to Rwanda fell through for one reason or another. One nonprofit that gave genocide survivors a safe place to tell their stories decided it didn’t want to go public. A co-op of weavers, all widows, was in the process of disbanding due to lack of funding for materials. An expat American woman who had launched an orphanage in the countryside and ran it for years was ill and had gone back to the U.S.

I felt more than a little lost, wandering the streets with nowhere in particular to go, no real purpose for being there. I had lost my identity as a reporter and was left as only mzunga—white stranger—hearing the word whispered again and again, by soldiers on street corners, the women in the market where I bought beignets each morning, the children who ran up to me, giggling, as if on a dare, and then ran away. I was an outsider and there was no hiding it.

I still had three weeks left before I could use my return plane ticket, so, being a dutiful journalist, I hired a driver guide to drive take me into the foothills to find more stories. Little did I know I would discover more of my own story.

Moses, a middle-aged bald gentleman who had served as a lieutenant in Idi Amin’s army, took me to memorial sites—churches and schools where Tutsi families were lured by teachers and priests with the promise of safety from the systematic killings happening on a daily basis in their villages. There, they were murdered by government-sponsored armies made up of members of the Hutu tribe, often their neighbors and former friends. I found myself fascinated by the many unambiguous examples of good and evil that resides in all of us, and how a government campaign of spreading fake news ignited a civil war between two tribes with common ancestors.

There was always a guide at each of the dozens of tiny blood-stained memorials I visited in small towns, usually a woman in her mid-40s—my age at the time. Often, these widows were lone survivors whose family members were slaughtered there. Giving tours, telling the stories of the atrocities that happened at these sites for a fee equivalent to a dollar or so from each visitor, was their restitution. It struck me that I was nearly always the only visitor. I couldn’t help but think of my visit to Dachau in my early twenties. Thousands of people visit Dachau each year; we Jews vow to remember the atrocities that happened there. Never again.

It was during these one-to-one conversations, the sharing of my family history as well as theirs, that I realized I wanted to do more than just report on the aftermath of the genocide atrocities and how survivors were coping. I wanted to get closer, explore my own questions about grief that came from my own experiences as well as seeing the suffering in Rwanda firsthand. Writing at night in a notebook, I began imagining the lives of these women who had shared pieces of their stories with me, filling in the gaps between facts with my own desires and fears. I began transforming my career from a reporter to a fiction writer. What would it be like, I wondered, to go down this path at age 45?

I remember one church in particular: the bullet holes still in the ceiling, a blood-stained Virgin Mary bust overseeing the single room, shelves lined with the skulls and bones of anonymous victims against the back wall. These were the bodies that could not be identified, could not be claimed by family members, could not be buried to rest in peace. I was met by a woman named Julia, in her mid-40s, around my age at the time. She had survived by lying on the floor, face down and barely breathing, among the dead bodies. Now, she gave tours so that no one would forget.

I talked with Julia about her family members and friends who had been murdered here. We cried together; my tears were, in part, for my own relatives and members of my tribe who had been murdered during the Holocaust. My tears were also for my sister, Susie, who died when she was three and I was two, old enough to know she was gone but too young to remember her. All traces of Susie were wiped clean from our home and it was forbidden to speak of her, too painful for my mother. I understand now that this is how my parents grieved, but I also needed to mourn her.

I didn’t realize until I was in Rwanda that I needed to address my own unresolved grief. There was, in this foreign country where my senses were heightened, a kind of permission to feel my own sorrow and pain. In Rwanda, it felt safe for the first time. Excavating my own loss seemed minuscule compared with the devastating atrocities the genocide survivors had endured. Yet Julia and I shared a powerful mixture of emotions—compassion, sorrow, longing—that crossed the boundaries of race, culture, and scale.

On the flight back home, I thought about creating a bridge for readers between their world and the land I had been in for the past month. I thought about using my words to enable readers to feel the connections I had experienced. The idea was fascinating to me; hopeful. It lit a creative fire that truly warmed me I had not even realized existed.

I returned from Rwanda with a laptop full of stories from genocide survivors and aid workers, stories of reconciliation and forgiveness, stories of inhumane atrocities and superhuman resilience, stories of grace when there can be no forgiveness—stories of amahoro, the Rwandan greeting that literally means peace. Since the genocide in 2014, this greeting between Hutus and Tutsis has taken on undertones of apology and acceptance, sorrow for the past and hope for the future. Amahoro is a shared desire for grace when there can be no forgiveness.

I wanted not just to report these stories I heard in Rwanda but to allow readers to enter them. I wanted to explore more deeply the meaning of amahoro from different world views. I wanted to excavate my own grief more fully and, perhaps, find my own vision of grace. It was clear to me that I could only accomplish all this by creating my own world.

Ray Bradbury writes in Zen in the Art of Writing: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” I know from experience that this is true

I gave myself one year to cut back on freelance writing and carve out time to write a novel based on the lives of people I met in Rwanda and the experiences I had there. I was totally intoxicated during that year. I took writing classes—lots of classes, at Hugo House in Seattle as well as an weekly critique workshop. This enabled me to  built a community of other fiction and creative nonfiction writers.  I wrote for three hours first thing every morning, and often in the late afternoons and evenings. I was, as one friend said, becoming a fiction junkie. Novel-land was becoming a place that I wanted to be more than anywhere else.  That one year became two, and then three.

My sobering moment came when I thought my manuscript was finished. My agent sent it off to 35 editors, confident that at least one publishing house would make an offer. Two months later, she called to tell me that my novel, which I had spent three years writing, had been rejected by all 35 with no offers of a reread. “Well,” she said, “I guess that’s the end of the road for this story. Time to start working on your second book.”

Let me be clear: Those 35 rejections were not a gift. But they were, in a way, a relief. I could stop writing for a while. I needed to stop writing.

I spent a lot of time crying, grieving, during the weeks after I hit the end of that road. Honestly, I thought about burying the novel for good. But still, I was hooked. I didn’t want to give up the joy of writing fiction, the way it calmed a part of me—nourished me—to spend those three hours every morning in novel-land. The 64,000 dollar question I faced was this: How could I keep the joy and avoid the gut-wrenching sorrow of rejection?

I spent the next three or four years reading more and writing less. I studied the work of authors I admired. I also read books about the importance of creating a satisfying writing life. The 64,000 dollar answer was this: It wasn’t just a matter of becoming a more skilled writer, but also redefining success—in my own terms. What made me fulfilled on a daily basis, kept me moving forward even without feedback from others?

It’s a complicated process, this beginning to write every morning, being mindful that I am defining success through my daily habits without a clear-cut goal in mind: sitting ass-in-chair, lighting a candle, patting the head of my pink quartz Buddha, turning my amethyst crystal so that the eye is toward me, setting the timer on my phone for 30 minutes, taking three deep breaths. Some days, I get very little done during those first 30 minutes. I hold my mug with both hands, swirling coffee. I read a passage from War of Art, which has become my bible. I offer something like a prayer of gratitude to the higher power—muse, goddess, the name doesn’t matter—that has become my traveling companion in the world I am creating day by day, page by page.

Do I still care about publication? Sure! I’m thrilled that In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills was published a few weeks ago after 11 years of hard work. In retrospect, those 35 editors who rejected my manuscript did me a favor, because I wrote the novel I wanted to write, said what I needed to say, instead of what I thought would sell. That process of discovery took time, and the help of authors, editors, and other writers at workshops including Sewanee, Squaw Valley Writers Community, Aspen Summer Words and Hedgebrook. (This goes back to the importance of building community.) And, luckily, I met an agent who spent a full year sending out my manuscript to a few editors at a time, until the right one bought it.

The truth is, external markers of success do still matter. I hope reviewers and readers will love my book, I’ll even admit to caring about making money. The difference is this: Even though I have been busy promoting the novel during the past year, I still find time almost every morning to connect with the sheer joy of writing. This isolated artistic bliss, this writing life that I have so carefully constructed during the past eight years since those 35 rejections, has become my safety net. The internal definition of success—sitting down and writing every morning, even if I only create one sentence I love—helps to balance that Sally-Field-at-the-Oscars part of me that still can’t believe my good fortune.

Now that my novel has been published, here’s what I’ve learned about success: Every book entails two journeys, the road to publication and then whatever comes next. Over the past 11 years, I have learned to define success as putting one foot in front of the other. Now, I am learning how to walk all over again.

Bloom Post End

Jennifer Haupt went to Rwanda as a journalist in 2006, 12 years after the genocide, to explore the connections between forgiveness and grief. She spent a month interviewing survivors and humanitarian aid workers, and returned to Seattle with something unexpected: the bones of a novel. Haupt’s essays and articles have been published in O, The Oprah Magazine; The Rumpus; Psychology Today; The Sun; and many other publications. In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is her first novel. 

Kigali image via Wikimedia Commons
All other images courtesy of Jennifer Haupt

2 thoughts on “From Journalist to Novelist: Redefining Success

  1. Thank you for this stirring account of the painful but edifying road to writing and publishing fiction. After a ‘career’ in academia and government, in 2005 I went to Vietnam to teach for a year, stayed for six years and, inspired by Vietnam’s history, began to write fiction. I have not rested my pen (read; fingers on the keyboard) since. Will read “Zen in the Art of Writing,” and “In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills.” Kudos for Jennifer Haupt.

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