Turning Points: Guest Post by Gayle Forman

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Gayle Forman, author of YA novels I love more dearly than I can express in words, reveals her own turning point as a writer in a deeply honest, inspiring post…

I am not a very enlightened person.

Oh, I try to be. I try to be kind and open and generous, but I’m a Gemini, so I have a flip side that is also begrudging and jealous and resentful. Really. I can be such a pissy little thing if I don’t watch out.

So the turning point in my career is actually kind of strange.

Sisters in Sanity

It was about six years ago. At that point, I had published many, many magazine articles and one book, my nonfiction travelogue called You Can’t Get There from Here, which was fun while it lasted but not something I saw doing again (I had to travel around the world for a year to report it; there is a reason a trip like that is called journey of a lifetime). I was on the verge of publishing a YA novel, Sisters in Sanity. After writing Sisters, I’d experienced something I’d never felt in all my years of being a journalist: contentment, a sense of this being what I wanted to do.

Of course, in my world, contentment is coupled with fear (I already told you I am not very enlightened). Because now that I’d figured out what I wanted to do—write YA novels—and I sensed I was pretty good at it—I’d been writing about and for teens for much of my career anyway—it all mattered. I mean, how many chances did you get to write books that bombed—and You Can’t Get There bombed, and the early signs for Sisters weren’t looking so promising—before the nice people in the publishing houses took away your chances to publish books?

Which is why what happens next—this turning point—is all so weird. A short while later, it became clear that the publisher of Sisters in Sanity was not doing anything to promote it, and that my homemade efforts—a song we recorded based on the book; a book trailer made by a Hollywood friend of mine, this being in 2007, in the dawn of book trailers—were not even being used, and that the book would indeed go the way of 99 percent of novels, i.e., slide quietly into the remainder bins. Shortly after publication, a friend of ours was over for dinner, someone in the alternative publishing universe. We were in my kitchen when he asked how the book was doing. I told him the sad truth. He asked, “Aren’t you bitter?”

The thing is, I am no stranger to bitter. I can be impatient and petty and easily embittered. Last week, at my daughter’s dance recital, I became bitter when a grown man cut in front of me in the popcorn line, thus getting the last of the batch of popcorn. Yes, it was rude of him to do so, but seriously, I get bitter over this? There is something wrong with me.

But when my friend asked me if I was bitter over the fact that the publisher had done squat to support my book and the book was going to bomb, I made a decision. I decided I was not going to be bitter. I was going to choose to not be bitter. Even if I had to work really hard at it. Because for one, as I explained to my friend, I was a published author, with two books to my name, and I was still, if barely, making my living as a writer, which is a pretty enviable position. But even more important, even then, I understood that if I gave in to the bitterness, it would do what bitterness does, it would corrode me from the inside out, eat away at the soft, open parts of me where I’m pretty sure the stories come from. So I told my friend this:

“I’m not going to be bitter. I’m just going to keep writing books and hope that one day maybe I’ll write a book that hits, and people will go back and read Sisters in Sanity.”

At the time, it was a most pie-in-the-sky dream. Like how when I was twelve, I used to fantasize about becoming friends with Bono. There was simply no basis in reality for it.

My friend looked at me like I was being very hippie-dippy. And then he said a very nice thing. “Well, I’ll be bitter on your behalf then.”

Somehow, I managed to keep true to my word. And Sisters did bomb. And then the editor I’d worked with on it left the publishing house—and editing—and my agent, who’d sold my first two books, shut down her shop. So I had no editor, no publisher, and no agent, and it wasn’t like anyone was clamoring to take me on. Ten years as a professional writer and I was back to square one. That seemed like a most justifiable reason to be bitter. But for the second time, I made an intentional decision not to go there. Instead, in a very Pollyanna move, I would view the crash-and-burn of my career so far as an opportunity!

If I Stay

So, with no agent and no publisher and no idea if it was even a viable novel, I started a book that was living deep inside me. About a girl and her family, and the love of her life, and music, and a choice. This turned out to be If I Stay. The book that launched me, I guess you could say.

Now’s the part in the story where I tell you that I have turned all Zen and learned to never be bitter again. But that’s not how it works. And I already told you about the popcorn guy, which was a couple weeks ago. And there is always something to feel pissy about. Every writer at every level experiences fear, and that fear seeds bitterness. And, yes, I’m still scared someone will take away this privilege I have of writing books for my job. But with writing and publishing, I have to re-teach myself the turning-away-from-bitterness thing all the time.

I do this for two reasons. There is the obvious karmic, good-energy stuff of not giving in to the dark side. It feels so much better to go to the gratitude place. And just as there is always something to feel bitter about, there is always something to feel grateful for. But there is also a practical side for writers, for all creative people, for all people, really. It can be oddly satisfying to wallow in bitterness. For about two seconds. And then you get pulled under and have to expend all this energy just swimming, keeping your head above water. Energy that would otherwise be spent creating.

Sisters in Sanity never did find its audience. Well, not in the U.S., anyhow. In France, they love that book. Some of my French readers tell me it’s their favorite of all three of my novels. Sometimes they tell me this while I am in France. And sometimes when that happens, I am transported back into my Brooklyn kitchen, back to that conversation with my friend all those years ago, back to that single fateful decision that has brought me here.

—Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman is an award-winning author and journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Elle in the US. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Visit Gayle at gayleforman.com or ifistay.com.

Follow @gayleforman on Twitter.

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

And look for open giveaways on the giveaways page so you can win some books! 

Series images by Robert Roxby.

47 responses to “Turning Points: Guest Post by Gayle Forman”

  1. As I read this, it occurs to me that had you indulged in that bitterness, If I Stay and Where She Went would never have been written. And that would have been a crime.

    I’m adding Sisters In Sanity to my reading list!


  2. Thank you for this post! I, for one, am thankful, Gayle, that you chose to overlook bitterness and instead, see the opportunity to write the book that was burning deep inside of you. If I Stay was an inspiration to me. I love that book and your emotional writing. I do agree with you, though. Sometimes we have to make the difficult decision to swallow bitterness and negativity and look to the bigger picture of what we’re supposed to do next.

    This is a wonderful series!!


  3. This is one amazing post! And it’s a lesson that we would all do well to learn. Bitterness is an evil thing – like Gayle says, it will eat you up from the inside out. Training ourselves to go to that place of gratitude is definitely the better option.

    I am sincerely excited for the rest of this series. What a wonderful idea!


  4. This was so lovely to read! My favorite lines: “And then you get pulled under and have to expend all this energy just swimming, keeping your head above water. Energy that would otherwise be spent creating.” Food for thought!


  5. Brilliant post– so true, so centering. Like a yoga class for the brain. GF is such a deft and thoughtful writer. And very funny! NRS, I am in a forever fanzone of this Turning Points series.


  6. I love this post. I loved If I Stay and Where She Went so much. Like. So. Much. I recommend them to everyone. I have to find and read Sisters now.
    Also, I am dying to know what you are working on now, Gayle! Can’t wait to read you next book! In the interim, I’ll go back and read Sisters. Thanks for being open about being bitter.


  7. I love this post. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I’m also a Gemini, so I think I’ll really have to work hard to take your advice, but work hard I will! Excellent post.


  8. Love this post. So honest. I love IIS and WSW so much! I recommend them to everyone! I’ll have to go out and get Sisters now.
    Also dying to know what Gayle is working on now? I can’t wait to read whatever’s next. In the interim, I’ll go back and read Sisters.
    Thanks for this post.


  9. Love this. This business is filled with things that can make us bitter. And I do think it’s a choice to not go there. Being grateful is such a better choice. Thanks Gayle and Nova!!


  10. Wow, everyone, thanks for your lovely feedback. I have to tell you I had a moment of panic about this post and was wondering if Nova would kill me if I pulled it. It’s sort of scary to admit all this, but of course, we all feel it. I bet even the Dalai Lama feels bitter on occasion. Okay, maybe not him. But the rest of us do, and I think the worst part is feeling bad and ashamed for feeling bad. So thank you for not throwing tomatoes at me and calling me petty and bitter.


    • Of course I wouldn’t have killed you, Gayle! But I’m so glad you chose to keep it. This post is such an inspiration to me—and I can tell to many others, too. I am so honored to have it here… and I have to tell you, when I reread it again last night while prepping this post, I felt that same shiver of recognition I had the first time. I needed to hear it. I think many of us do. This is a challenge I’ve been facing, and reading your piece is helping me through it.

      Thank you. You’re truly wonderful.


      • Oh, SO glad you did not pull it. You may have intended it as writing advice but bitterness creeps in from all aspects of life – friends, relatives, work.

        I read it a second time and called a relative. So, double thanks to you both 🙂


  11. I love this post so much, for so many reasons – most of all, the honesty and the reminder to appreciate the gifts of this career that can be so daunting at times. I try so hard to do that, but I would have been mad about the popcorn, too.


  12. This is a great first post for the series. Bravo to Ms. Forman for finding the strength to turn away from bitterness. That is not an easy task. It’s also just as difficult to even realize that you are suffering from bitterness. Recognition of what it is another reason for the accolade.


  13. Here it is, the positive spark that I desperately needed in my day/week/month. Bitterness and fear can eat us alive and yet we seem to rush to embrace these negatives far more often than the positives. Today I will choose to put on my happy face and reach for the brass rings of life.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Now I know what I will be reading this week.


  14. Wow, great post. It was powerful, thank you for writing it and giving me some things to think about.
    Btw, I loved “If I stay”.


  15. Thanks for writing this. I’m at a similar turning point, for similar reasons. It’s heartening to hear that things can change in such a positive way.


  16. Absolutely beautiful post, Gayle. Thank you so much for sharing with us! Lots of good to take away from this post, for writers and just for anyone.


  17. Thanks Gayle. Great reminder. I’ve been alternately way up, and a bit down with my career, and I find that bitterness inhibits progress/energy/persistence. I think we all (or most of us) fear losing the privilege to write for a living more than anything, so that’s spot-on. Your success is inspiring.


  18. What a fantastic, thought-provoking post. Such a simple, difficult thing – to choose. And I love the idea of having someone who would carry our bitterness for us. Imagine if there were such a position in life – bitterness carrier? Hard to imagine the weight such a person might carry. Hmm, now the story wheels are turning…


  19. I can see now that I will not only absolutely love this Turning Points series, but also greatly increase my stack (most of it virtual) of to-be-reads. Thanks so much for doing this, Nova, and thanks, of course, to Gayle for sharing her turning point in such a raw, honest way. Can’t wait for more!


  20. This post was lovely. Everyone, I think, can feel bitter about things — certain moments, letdowns, and difficult instances. But, as so eloquently said, giving in to bitterness is a choice. And no one wins, or gains, by doing that.

    Wonderful entry. Thank you for this.


  21. what an awesome post to kick off this series. and how true that while there is always something to be bitter about, there is also always something to be grateful for. we do have a choice about which path to take, and this is an excellent reminder of that. thank you!


  22. What a great post, Gayle! (Thanks, Nova, for giving us the opportunity to hear from such awesome writers!) You are so right about the bitterness – it makes writing that much harder – and it makes a person hard, too, in a very unpleasant way. Rising above unwanted (although sometimes feeling-justified) emotions is always a better path. I’m so glad you took it! And I’m right there with you on still fighting against ways we don’t want to be. I try to remember to act like the person I wish I was – not always the person I’m being at any given moment.


  23. Some of us at the Class of 2K11 have been surviving on the wisdom of this post this week. I had a bad week, so I only got to it now. So glad I did. It will also help me to survive.

    A great one! Thanks to both of you! ❤


  24. […] Has your writing career had a turning point that changed your direction substantially?  Nova Ren Suma is running a series over on her blog entitled “Turning Points” in which guest writers discuss these turning points in their careers.  I highly recommend the entire series and I particularly enjoyed posts by Sean Ferrell and Gayle Forman. […]


  25. Know that one reader actually read Sisters first (simply because she heard the title first… I am very easily amused) and that this post helps so many struggling authors out there!
    Need I even point out the joy/bitterness cocktail when someone gets that dream agent/another contract/published…


  26. “… just as there is always something to feel bitter about, there is always something to feel grateful for”
    agree 100%.

    Now. I’m a bit ashamed to admit I haven’t read If I Stay D: it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a long time, but now that I know about Sisters, I might give it a try first 🙂


  27. My favorite thing in all the world is when people share how they feel, deep on the inside and then you have this light bulb moment where you realize that you’re not less than other people–you are human–and you’re not alone. ❤


  28. I’m coming to this post kind of late, but wow. This is so wonderful — definitely something I needed to hear today, and a perfect reminder of why I love Gayle’s writing. Thank you!


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