Over My Head | Persisting Through Overwhelm

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Guest post by Karen Gaudette

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When did I first realize I was in over my head? Likely mid-November of 2013. My husband was traveling for work. My 18-month-old son was going through a sleep regression. My brand-new day job (as a senior editor with the world’s largest online cooking community) had picked up in intensity. And the first 25,000 words of my manuscript were due in just six weeks.

Let me back up. I’ve wanted to be a published author as long as I can remember having career ambitions (it was either that or become the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby). In the years after college I toiled as a news reporter in California; blossomed into a features writer in Seattle; then specialized in food. At 35, my opportunity materialized in a very 21st-century way: a book acquisitions editor reached out to me via Twitter. How would you like to write about Pacific Northwest seafood culture, she wondered? When exactly would I write this book, I wondered? No matter: here was my chance! As with all things, I would find a way. And against my better judgment, I said yes.

What came next was a intense exercise in strategy. I was on the hook for a guidebook/cookbook/culture hybrid of 80,000+ words, plus images, plus recipes, plus maps. My initial deadline: the entire manuscript by mid-March, just 4.5 months.

Not only had I signed on to write a book without leave while raising a small child: I had done so not fully realizing that travel guides typically have the shortest turnarounds in publishing.


Being a reporter at heart, I attacked my stress with research. I emailed every friend I knew who had written a book. Map out all the chapters on a whiteboard or on the wall with Post-its, they advised. Stop cooking and order take out. Let my husband actually help me when he offers. Set a daily word count goal and try not to pull all-nighters. Let go of social obligations: true friends will understand.

The stubborn perfectionist in me wrote it all down and proceeded to ignore most of this truly excellent advice until the tail end of December, shortly before submission one was due. For the first time in my career I found myself overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. As I foundered, sometimes attempting to write multiple chapters at once, endlessly researching, I realized the only way out of this mess was to admit to myself that I needed help and to acknowledge that this type of writing was a whole new ball of wax and thus, demanded a different routine.

I forced myself to stop everything, bought a giant map of the region, and stuck it with dozens of Post-it notes. I made myself be fully present with my son before bedtime rather than attempt to write and play, which had been disappointing both of us. I let my husband use our precious hotel points to put me up near our place for two weekends to get away from laundry and other procrastination temptations. I hired a friend to handle permissions for recipes so I could focus solely on writing. I learned the only way to get the uninterrupted time my mind craved was to ignore the all-nighter rule: I fell into a staggering pattern of all-nighter one night, 12 hours sleep the next. I kept this up for several months, watching the word count (and my calorie count) swell, until my book was complete. Somehow, amid all this, I continued to earn praise at work. I’m nothing if not professional.

It turns out writing, like running, like cooking, like a well-worn commute, is about muscle memory. Each time panic set in, I summoned strength from the knowledge that thousands of times before, I had somehow managed to write through my fear of failure and tell the story. Somehow, someway, I would with this one, too. In time, I recognized the hardest part for me was allowing myself to be mediocre so that I could later attempt greatness. How many books in the world have gone unwritten because the author lacked the courage to get that first humbling draft on paper?

My book has been out in the world for four months now. It’s already in its second printing. I can honestly say it was the most difficult task I’ve ever accomplished. It taught me how to focus my creativity in a way I never realized was possible. It helped me see how blessed I am with supportive family and friends, and how to help them in their times of creative need. Like motherhood, it demands a selflessness that simultaneously can crush and liberate.

I cannot wait to do it again.

Karen began her writing career as a journalist with The Associated Press in San Francisco and with The Seattle Times. Later, she shared the stories of Northwest farmers, purveyors, and artisans as food writer for Seattle icon PCC Natural Markets.As a senior editor at Allrecipes.com, she now helps millions of home cooks answer that all-important question: What’s for dinner? Born and raised among the misty and majestic forests of Washington state, she makes her home in Seattle with her husband, sportswriter Jerry Brewer, their son, Miles, and their cat, Georgina. Talk food with her on Twitter: @nwfoodette


Still time to register for the 2nd Annual Writer Path Plot & Scene Writing Retreat with Martha Alderson at the Mt. Madonna Retreat Center, May 1-3, 2015. Registration closes April 15.

If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or sign up for my newsletter. Also check out my books: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Night Oracle, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time and, Forged in Grace.

“Writer’s Block I” by Drew Coffman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

JordanOver My Head | Persisting Through Overwhelm