Jonathan Merritt is a writer based in New York City. He writes on religion, culture, and politics for The Atlantic, The Week, and is author of several critically-acclaimed books including Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing – and How We Can Revive Them. Learn more at jonathanmerritt.com or by following @JonathanMerritt on Twitter.
You collaborated with 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson for her last book, and wrote about the experience. One of the points you make is that the person we got to know during her presidential run lacks the depth and complexity of the person you got to know. Why do you think that is? Is that common?
I think this is largely the function of the way news is delivered right now. We encounter people in sound bytes and snippets, and Marianne is not the type of person who can be best understood in that format. I remember her doing an interview on “The Daily Show” that was widely lauded, and frankly, brilliant. Trevor Noah commented at the end that she sounded totally different when she was given more than a few seconds to make her point. I agree.
I felt her book did a much better job of articulating her political views than her presence on the debate stage where she was working within constraints of that format. I haven’t endorsed anyone for president, but I wish the American political system made space for deeper and more nuanced discussions about our current problems and possible solutions.
How do you balance your own projects with your ghostwriting projects?
As a deeply spiritual person, I think about this as a function of one’s sense of vocational calling. I feel called to have a platform and voice of my own. Early on, I discerned that meant I should write a book with my name on it every two years. In this stage of life, I am trying to accomplish that goal once every four years. Balance is a process of planning and revision.
A writer should create a plan for the balance they think is best and then do a 360-degree evaluation at the end of every year, if not more frequently. The proportion of personal projects to ghostwriting projects that gave me life a decade ago is different than today. So I always make a plan to balance these two parts of my career, but I always hold that plan loosely.
What makes a successful ghostwriter?
Some people think this is measured in sales. But great books don’t always sell well and there is a mountain of garbage prose on the New York Times bestsellers list. Other people think it is measured in the satisfaction of the client. But I’ve worked for clients for whom the world is not enough to satisfy them.
Success for me is being able to look back on my day or my week or my year and honestly assert that I have given all I possessed to the projects I worked on. In the 1980’s, entrepreneur A.L. Williams wrote a book with a title I have claimed as a personal mantra: “All you can do is all you can do—and all you can do is enough.”
How often do you take on ghostwriting projects? What have you learned from those experiences?
When I first started, I had a single criterion for accepting projects: The author had to be willing to hire me. That was it. But after several dozens books, I can now choose projects, largely based on two criteria: if I have the competency for the project and if I have chemistry with the author.
What’s your best piece of advice for someone looking to be a writer?
Learn to love rejection. I’ve had four book proposals rejected by every publisher in the industry. I’ve had four book proposals accepted by major publishers. I’ve had literally hundreds of rejections on article pitches. I learned early on to love rejection. Otherwise, I’d be selling insurance or writing marketing copy on Madison Avenue right now. I use rejection to stay humble and to beat back entitlement. I use rejection as a springboard to keep learning and growing and getting better. Rejection is the shadow side of acceptance, and you cannot have one without the other.
If you could go back and change anything about your writing career, is there anything you would do differently?
I have a phrase that I use with the aspiring young writers I train: “You are the plan.” No one is going to carve out your career path for you. No one is going to pick you up after you got yet another disappointment and help you get moving again. No one is going to grow your platform, get your name out there, or develop your ideas. When you write books and publish articles, no one is going to do all the promotion for you. YOU … are … the … plan.
Too many people dream of being a writer in the mold of Ernest Hemingway. They think people are going to write them life-changing checks to go sit in a log cabin on top of a mountain somewhere and write whatever the muse is whispering. But Ernest Hemingway is dead—literally and metaphorically. Making a career being a writer is harder work than perhaps ever before. And it takes a long, long time. I wish I had known that early on, but I learned it the hard way.
Where do you get your ideas?
From a life well lived. I have told several young writers who have asked my advice to overcoming writer’s block that they can’t tell good stories because they aren’t living good stories. Writers must have regular, rich conversations with deep friends over too many glasses of Cabernet. Writers must find ways to take regular adventures and meet the unknown with a sense of curiosity. Writers must curate experiences that spark wonder and awe inside of them. They must open themselves up to chance encounters with crazy characters that birth you-will-never-believe-what-happened events. The quality of a writer’s storytelling is directly connected to the quality of a writer’s lived experiences.
Your faith infuses much of your personal writing, including your latest book “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — And How We Can Revive Them”—how did this become a focus for you?
I have come to believe that the stories writers should be telling are the stories writers are currently living. Because my spirituality leads me to believe that the stories we are living are neither incidental nor accidental. I moved to New York City 7 years ago from the Bible Belt and it plunged me into an unexpected crisis of faith. That personal problem led me to discover a cultural crisis: the death of sacred speech. This book includes a bunch of fascinating research and data, but it is grounded in my personal narrative. It was my experience that sparked the idea.
What is the best piece of advice for getting published or navigating the publishing process?
The best piece of advice, and it is the advice I followed early on, is to build your resume by doing the stuff no one else wants to do. I didn’t start out writing opinion columns for The New York Times and The Atlantic. I started out writing for a bunch of online publications you’ve never heard of. And I did it for free. I got a copy of “The Writers Market” and sent hundreds of emails to publications asking to do the grunt work—film reviews and book reviews and 200-word news articles.
I worked hard to impress them and earn their trust. Over many months and years that led to bigger opportunities and bigger publications. So many people tell me, “I want to do what you do.” I usually respond, “No. You don’t want to do what I do because you don’t want to do what I did.”
You also founded a writing school, Write Brilliant. First of all, where do you find the time?! What have you found or learned through teaching others that has helped you most in your own writing?
Teaching young and aspiring writers has meant being constantly reminded that there are some obstacles in this business that you can manage, but you will never solve. I share many of the struggles they battle, even though I’m many years ahead of them in my career. For example, I teach my students that they need to be proactive about taming their inner critic. Well, guess what? My inner critic has never died—despite my many efforts to murder him. He still says, “You have nothing to say, Jonathan” and “Your writing is boring, Jonathan” and “No one cares what you think, Jonathan” and “This has already been said a hundred times before, Jonathan.”
When I teach young writers how to overcome the obstacles that come with a writing career, I am also reminding myself. I mentioned Ernest Hemingway earlier. He said something about writing that I repeat often: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” People may be further ahead of you in their journey, but none of us ever arrives.
What’s next for you? … if you will, the next not-shiny object that you’ll be chasing?
I’m working on a new book that is under contract with Convergent Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing. It’s going to be a deeply spiritual and deeply personal book about what it means to confront your past pain in order to heal from heartbreak and learn to love. I’ve never taken on a project quite like this, and I believe it’s the most difficult and ambitious project I’ve undertaken to date.
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