by Annie Scholl

Julie Chavez started her blog, Julie Writes Words, in 2012 with no plans of becoming a published author. She was inspired, she says, by a sermon her then-pastor gave on New Year’s Day.

“He was talking about the idea that you have something inside you that no one else can bring forth,” Chavez recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, I’ll write this blog.’ I had a small audience, only people I knew in real life.”

Over the years, people told Chavez, 44, she should write a book, but it wasn’t until 2019, after a year-long mental health crisis sparked by a panic attack, that she took them up on it. The result is Everyone But Myself: A Memoir (Zibby Books, January 2024).

“The book is really bookended by two reviews with my principal,” says Chavez, an elementary school librarian in Northern California. “During the first one, I was a disaster area and she was a voice of encouragement. Then at the end of that year, I shared my gratitude for the care she had shown me and said, ‘This is something I think happens to a lot of women’ and she said, ‘That’s what you should write your book about.’”

From there, the mother of two sons, now ages 17 and 14, says, “It was a winding road of failure and self-delusion and joy and excitement and all the things that are included with writing a book.”

She shares the process of writing her memoir with The Sunlight Press.

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How did you give yourself permission to write a book about something that a lot of people go through — and permission to write a book when you didn’t define yourself as a writer?

I think that’s such a valuable question, especially for women. This started with conversations I had with friends and people close to me after I was through the worst of that time. As I started talking to other wives and moms and friends, and even some men, there were so many echoes of, ‘me too’ or ‘I struggle with anxiety’ or ‘my cousin does.’ Everyone I spoke to had a point of connection.

It was a big thing that happened to me, but in the context of what we usually read about in memoir, it might not feel so extreme. But I felt like there was value in the lack of extremity … because it meant that more people would see themselves in it. There’s still value in the smaller story. I gave myself permission for it to be normal, just like I’m normal, for it to be a true reflection of me.

The events of the book really taught me about caring for myself, carving out space for myself. The writing of it was an extension of that permission — the permission I had learned to give myself that said, ‘When I’m tired, I can rest. When I am angry, that’s okay. When I’m displeased, I can communicate that.’ All of those permissions led to me saying, okay, this book matters for me to write it, and because it matters to me, that is enough.

What was most challenging for you in the writing process?

The most challenging thing for me was being an amateur and not having a full eye on the vagaries and challenges of the craft. There’s a lot of ease when you don’t know what you don’t know. But then once I was in it enough to understand what I was trying to do, the enormity of that task would sometimes land with me. It was a challenge also to figure out how to structure this book because there’s not a huge climax. It doesn’t lay out plot points easily. That took time.

How did you push through those challenges?

I kept repeating to myself, ‘I didn’t come this far to come this far.’ There was a gift for me to look back at all I had done and to say, ‘I’m not just going to throw that away.’ It gave me renewed motivation to see if there was a different way to make my way around a hurdle as opposed to over it. Finding creativity and openness in those moments was very helpful. Stubbornness probably is the short answer to that question.

Is there anything in your past that you can point to that prepared you for this?

I originally wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t do that because I believed the lie that I couldn’t be a good mom and a good doctor. I had a full commitment to my family and then that narrowed things for me as I went along. I was at home for 10 years with the boys, which I loved, and I’m so grateful I had that time, but there were a lot of points when I let my role or my identity as a mother stifle what would’ve taken me to the finish line. Part of the benefit of that time was I learned there should be space for my ambition in my life. There should be space for my dreams.

Did you take classes or do workshops? Did you read a lot? Were there authors you leaned on? What was your process?

 I was very fortunate. My principal said, ‘You should write a book’ and I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ I sat down and wrote 30,000 words and I thought, ‘I’m done, right?’ I didn’t even know what the length of a book was. Then in February 2020, I took a class called The Path to Publishing at Book Passage in Marin (California), taught by John Geoghegan, who wrote a book (Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow) about going profoundly deaf basically overnight, which was a great medical scare story to add to my list of things to fear. He gave the rundown like, ‘oh, you want a deal with the big five (publishing houses)? That’s cute. It’s not happening’ and statistics where like 90% of books sell less than 2,000 copies. Then he talked about a hybrid press that’s local to me in Berkeley called She Writes Press run by Brooke Warner. I drove home, contacted Brooke, and hired her. She looked at the 30,000 words and said, ‘This isn’t a manuscript. This is source material, but I think you have a story here and I think I can help you write it.’ That was the beginning of starting to understand how to write in my own voice. I also started reading more about the craft and understanding what was going to be required.

Some of that would have crushed a lot of writers — me included. What kept you going?

I didn’t know enough to stop. I wasn’t afraid to be a beginner. I wasn’t afraid to try, and I wasn’t afraid to fail. That was a huge gift that I gave myself that I did not give myself when I was younger. In some ways I was helped by the fact that I didn’t identify as a writer. There was no risk for me because no one knew I was doing it. There were no stakes. I was just trying this and seeing what happens. There’s a lesson that I have gone back to since, which is, ‘You only need to know the next right step.’ It was also helpful that I had no friends that were writers, so no one cared what I was doing. My family didn’t care if I published a book. No one cared but me. And that was a real gift.

Did your husband or sons have any hesitancy about your book?

The only hesitancy I had was from other parties, so I’m very fortunate. My husband gave me full, implicit permission. He saw it as I saw it, which is, yes, this is my story, but the book isn’t about me. I am qualified to tell it because it happened to me, but it’s so many people’s story. We both felt that it could be helpful to someone so there was no hesitation from him.

For the boys, it’s interesting. Because of their ages and because this is a story more about me and my identity as a mother, they function as child one and child two. I kept them back from it. I don’t know that that was totally intentional, but I see it now. I would never want to put anything in that felt like I was telling too much of their story. What’s been interesting though is now that the book is out, it’s been special for me to see them get a fuller picture of their mom. I think there’s been some occasional discomfort, but for the most part, because of the role they play in the book, it’s been fine.

What’s been most delightful for you?

 It is delightful to think of someone driving and listening to the audio book or sitting in the sun and reading the book or staying up late to finish it. The idea of the book, the physical book in someone’s home is a wonder. I love that — just that idea of, wow, you want to keep that book on your shelf? That’s a delight. And then the deeper parts of people connecting with me.

What’s next?

I’m working on a novel, and it is as much a disaster as my first source material document. I’m about halfway in, and I am really working to keep my eye on how to get to the top of the first hill. I understand now how long the process is, which is both good and bad because it’s easy to get more intimidated. I am mostly writing to uncover and see what happens. I really enjoy making things up after having to write about myself for so long and thinking about things that actually happened. It’s really freeing and fun.

 

Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr