How a National Book Award Winner Overcame Writer's Block

Posted by Hayley on December 12, 2017
This year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature went to Robin Benway's Far from the Tree, a powerful tale of three adopted siblings who find one another after years of struggle. Benway, who also wrote Emmy & Oliver and Audrey, Wait!, shares her own journey of discovery with Goodreads, one that took her from crippling self-doubt to reclaiming the magic of storytelling.



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In the opening pages of Far from the Tree, each of the three siblings who narrates the book talks about being "untethered," of feeling so disconnected that they could float away. It's only now that I realize I wasn't describing them; I was describing me.

About 18 months ago or so, I thought my career was over. Not even thought—I knew it was over.

I didn't tell anyone this, of course. I felt too ashamed, too scared of the fact that I couldn't seem to write another book. I had written five by this point, so a sixth one seemed inevitable, and yet the story felt wrong, the words sounded wrong, and the characters were so flat that it was embarrassing. I trashed several ideas. By February 2016, I was trying to hammer out a story about three siblings who were separated at birth and reunited as teenagers.

It wasn't going well.

I've always connected to the world through writing, through imaginary places and friends and secret stories that only I could know. When I was a child, I would sit in the back seat of our family station wagon and imagine that we were driving on a secret spy mission along with all of the other cars on the freeway, zooming to solve some imaginary danger. (We were, of course, not zooming toward danger. We were going to my grandma's house.) So the idea that I was becoming untethered from that place that I had cherished horrified me.

When my first book was published, it was the first time that other people connected with the stories in my head. It created a bond between the reader and me that felt almost like a secret handshake, a signal to enter into an imaginary space that I had created for others to visit. "We have a deal," it seemed to say. And now the deal was broken. Worse, I was the one who had broken it.

The ideas had dried up. The magic seemed to be gone. I watched as other authors on social media sold books, created bestsellers, and traveled the world to tell their stories. I felt even more useless. (Social media is a fickle beast, as we all know, and a terrible manipulator of the truth, but at the time, it felt all too real.) Desperate, I applied to a freelance agency that staffed creative people at various companies around Los Angeles. I polished my résumé, making sure to add all of my book titles and foreign sales, and then I got called in to meet the head of recruiting. She studied my résumé, then slowly said, "I don't know what to do with you" as I sat in a small chair and felt all of the pride of my previous successes drain away.

I didn't know what to do with me, either.

It all came to a head when I met a friend for lunch and finally told her how stuck I was on these ideas, how I was sure that it was all over for me. She looked at me and said, "You should meet a friend of mine."

So I did. I met the friend and his two sons. Afterward, I drove home and realized that in meeting this family, I had discovered how to—maybe, just maybe—tell my characters' stories. I had approached the idea all wrong, and by the time I parked the car, I was ready to rewrite the book. Again. The bond wasn't broken. The place I felt most at home was still there, waiting for me to find my way back to it.

I met friends for writing dates, showing up to a coffee shop filled with people clacking away on their MacBook Airs, the room filled with the synchronicity of dozens of people all trying to hammer out an idea at the same time. Sitting in that room next to friends and neighbors plugged me back into a creative orbit that gave me the kind of peace I had been craving, and with my friends by my side, I started to write about Joaquin and Maya and Grace, three characters who to this day feel so very real to me. I didn't even care if the book was any good. I just wanted it to be done.

Eighteen months later, the book was done. I liked it. I felt proud of it. But most importantly, readers connected with these three siblings in a way that I couldn't have imagined last year. I've heard so many stories about families who have been split apart, who have come back together, and I feel so honored that readers have trusted me with these intimate stories. The bond is back, stronger than ever, and I am so grateful for it.

I finished Far from the Tree on May 14, 2016, at 7:30 p.m. I documented this event on Instagram with a screenshot of two of the best words in the English language—"The End"—and I added this caption: "I wondered if I would ever finish a book again. I wondered if I was even a writer anymore. But I did. And I am. And to quote the ever-quotable Kanye West, "it feels good to be home."

It still does. Thanks for letting me come back inside.


Check out the rest of Robin Benway's books and follow her here.


Which 2017 book would you recommend to your fellow readers? Share it with us in the comments!

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Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Leonard (new)

Leonard Roberts Yes, the article I was looking for. Your article gives me another approach on the subject. I hope to read more articles from you.
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message 2: by Jacquie ♡ (new)

Jacquie ♡ Wow, this was so beautiful! I am not a writer as yet but do wish to be one and this has helped me for what may be in the future. I've read about people who have struggled with this and it must be very terrible for one to feel like you did. Thanks for this amazing story, I look forward to reading Far from the Tree and I'm glad you're home again!


message 3: by Linda (new)

Linda So glad authors keep their creative juices going, so we readers never run out of good material to read. I have to say the best book I read in 2017 has to be A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles that most of my GR friends have probably read, to those that haven't I highly recommend that you do so in 2018!


message 4: by Michelle (last edited Dec 19, 2017 08:30PM) (new)

Michelle Kleid Rafael I loved this book. I only occasionally read young adult books, but found out about it from the New York Times review (where I have an alert for foster care). I worked in Child Welfare for 35 years. Have now recommended it to my 14 year old granddaughter. So glad you kept at it.


message 5: by Emmanuel (new)

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