Ten Questions Archive

Ten Questions for Jen Soriano

What inspired you to tell this story?

A lot of sleepless nights lying awake in pain! And Audre Lorde, whose book The Cancer Journals, was the first book that showed me a model of how to blend personal illness narrative with political analysis and purpose. In The Cancer Journals Audre Lorde wrote, “I had known the pain, and survived it. It only remained for me to give it voice, to share it for use, that the pain not be wasted.” I was thankfully not suffering from cancer, but I was living with invisible and debilitating chronic pain that seemed to demand a form of expression. So I took Lorde’s line as a mandate. How could I give voice to my pain and share it, so that it would not be wasted?

Also, I wrote this book to be my own witness and advocate for integrative health. I wanted to assemble a meaningful narrative about the chronic pain and mental health challenges I had experienced for most of my life, a deeper narrative than I ever got to share through doctor’s appointments or even psychotherapy. Writing Nervous allowed me to assemble fragments of diagnoses, small realizations from therapy, and insights from my own research into a larger health and wellness framework that incorporated not just my own lived experience, but ancestral history as well.

What did you edit out of this book?

A whole essay about the lack of mental health care I experienced while I was a college student in the 90s. It would have required a lot more investigative reporting to pass legal muster, and I decided to leave that for a possible future project on trauma-informed higher education.

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?

There were so many moments when I was done as in – I don’t think I can do this anymore! Writing personal narrative requires an enormous amount of emotional labor and at several points along the way I got so drained I wanted to give up. I had to draw on my best spiritual and artistic support people to revive and keep going. 

I knew I was actually finished with the whole manuscript after I read it out loud – twice – and every sentence read smoothly to me, and the concepts fit together like puzzle pieces. That’s not to say everything is resolved in the end. On the contrary, the essays I write are like mosaics with blank spaces and interruptions. But I worked to make sure that everything on the page was there for a reason, and that each component had a relationship to the rest of the fragments in a way that created useful meaning for myself and will hopefully do the same for readers.

Upon completion I discovered that much of the fear I had about sharing my personal story dissolved. I realized that the hardest part had been in the actual writing—which is to say, the excruciating reflection and digging for insight that is the process of writing personal essay and memoir—and that few critiques that come from the outside could be harsher than my own inner critic.

What was your agenting process like?

I spent about two years looking for an agent. I started querying a handful of agents as soon as I finished my MFA thesis, which was like a very first discovery draft. The only agent who replied said she couldn’t imagine a market for my book. That was rough. But I also knew it wasn’t true because I’ve always been clear on who my audience is and there are millions of us (BIPOC people who care about mental health). I worked on my manuscript without querying for another year, and when I queried again I reached out to about 65 agents. Six of them replied and three of them made offers. I was able to choose the one whose vision for the book most aligned with my own, and one who was willing to work with me on a book proposal that could sell.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Ummm…the inordinate amount of money I spend on candles? I light candles whenever I need to journey down into what I think of as that underground writing grotto where you can access deeper experience and insight than above ground everyday life allows. The flames help me feel accompanied in that process. Also I’m a fire sign and a pyro, so I burn through a lot of candles.

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

I’m terrible at routine, which is why I work as a consultant for social justice organizations and campaigns – every day is different. As a working parent who wrote my book as my child grew from a baby to a nine-year-old, the only thing typical about my writing days was that I fit in writing whenever I could: tapping out ideas on my phone Scrivener app while on the bus or train, recording voice memos while preparing meals, writing in between meetings and after I put my kid to bed. Probably the most consistent times I would get writing done was in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep because of my chronic illness. Once I signed a contract and was lucky enough to receive an advance, I was able to focus on finishing the book. I set goals of six to ten hours of writing per week (that means time actually generating words or revising on the page) and then did research, interviews, reading as necessary around those core hours of writing.

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

Read authors whom you admire, read as much as possible of what they write, and don’t be afraid to mimic or borrow their style as an exercise to help you develop your own.

Take craft classes wherever you can: libraries sometimes offer free classes, writers organizations like Hugo House and Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook offer online classes.

Believe in the stories that are inside of you. They deserve space to live and breathe. Try freewriting for short intervals, 15 to 25 minutes at a time, where you let whatever words need to come out flow from your pen or your keyboard, without self-censorship or self-criticism. Some of my favorite lines of my book have come from freewrites like this.

What does literary success look like to you?

Having my work contribute to deeper connections among people and to structural change. Specifically, connecting with others who come from backgrounds of historical trauma and who live with mental illness and chronic pain, and having conversations that advance causes touched on in my book. These include: advocating for cradle to grave integrative mental health care, advancing reproductive justice and more equitable care for Black and IPOC infants and birthing parents, and promoting investment in paid family leave and early childhood development as a public health-scale investment in trauma support and prevention.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

There are too many to list so apologies to anyone I don’t name here! But I have to give a shoutout to my friend Aimee Suzara, a poet and mother who was one of my first examples of a professional writer and performer who blended activism and art. Also Donna Miscolta and Michelle Peñaloza, who were my first writer friends in Seattle and who welcomed me into the literary network of the city. Angela Garbes whose older daughter was in a nanny share with my child and who has been a publishing mentor for me. And then there is a very special group of people who are part of a writers group called Luna Moon: Adriana Rambay, Constance Collier-Mercado, Ro Alegria, Chekwube Danladi, and Shilpi Suneja, whose stunning debut novel House of Caravans was published last September. These human beings have supported me and my writing unconditionally, and their feedback and artistry are deeply embedded in Nervous.

Who are you writing for?

Honestly, I wrote this for a 17 year old version of me – I wish I had had a book like this to read at that age. But in a broader sense I wrote Nervous for anyone who has felt lost and alone, anyone struggling with physical and/or emotional pain, anyone trying to make sense of what they carry in their body that might feel larger than themselves. Hopefully Nervous can help these readers realize that there’s hope and they aren’t alone at all.

Jen Soriano (she/they) is a Filipinx writer and movement builder who has long worked at the intersection of grassroots organizing, narrative strategy, and art-driven social change. Jen has won the International Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Fugue Prose Prize, and fellowships from Hugo House, Vermont Studio Center, Artist Trust, and the Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat. Jen is also an independent scholar and performer, author of the chapbook “Making the Tongue Dry,” and co-editor of Closer to Liberation: A Pina/xy Activist Anthology. She received a BA in History and Science from Harvard and an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from the Rainier Writing Workshop. Jen is also a co-founder of the cultural democracy institutions, MediaJustice and ReFrame. Originally from a landlocked part of the Chicago area, Jen now lives with her family in Seattle, near the Duwamish River and the Salish Sea. Her debut book, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing, is now available from Amistad/HarperCollins.

Filed under: Ten Questions Archive


Sherisa de Groot (she/her) is a writer, community builder, and founder of Raising Mothers, literary membership community Literary Liberation, and pens A Home Within Myself. With a focus on intersectionality and social justice, de Groot’s writing explores the nuances of motherhood and the experiences of BIPOC mothers and marginalized genders. Through her work, she aims to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced and create a more equitable world for all. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Kindred by Parents, Refinery 29, Mutha Magazine, and Oldster Magazine and she was a contributor to the book ‘100 Diverse Voices on Parenthood’ by A Kid’s Company About.