Power in the Connection: A Conversation with Annie Downs

by Anne Charlton

Annie Downs has told stories all her life but never dreamed she could turn writing into a career. When she moved to Nashville, its community of people pursuing creative dreams helped her to follow her own. A faith-based writer, Annie writes mainly for teen Christian girls, but because it is saturated with honesty, wit and wisdom, her writing influences a wide audience. Annie maintains a blog and has published two books, Perfectly Unique and Speak Love, with another book for adults to be published in 2014. She also travels often, speaking at conferences and events.

A longtime reader of her blog, I met Annie one morning for coffee. I brought up that it might be strange talking directly to someone who has read her blog, and she told me, “No, not at all. It means we’re already friends.” This generosity of spirit comes through in her words as well as her demeanor, making it clear that Annie is a big strength in Nashville’s literary community. Here’s what she has to say about writing and the city she calls home.

Anne Charlton: How did you come to Nashville, and how did you come to writing?

Annie Downs: I grew up in Atlanta and went to the University of Georgia, always with the plan to be an elementary school teacher—no other plan, ever. So I taught elementary school for five years outside of Atlanta. And I’d always been a writer—I’d always journaled, I grew up writing stories, I grew up telling stories. I always enjoyed writing but I never considered it a career, at all—ever. It never crossed my mind that it could be a career. So by my fourth year of teaching, which was 2006, I’m leading a Bible study for girls at my home church, and they say, “Instead of us picking a book at the bookstore, will you tell us stories this semester?” And I thought, “Oh yeah, I can do that!” So every weekend, while I was teaching school, I would write up a lesson, print it off at the school Monday morning, and on Monday night, they’d come over and read it. So by the end of that fall, I had accidentally written about 25,000 words—like a small book. And the girls really liked it—so then I felt like these doors were opening to pursue making something into a book. There was a writer’s conference, American Christian Writers, and they did one-day conferences in big cities. They had one in Atlanta, and I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna do this!” I remember showing up there and feeling electric, like “All these people are doing what I want to do!”—and that’s when I knew “Oh, we’re going to do this.” And then I went to a bigger conference in California, met an agent there, and signed with her the next year. Then I quit teaching and moved to Nashville. There were writing opportunities in Atlanta, but there wasn’t the social norm of not having a real job and pursuing a dream outside of working full-time. So then from August-December of 2008, I just wrote and met friends and tried to make a life in Nashville. For three years, I had a lot of other jobs, and it’s only been since April of 2012 that I’ve done writing and speaking full time.

AC: Since you’re at a point where you’re writing full time, what do you write?

AD: Every day I have a blog where I write, and it’s not really themed, usually; it’s just what is going on in my life. I started it in November 2006. My first two books are for teen Christian girls. Perfectly Unique came out in September 2012, and Speak Love came out in August 2013. And then I have a book for adults coming out in August 2014. This will be the first one that’s sort of for my friends—I wanted a book that told my story as an adult, that talked about moving to Nashville and moving to Edinborough, Scotland (because I lived there for six months). And I wanted a book that my guy friends could read, that everyone I know in my real life would want to read.

AC: Expanding the scope of your audience a bit?

AD: Yeah, a bit. I don’t know if I’ll stay there, though, because I don’t necessarily like writing this—it’s very hard and very personal and it feels super revealing. My teen books don’t feel as revealing.

AC: Going back to your blog, I wanted to talk about what a blog does—I remember the Miley Cyrus post that basically went viral, leading to a mention in the Tennessean—so how do you use the blog specifically? What can it do differently than your books?

AD: For writers, I love blogs because they’re a good testing ground for your content. Two years ago, I wrote “31 Days of Courage,” and that was to test the next book’s content. It’s not so much that that’s repeated in a book, but I wanted to know if it connected with the audience. Then when I went to a publisher, I could promise people would read it because I could say “Look at all these comments and thoughts.” It’s great practice; it makes me write every day, even when I’m tired. It’s every day: 500 words, get a start, finish and middle. I think you live differently when you think about your blog, and I think that’s good because you don’t forget that there’s an audience out there. The reality is, in your real life, there’s no way you could sit down every day with 20 writers and help them improve their writing, but you’d easily have 20 readers on your blog. So you’re getting a chance to mentor people every day. People worry about being a small blog, like “I only have 50 readers,” and I just think, “I’d love to meet someone who mentors 50 people a day!” You just can’t, but you can in your writing. I think that’s what blogs offer—a place for you to invest in other people through your writing, especially if you’re inclined to teach any topic—a blog is a platform to lead more people than you could ever lead in your real life. And you give people the chance to decide they want to know you, for nonfiction writers especially—because then they’ll connect with what you have to say.

AC: Where do you think the power is in writing? Reading your blog, there’s a lot of humor and a lot of storytelling, and you just let people connect to it how they will—is there something there?

AD: I think the trendy answer now is to say the power is in the story, and I don’t think that’s not true—but I think the real power is in connection, because no matter what you write, what keeps readers turning the pages is if they feel connected to the words. And whether that’s through nonfiction and being connected with the author or the topic, or for fiction and being connected with the characters and the storyline, the power of the writer is the power to connect with the reader. [For example,] I don’t care at all about hunting. Someone could tell a really good hunting story, but I wouldn’t be able to connect to it. So the power isn’t the story, it’s in whether I can connect to it. But if someone were to talk to me about bullying, I’m really connected to that right now because Speak Love is about bullying. If someone’s going to talk to me about being single, I’m going to connect with those stories. Right now I’m reading The Paris Wife because I like France, I like Hemingway, and I like the 20s, so I’m connected to all those things.

AC: I think it’s both story and the connection, since you have to tell a good story to keep the book in the reader’s hands, but it also has to do with this personal connection and how the author’s words resonate with the reader. All writing, even fiction, is a very personal act—

AD: Right, because those characters are your people.

AC: Right. Shifting to the question of how you become a better writer—and thus, better able to make this connection—how do you work on your writing, either consciously or subconsciously?

AD: I read a ton. I am not great at this, but my goal is to pick reading over electronics as much as possible, over TV, over Facebook. I think you can just [gain] so much skill from watching what other people do. There are so many people that I read [with this in mind]: I read Ann Lamott; I read Emily Freeman, who really inspires me not only to be a better content creator but a finer writer. She’s a good meet-in-the-middle between my [style] and Ann Voskamp’s. I’m like the jester, Ann’s the queen and Emily’s the really fun princess.

Having editors makes me a better writer. For example, my editor, the other day, said “I want you to write three paragraphs about maps and what maps mean to you,” because we want to work it into the book, but I need to identify it for myself first. So my editor gives me writing assignments—it’s to refine my language and improve my writing, but also to improve my thoughts on a topic. So getting assignments is good.

I think reading about writing is good, although it’ll make you feel sick because you’ll just think, “I want to be better.” I avoided Shauna Niequist’s writing for years because she sounds like me but is much better. I’m the fourth grade version of her dissertation. Sometimes I can even guess her jokes—it just makes you sick because she’s so good! Have you ever felt that reading other people’s work?

AC: Oh, definitely. When you’re working on a poem, there are moments when you get it and you know you’re doing what you’re capable of—and then there are moments when you know something could be great, but it’s not there yet.

AD: Yes, that’s the struggle! When I turned in the manuscript for this new book, I thought, “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know if it’s good.”

AC: So what else do you do to improve your writing, to get something to be as good as possible?

AD: I exchange work with other writers—I think that’s really important. I think writing and reading outside your genre is really important. I read authors as different from me as possible, and I respect them so much; I think they’re good at what they do. I also read Poets & Writers. I read Real Simple because one of my dreams is to write one of [their editorial pieces]. I’ve been rejected three times by them, but you know, you just keep going. What else do you do to improve?

AC: I agree with reading things that are totally different from what you do. Often I do that when I’m stuck writing and need something else to worm its way into my work.

From here, let’s talk about Nashville. It has quite a literary scene, so how do you see that functioning? How do you see yourself in it?

AD: I think we have a lot of the best faith-based writers living here. Partly we’re in the Bible Belt, so there’ll be a lot of people here who are strong in their faith and also pursuing creative tasks. But outside of that, there’s Ann Patchett and so many other writers who are doing non-conventional writing as well as getting book deals. So many people are songwriters who want to write memoirs and also have blogs—so they write a memoir and put it out themselves, for example. I think that’s different from Chicago, different than New York, or Austin even. Nashville seems like it’s filled with more faith-based writers who travel more.

AC: It seems like Nashville is a place where lots of people are just trying to be creative, to follow their dreams with or without a “real job.”

AD: Everyone’s kind of on equal playing ground here. You could be a super famous writer and no one stops you, or you could be a lesser-known writer and one person stops you because they happen to read your work. I think Nashville gives you permission to go after whatever you want to go after. And when you succeed, people are excited, but it doesn’t change your status. And people like helping each other; it’s not as competitive around here. When a new book comes out, there’s a group of us that will blog and tweet about the new book, and we’re happy to do it. I don’t know a lot of cities like that. Here it’s like, “Hey, I love that you do what you do, I’ll want to support that.”

AC: That makes me think of a friend of mine who said that when you’re in a writing community, any success is one for the group, as well—as if we’re all up-and-comers.

AD: Yeah—when someone succeeds, it’s like “Yes, let’s keep going; there is room for more.” Shauna Niequist says, “The lie is scarcity; the truth is abundance.” There is space for everybody. We should cheer for each other, because if good work is getting put out in the world, that is a good thing. There is enough room on this planet for as much art as we can make. Other people’s successes are just motivators. You gain nothing from being jealous and catty, but you gain so much from being in someone else’s cheering squad.

AC: Because any other way, you’ll end up wasting time. At the end of the day, you just have to go do your work. So what are your hopes for Nashville’s literary community?

AD: I want Ann Patchett to keep doing good things for us, because she inspires all of us. I want her not to slow down. I love where we’re going, but I’d love to see us gather more. We need to gather the ones who are actually writing. I’d love to find a way for Ann to say, “Okay, if you have a book in this bookstore, we’re gathering for dinner tonight.” It’d be incredible. We’d get to ask what they’re working on and learn who actually lives here. I always look at the local author table and try to read something from there, because then I’ll want to connect with that person. That’s what I want to see happen—for us to bring all these people together and just sit around tables and talk about work. I’d love for there to be a knowledge of each other.

AC: What are your favorite things about Nashville?

AD: I love the work culture; I think that’s irreplaceable. [Two] things that keep me in Nashville are the work culture and the airport. I travelled 26 out of 30 days in September, so I really appreciate not having to go to the Atlanta airport twice a week. I love the live music. I love our weather; I love that we have four real seasons. I love the people; there’s a real special thing about who lives here and stays. A lot of people move here without family because they’re pursuing a dream, so your friends become your family. You show up as an orphan and become a family member, and that doesn’t happen in a lot of places. It’s not “every man for himself” here. This town teaches you to find your place and then invite other people into it. Moving here was hard, but five years in, I’m grateful for what I had to walk through to get here, and I’m thankful that other people taught me how to invite others in.

You can find Annie’s blog here and her website here.