Writers get inspirational shoves all the time; nearly every book on your library’s fiction shelf has a tale of chance that, at one time or another, saved the pages within. Of course, the act of sitting down and writing—that’s a bigger part of the battle, if you’re asking recent mentors of the craft like King or Lamott. But that glimmer of hope from the writing gods can’t hurt, either.
In Jamie Tworkowski’s case, one of his many writeable moments came from—what else?—a gorgeous woman in line at an airport Starbucks. Tworkowski, who’d just arrived in Los Angeles dead-set on another coffee, was about to put the finishing touches on his debut collection of essays, If You Feel Too Much. The two struck up conversation in line. Her name was Dree, and she happened to be the great-granddaughter of some American writer you might’ve read in high school.
“If a man can’t finish a book after randomly meeting the beautiful great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway,” Tworkowski writes in If You Feel Too Much, “then a man can’t finish a book.”
But Tworkowski did finish the book, as shelves nationwide prove this week. If You Feel Too Much is filled with stories of a similar genesis, all collected over his decade-long involvement in To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), a “movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.” And like his chance encounter with Dree Hemingway, detailed in “Meet Dree,” the pieces that fill If You Feel Too Much were born out of urgent, inspired moments.
“I still don’t write a ton,” Tworkowski says by phone, calling from TWLOHA’s Florida office. “It’s kind of like lightning has to strike. The book really represents those moments when I was moved or inspired to share something.”
TWLOHA, as we know it, was a product of its time. The non-profit took shape in 2006 after a short story Tworkowski wrote went viral on MySpace. As the story goes, and was recently retold in the Sony film of the same name, Tworkowski’s involvement would morph from fundraising by selling t-shirts into a full-blown charity that’s raised more than $1.5 million for treatment and recovery, provided responses to more than 200,000 reader messages and acted as an Internet sounding board for otherwise marginalized people.
If You Feel Too Much was originally brainstormed as a memoir chronicling Tworkowski’s years with TWLOHA, but he calls this essay collection “the book before the book” for a reason. He took a sabbatical in 2013 to write, and he retreated to LA to work on a piece in the vein of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. “I read Blue Like Jazz probably 12 years ago. I loved it,” he says. “I loved the writing. But it also invited me to think about the people in my life. Even if I wasn’t well known, even if I wasn’t a writer, those relationships still mattered. I think my hope is, even as I share some of the stories in my life, it gives people permission to think about their story and the characters in their story.”
But that memoir, at least as Tworkowski pictured it, didn’t come. After all, Tworkowski’s message since 2006 has been one of not only self-care, but compassion for others. When the man writes, he doesn’t capitalize the letter “i” at all. “The idea of writing about myself every day felt like the opposite of what a sabbatical was meant to be,” he says. “I felt like I needed to unplug from that identity, or like, living in that story all day every day.”
And so, the stories that make up If You Feel Too Much were already laid out before him. Collected between 2005 and 2014, these short stories, essays and letters have appeared across Tworkowski’s blog and in his private correspondence—even an email to his mom, which kicks off the book, was fair game. And when viewed as a whole, If You Feel Too Much tracks the progress of a young man at the helm of nationally recognized organization. There are reflections on longing (“Welcome to Midnight”), deep, personal loss (“Between Two Seasons”) and, of course, the tale that started Tworkowski’s movement. But even reviewing that past work sparked Tworkowski’s imagination.
“There was a part of me that was trying to get back and to tap into some things that I used to feel and believe,” he says about starting If You Feel Too Much. “It definitely was a journey to go back and read a lot of that early writing and organize it. Even in the editing process, to look back over what I’d written and see what I was still comfortable with. But there wasn’t a sense that ‘I’m so much happier and healthier than I am today.’ That’d be somewhat false. I was looking back at these stories that meant a lot to me and these moments that were significant enough to write about. Not in some sense of living in the past, but to revisit those feelings. It felt healthy. It’s definitely an interesting way to travel through the past decade.”
With TWLOHA gaining increased visibility over the years, sharing hasn’t always been easy. Tworkowski’s tales haven’t come from a place of absolute authority—he’s partnered with mental health professionals to speak to that. And they’re not chronicling a Point A-to-B map of Getting Stuff Figured Out. Part of Tworkowski’s journey has been realizing that this isn’t always the case.
“I felt like I was very honest early on, and it becomes more of a challenge as I get older, as I’m aware of the responsibility of my role. I think some of the challenges, and this is true for people who struggle in general, but you feel like a broken record. I hear from so many people who don’t want to be a burden, or cause their loved ones to feel concern. So they try to keep things a secret. I think it’s easy to buy into this idea—or this lie—that x amount of years later, you should have it figured out. You should feel okay. But I think it’s okay to say, ‘I’m a few years down the road. I’m still struggling.’ I lead this organization, I’ve got this platform. But I feel like it’s a slippery slope. You can be honest, good can come from that, people can relate. But you can be honest, and in the social media age, you can have hundreds of strangers reaching out to make sure you’re okay. And that’s not what I’m aiming for.”
What Tworkowski is aiming for is broadening the reach of that message—whether that’s through a website or on the physical page. That honesty—preferably between two people, face-to-face—is what he’s trying to grow. If You Feel Too Much is a collection of, what Tworkowski hopes, is an injection of that honesty. But like meeting a famous actress or taking a late-night drive with a close friend, those tales of honesty had to be born from a fit of inspiration.
“It’s okay to be honest,” Tworkowski says. “It’s okay to ask for help. I’m someone who’s been to counseling; I’ve been on antidepressants for the last couple of years. But there’s an irony. I’m not sharing that from a place of having figured it out. I’m sharing that from a place of still wrestling with those things. Some of it’s not even depression. Some of it’s being single. Wrestling with that. A lot of people, if they’re honest, they relate to dreams and fears. A lot of it’s just life.”