Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Jessie Kanzer about her career, what inspires her, and the writing of her new book, Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m an immigrant kid at heart. Having been born in the former Soviet Union, I became a refugee when I was almost eight, eventually making my way to America. This loss of identity and search for belonging was a longtime theme in my life. It sent me on a spiritual search for meaning, which eventually led me back to myself—my more-than-human identity and the realization that I’ve always belonged and have always been a Citizen of the World.
In simpler terms, I was born as Asya Bronfman in Riga, Latvia, growing up in a communal apartment with four families, one bathroom, and a bathtub in the middle of the kitchen. I am now a happily married mom of two, living in a gorgeous suburb just outside New York City.
I was a reporter and an actress, as well as writer whose work has appeared in the NY Times, the LA Times, WashPo, HuffPost, The Independent, and many other publications. Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING is my first book.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I dreamt of writing a book for a very long time. I had this dream lurking in my subconscious, way before I was writing regularly (and not at all, even). Still, I told my friend at twenty, or some such very young big-eyed age, that I think one day I will write a book.
“But a book about what?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, about my life, I guess,” I answered and promptly forgot about it.
I forgot long enough to live a life of confusion and endless trial and error, to love and lose and grasp and fail—basically, I let go of my out-of-nowhere declaration long enough to be given the materials for this very tome I was to produce.
When did you take a step to start writing?
My younger daughter was one years old at the time and I also had an almost-three-year-old toddler at home. I was tired. My husband and I would vedge out in front of Netflix at night…actually, the fateful night that got me writing, we were watching Hulu. We were binging a show we loved called Future Man, when suddenly, I realized the leading actor had been my costar in a web show I did years ago, during my acting period.
I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to just leave my dreams by the wayside anymore—look how far he was able to get; it was possible! I began to write that very night on my iphone, in the notes section—that’s where I wrote my first few essays, which actually got published. Eventually, I transitioned to an ipad with a bluetooth keyboard.
It was a long time before I really called myself a writer and got a proper computer to keep track of all the work I was doing—I was pretty much done with Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING by then. This has all been a slow but steady process.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
From idea to release, it’ll be almost three years.
What made you want to write Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING?
Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING is a culmination of my entire life. Up to the point of starting to write it, I’d been writing personal essays that were getting published in the NY Times, the LA Times, Washington Post, and the like. But I wanted to do more than just share my story; I wanted to share the teachings that helped me heal and thrive. That’s what I do in this book—I use the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching, as well as spiritual information I’ve gathered on my own journey to empower others to create a life they love.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING?
Time and discipline were challenging for me. When I started writing this book my girls were three and five, with the little one still home much of the time. It took some ingenuity and a lot of late nights! When the pandemic hit, I sort of gave up, but the Universe had other plans. Funny enough, when I stopped trying to sell the book, it almost sold itself.
What was your research process for Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING?
I’ve been a student of the Tao Te Ching for nearly two decades but in writing this book, I ended up getting dozens of translations of this ancient Chinese text (from 6th Century B.C.). I also poured over various analyses and interpretations of the text. There was about a year of all Tao all the time.
How did you plan the structure of Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING?
I followed the structure of the Tao Te Ching initially–it has 81 verses. Then I cut some out if they felt repetitive. I would use each verse as a prompt to tell my own story and observations of the world around me, to give the Tao’s teachings context in our modern times. And then I’d end each chapter with a “Do Your Tao” section that provides actionable steps for my readers to help bring these teachings into their own lives.
I split the chapters into sections: Identity, Awareness, and Creation, so that they are best built upon one another. I also poured over many translations of the Tao before settling on the wording of the verses that open each chapter.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING need?
My publisher provided a wonderful copy editor and proofreader, but before that even started, the high-level editor that took on my book, Greg Brandenburgh, asked me to trim it down a bit. I cut three chapters which I now provide as bonus material for anyone who wants it. I, myself, edited the book at least three times, along with overlooking the two rounds of copy-editing.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Just get started! If you have a concrete idea, get writing. Things will become more clear as you go along. Don’t be precious about what you put down on paper–if it’s meant to be in your book, it’ll go there; if not, that’s okay. Just begin. And if you’re not clear on your idea yet, write as regularly as you can, read lots, and observe the world around you. The idea will come when it’s ready.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I honestly don’t know yet. When I create I wait until the pull is undeniable. Right now I’m just tinkering, writing here and there without a particular goal and reading and listening to a lot of spiritual, empowering information. I’m so into the idea of reprogramming our belief systems both individually and collectively…
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes and yes. It was so worth it. In sharing my story, I free myself. In sharing the wisdom that saved me, I am passing on my blessings. It is a beautiful circle. I am fulfilled.
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