Three years ago I was hiding from the kids in the shower when I had the idea to write a book. The problem was I had no writing background, at least not really. One intro to creative writing class in college didn’t count for much, and since then, I’d written barely a word. At least, not until my mother got sick.
It was when my mother was dying from cancer that I not only found the inspiration to write, but the necessity to. Sitting in her shoebox apartment, windows open to Zurich’s church bells singing their seven o’clock chorus, I wrote while Mom slept off her latest chemo treatment. Typing the pain, loneliness, and unexpected humor of my experience into emails, I sent them one by one to family and friends on the other side of the world. And with each email, I shared a small part of what it was like to be losing someone I loved. That’s when I learned what writing could really be: an outlet, a connection, and on a few occasions, the safety bar that kept me off the floor.
After my mother died, I joined a grieving daughter’s support group. At the ripe age of 32, I was the youngest one there. I was also the only one who was pregnant. No one’s story was the same, but brought together by our loss, we understood each other. Before the group ended, one member asked me if I wanted to join her writing group, Bellas.
“What makes you think I can write?” I asked her.
“I just do.”
Bellas was composed of real writers – middle-aged women in sandals who sipped hibiscus tea from thick ceramic mugs. Most of them had been writing for years and some of them even got paid for it. I was in awe.
And I was totally out of my league.
I couldn’t do what they did. I couldn’t write vibrant prose on the fly. Hell, I couldn’t even write dialogue. It was clear I didn’t belong in this group. Secretly I waited to be asked to leave. One by one, the Bellas would come to their senses, realizing they had made the grave mistake of inviting a bumbling imposter with bits of dried baby food in her hair to share in their peaceful writing haven. But whenever it was my turn to read to the group, tucked inside the mess of my writing, they would always find something nice to comment on.
Bellas eventually dissolved. That was right after I’d proudly announced to them my grand aspiration to write a YA paranormal romance novel. Sometimes I wonder if they secretly changed the group’s name and continued meeting – without me- in someone’s basement.
With no idea how to write a novel, I applied to join two different writing groups who had posted for new members. But no one bothered getting back to me. Branded a pariah by my book’s genre, I decided to write it on my own. Well, not exactly on my own. I discovered a writing partner- a precious, patient, slightly obsessive friend who was willing to critique my manuscript as it formed, chapter-by-agonizing chapter. (Thanks, Therese.)
Somewhere I’d heard that a writer should read as many books in their genre as possible. So I tried. But some of the paranormal romance books were tough to get through. One of them I’d picked up at Target because it had a picture of a shirtless guy on it and it was on sale. Not the best reasons to buy a book, I learned.
But the problem remained: I needed to better my craft and I wasn’t learning fast enough.
New plan: Don’t read books in my genre. Instead, search out the shiny round awards decorating the best YA novels on the shelves and read as many of those as I can get my hands on.
Now that was a good plan.
These are the first three YA novels that completely blew my mind in order of my discovering them:
1) FEED, by MT Anderson
2) SPEAK, by Laurie Halse Anderson
3) THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN, by Sherman Alexie
While reading these books and others, a strange thing began to happen. My good little manuscript gradually stopped behaving. Something new had begun to unfold inside of it, something that at first didn’t seem to belong. Sprouting inside my novel was the real story, my small version of the shared human experience. So I nurtured it.
There’s a happy 40th birthday card on my nightstand written in crayon. Now I am officially middle-aged. Most people would consider this to be a bad thing, but I don’t. Pushing aside my laptop, I slip on my sandals, and pour another cup of tea. Maybe for Christmas I’ll get that nice thick ceramic mug.