I had one of the most productive writing weekends in recent memory. 2,772 words between Friday and Sunday. Friday night, around midnight, I sat down to write. My husband had gone to bed, and Riley with him. Toby stayed with me in my office on the third floor. He never leaves my side. When I stopped writing, it was 1:30 a.m.
Saturday, the dogs needed walks, and I had errands to run and laundry to do. By the time I sat down to write it was after 4 p.m. The dogs, tired from our afternoon hike, fell asleep as I sat down at my desk. Everything fell away as I typed. The dogs woke and started whining. It was then that I realized I’d been “in the zone” for two hours and I’d missed their dinner time.
I’m not a very disciplined writer. My writing process is...chaotic. But it works for me. I don’t outline or create character bibles. My stories are more organic. I’ve heard sculptors say they didn’t create the sculpture, they simply freed what was already inside the stone. That’s how I feel about my writing; I don’t create stories, or characters, I just use words to reveal the stories and characters that are already there, waiting to be told, waiting to be seen. Thus, I am constantly surprised by the twists and turns in my stories and the surprising details my characters reveal about themselves. For example, I recently found myself researching Gershwin songs—apparently one main character plays the piano. His unforeseen talent added detail that led to him recounting one of his most poignant experiences in the book. Other characters revealed secrets that made me have to research garter snakes (often wrongly referred to as “garden” snakes), and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales.
There’s a lot of me and my history in my books, and I suppose there is in this new one as well. Let me correct that: there is a lot of my history in this book but it’s not about me in the same way “Unbroken” is. When I went to college, I started a diary. I kept it up for about ten years. I no longer remember why I stopped; maybe I decided to devote more time living my life than documenting it. Anyway, I used those diaries to inform the emotional heart of the book.
In January, when my aunt was in hospice, I spent the day with her—it turned out to be the last time I would see her. While she was sleeping, I sat down to work on the book. I know that sounds strange but there wasn’t anything to do and I found I could write and remain in the moment with her. I had been struggling with a scene in which a character dies and for months I’d put off finishing the scene because it just never felt right no matter how often I rewrote it. I sat there five feet from her and just put down what I’d seen and what I felt and I think I got the scene exactly right, encapsulated in a single sentence spoken by one character.
Recently I was the guest author on The Read, Jarrod King’s wonderful YouTube video interview series. He asked me, “Usually, when people write their own story, they mention the difficulty of not being able to tell every detail of their life and experience; that it’s hard to craft it into a story the keeps the reader turning the page. Did you face any similar difficulties? And if so, what did you do to overcome them and create what I would say is a very riveting coming-of-age story?”
My answer was simple: When I write I’m always convinced no one will read the book so it’s easy for me to be honest. But this new book is different because it doesn’t just reveal my own truth but those of others. And that was probably the hardest part to write and get right.
Watch my interview with Jarrod King here.