From as early as I can remember, stories have been a driving force in my life. Me, aged for our five, listening, spell-bound, to the tale of Rapunzel. Not the Disney version, but the one where the peasant husband steals rhubarb from the castle, only to be bribed by the witch to make the most hideous trade—rhubarb for the peasant’s newborn daughter. Years later, thorns blind her true love and only her tears bring his sight, and her freedom, back.
I think it was Rapunzel‘s bravery that has always captivated me. She sang, she let her hair down for use as a ladder .. but she never forgot the forgot the ability to hope. When presented a way out, she took it, even though it was scary (she was literally in the forest on the witch’s property). In my own life, I wasn’t very brave. The stories I invented surrounded mostly weak, victim-minded heroines.
Somewhere around this time, I learned to write and wrote my first story, Sweet Shelby, which was about a little girl trying to decide what to give her mother for her birthday. I have no memory of writing this story… but I still have the book.
Aged ten finds me reading The Baby-Sitter’s Club … and reading stories I wrote out loud to my fourth grade class. This series became a lifeline for me, the seven girls, my friends. I still vividly remember my heart breaking when Claudia’s grandmother, Mimi, died. I will never forget laughing until I thought I’d ruptured my spleen during Stacey’s Big Crush after sending my own teacher a perfume doused love letter. These stories, they helped me escape the back seat of a car or the pain of abuse and invited me into a close knit, safe community of Stoneybrook, CT.
Around age 8-9, I modeled my first Mickey series after The Baby-Sitter’s Club series. Mickey was one of seven friends whose lives were documented in the stories. Mickey was the leader. I wrote these short stories daily. Between writing and reading, there were plenty of friends to be had.
Around age 12-13, I read my first Danielle Steel book, Kaleidoscope. It was about three sisters who are separated cruelly. One of them, the oldest, vows to find the other two. From that point on, I was hooked. This was storytelling; the art of weaving a full story, with background, foreshadowing…all of those things that work together to create a full character, one others cared about. Today, my writing bears almost no resemblance to Steel, but Ashleigh, my first full length novel, would be modeled after Steel: third person narration, longer chapters, more detailed descriptions. Reading & working on these full length novels that grew to be over 2,000 hands-written pages long, gave me a belief that there was more.
Aged 14 or 15 found me checking out a book from the library on how to write query letters and submitting my complete book to multiple houses. My first “pink slip” of rejection left me broken hearted … but determined to get better. You see, by now, years had passed without a single day closing without me writing for hours.
By now, characters, both of my own creation and those in my favorite books, talked to me. They started showing up, sitting in mind’s eye, until I started writing their stories down. None of them are the same. The side of my left pinkie and the top section of my first finger, where a pencil rests, developed a knot, a huge, permanent, callous. The hand written books of 1,000 or more pages took, on average, three months to write. These characters dominated my thoughts.
And, sometimes, they did more.
When you are pinned down so that, no matter how hard you push, you can’t push away the hard hand or heavy body that is trapping you, your mind must figure out a way to survive. When you abruptly pick up and leave, wandering down the highway without knowing where you are headed, your mind must be able to adapt and find peace. For me, in the worst of the worst, in the moments no words can really explain, in the moments of intense fear, they were there. Usually not the same ones, usually, it was whichever character I was writing at the time. There are moments, memories, I have, where terrible things are going on around me, but I really don’t remember details. Instead, I remember taking to Victoria our Landon our whichever character was there. It was like a movie in my head: while my body hurt, my mind was playing out the next scene in whatever book I was writing. I’d watch the movie and wait for everything around me to be still; then, I’d write down the movie in the form of a story.
2003 was a big year because I was pregnant for the first time, and terrified of my baby girl being endangered. So, I told my mother; since then, I haven’t had to see or talk to my father. Safe. Yet, just when you think you are beyond it, you find that you haven’t even started to deal with the things you couldn’t process while they happened. But I kept writing. 2009, I published The Character. It was different than anything I’d done before: it was written in first person, it contained real memories and difficult scenes of abuse. It bought me Ash, opened the door to speaking events and, all around, made an impact.
To try and convey what writing has done for me is impossible because I simply don’t even know who I would be without it. How would I have dealt with life, both its massive and small hurts? How would I have learned to find peace and comfort in the midst of some really heavy storms?
Stories are my haven, they are where I go when I am hurting and when I am happy. When I was fourteen or so, the book The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert tangibly reminded me that what I was going through wasn’t un-survivable. It gave me hope by reminding me people survived literal death camps; I could survive, too. It sparked a lifelong passion for the era and hardcore research. At some point in my teens, I found Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love and fell in love. Her books were the antidote for the serious, pain-riddled research of the Holocaust and my own memories. Her love stories, especially the heroes Ian and Clayton, kept me believing in happily-ever-afters: the real and imaginative ones.
The whole process of writing is something precious to me. First, a nameless character will show up in my mind’s eye. I can see what h/she looks like, approximately how old and I can tell basic personality traits. I usually have no idea what their story is, but whenever I see a character, I know a storyline is coming. The character will usually hang around daily, just waiting for me to spend enough time to watching them, for a week or two. Then, I have a name. Still, no story, but a name. At this point, I’m usually intrigued enough to start guessing what the story is, based on the kid I see. Sometimes, I’ll even write something out, but it’s always scraped, because it wasn’t character-directed.
Eventually, the character will say something. Maelea from Dance For Me said, “write about my home,” which led me on a interesting treasure hunt to find out where she lived. Anna from The Character wanted me to write the scene where she meets Ash (not the first chapter of the book). Haven tricked me into believing that I wasn’t writing a book at all, just one letter. So, I watch the movie scene in my head play out as words on paper. Usually, by the time the first scene is written, the character’s given me scene number two. And so on until the book is finished. Once the last word is written, all of my characters, except Ash and Haven, have just vanished. They don’t usually hang around, which makes room for the new character.
Writing is cathartic, it is fun and it is one of the greatest gifts to my life. I’m not the greatest writer, my style is painfully simple, my grammar is not perfect and my stories are not for everyone. I don’t publish my books for money, or for fame. I mainly publish them because it is a way to preserve them; I also publish them because I do believe they spark important conversations and because I am proud of my characters and love these stories. Finally, I publish them because, as irrelevant as I might be, I trust God and believe that He uses broken people, even simple books, to touch others. The stories I’ve seen happen at speakings and through the reviews left are heartwarming. His stories is the one I hope shines the brightest because they are the ones that matter.
Today, Haven is released; by far different in many ways for me. I’ve gone from feeling terrified to feeling proud to feeling excited to feeling nervous. I’ve worked really hard on this book—every aspect of it, from the cover to interior design to proofreading—and, even though it’s story might be confusing or misunderstood initially, it is mine.
My next character is also excited because, now that Haven’s story is complete, I can get to knows him. He’s been patiently waiting for over a year for me to devote time to him; his story is different, easier, and is about the power of stories.
His name is Henry.