When I was first drafting COURAGE FOR BEGINNERS, my second middle-grade novel, I had more false starts and weak attempts than ever before. I rearranged point of view, voice, characters, structure – everything. (There’s even a string of back and forth exchanges with my editor that include the subject line: Ways to get rid of David. If the NSA is tracking writers, well, they’ll have their hands full.)
But I hit a critical turning point when I literally put myself in the sneakers of the unsteady, young character.
COURAGE features Mysti Murphy, seventh-grade girl in the midst of two crises. First, her father suffers a serious accident, putting him in the hospital just as school is starting. This forces Mysti to fill in for her dad, and be the responsible one at home for her agoraphobic mother and her little sister. The second crisis is at school. Her long-time best friend, Anibal, engages Mysti in what he calls a “social experiment.” Anibal has his ambitions set on becoming a hipster this year and decides he can’t be seen talking to someone from his past like Mysti. “We’ll still be friends,” Anibal tells her. “Just not in the lunchroom or hallways.”
My turning point was a day when I decided to visit a middle school like the one Mysti attends. I called a good girlfriend and arranged to have lunch with her middle-schooler one day. I wanted to see if the middle school cafeteria still hummed with that spectrum ranging from bright confidence to quiet insecurity, and all the colors in between.
It did. (It also still smelled vaguely of cold soup and disinfectant.)
When the time came to meet my young friend, I went to the cafeteria with my sack lunch. The cafeteria was a big, wide room with a curtained stage on one end. Rows upon rows of tables extending backwards from the stage. A small section of tables reserved for guests coming to eat with their students. A cafeteria line. Random teachers shouting, “Have some respect!” to a few rowdy students. I stood in the front of the cafeteria near the guest tables and eagerly looked for my friend. As I rocked back and forth, minutes passed. I watched the variety of students. The vivid, conversationalists. The ones with heads stuck in a book. And those sitting alone – even though they were sitting with others. Boy, I remember that.
My young friend never showed up. Students came and went and stared at me like out of place person that I genuinely was.
Want to know what that felt like?
Just like I did in seventh grade! In fact, sort of like a dork.
I ditched my home-made sandwich. The whole thing made me lose my appetite.
I hit the writing desk again. And everything changed. I could see and feel where Mysti would encounter her old friend Anibal and ache to talk to him. To belong. To be asked to sit at his lunch table. To feel left behind and forgotten while others seemingly had a great lunch. And because I could vividly see that and pull up those feelings, I was finally able to hear Mysti’s words come through and onto the page. Every writer knows that’s where the magic is.
I told my eleven-year old daughter this story recently and she responded, “So…what you’re saying is, you have to be a dork to write a book.”
My child. She is funny. “No, you don’t have to be a dork,” I told her, “But today’s dork is often tomorrow’s inventor and artist and writer.”
Writing this book reminded me of something my favorite writing professor once said: you need to find that opening into a character that you so strongly identify with that you can see the world through his or her eyes and allow your own vulnerability to inform your writing.
My third middle-grade novel (MAYDAY, Little, Brown/2016) is about a plane crash survivor. Shall I leave you to wonder at how I entered into the experience of that protagonist?