Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Story Behind the Story

I attended the SCBWI NY conference this past weekend and was inspired, as usual, by the awesome speakers. While everyone I heard left something with me, it was Lois Lowry and Linda Sue Park that really resonated with me the most.

Lois Lowry talked about the question so many people ask: Where do you get your ideas? To answer, she shared the "stories" - some funny, some very sad - behind several of her books. It got me thinking about my own writing and the stories that have shaped each one.

Linda Sue Park talked about how sometimes you must take yourself out of your writing, to make it about the work and not about yourself. This too got me thinking about my own writing, specifically my novel Blind Spot, which my agent, Jill Corcoran has begun submitting to publishers. I decided to blog about the story behind Blind Spot, and how I had to take myself out of the equation, to write it.

I'd always been a shy, introverted girl. I had glasses since the first grade but despite yearly upgrades in my prescription, I never really could see with them on. I kind of bumbled around a lot, and always felt stupid and out of it, even though I wasn't stupid. Most of the time I was at the top of my class.

When I was in eighth grade, I had an infection in my eye. Nothing serious. I'd started wearing contacts the year before and due to improper cleaning or eyestrain or whatever, my eye got infected. While sitting in the waiting room, I overheard my mom and the doctor talking about my dad's vision. I knew he didn't see very well either, but I'd never heard any talk of him having an eye disease. As they described how he saw - how he couldn't see things straight on and had to use his peripheral vision instead - I started to get scared.

That's how I saw. Little colored dots moved around in front of my eyes blocking my central vision. I'd had them so long, I'd learned to accommodate by focusing them on something and then using my peripheral to see. I assumed everyone did; I thought that was how everyone saw.

Well it wasn't. I had macular degeneration. They explained my eyes would continue to get worse (like they'd been doing since I was in first grade). They explained I would struggle with reading regular print (which I already did). They explained I probably would never drive a car (which would've been a big deal, except I knew my Dad drove so obviously that wasn't going to happen to me. I didn't realize he'd been driving illegally for years). Basically, from my viewpoint, they were telling me things I'd already been dealing with for years, so besides having a reason now for always bumbling about like an idiot, nothing had changed.

To my private Catholic school, however, things had changed. It was the early eighties. Special education, IEPs, 504 plans, etc. didn't exist - not in Fairbanks, Alaska. We had resource classes. A teacher would come during class and pull out those kids who had trouble reading or doing math to give them extra help. My school hadn't had to deal with a girl who was considered 'legally blind' and in their attempt to accommodate me, they decided I too should be pulled out of class for extra help. Suddenly I was separated from the rest of the class and pooled in with the kids I once upon a time had helped with their reading. I know, looking back, the school was trying to help. But as a freshman in high school who had always been the one excelling in reading, I took it to mean something was wrong with me.

This sudden change, tilt, in my world didn't fair so well with the already insecure, self-conscious introvert that I was. And because of it I made poor choices. Did stupid things. Got myself into trouble. A lot. I wasn't trying to rebel. I was just battling that image of who I thought I was versus who everyone else seemed to want to think I was.

When I decided to write Blind Spot, I wanted to write something that wasn't an issue book. I didn't want to write about a visually impaired girl with macular degeneration and what people with that eye disease go through.

No.

The book I needed to write was about a girl who happened to have a visual impairment. A book about the reality of being a teen coping with something that shapes who you are and who others think you are. I wanted to make what my character went through real, make her pissed off, hurt, ashamed, so wrapped up in her anger that she couldn't see everyone around her, losing friends because she couldn't see the forest through the trees.

I needed to write about the girl who was self-destructive because she thought she was not normal, not worthy, not able. The girl that wanted to love herself but couldn't. The girl that was me.

I found as I began writing, however, that my own story was too close to the one I was writing, and I was struggling. I had a critique with author Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why, who said he had a similar problem when writing his book. His story, stemming from a suicide in his own family, was very personal and he found it hard to separate himself sometimes too. But separate was what I needed to do because I was limiting my main character, Roz, to my own characteristics; my plot to my own story.

To fix this, I rewrote the novel in third person. Took a while, but the result was worth it. It enabled me to put some distance between myself and Roz. I was able to add to her and to the plot things that needed to be there but I hadn't myself experienced. By the time I was ready to rewrite again in first person, I'd completely severed myself. I had done as Linda Sue Park suggested in her talk. I took myself out of it and focused on the book.

The result?

Blind Spot. The story of sixteen year old Roswell Hart who, because of her macular degeneration, is too wrapped up in her own messed up life to notice what's going on around her. When her classmate Tricia Farni is found dead and Roz was the last person to see her alive, however, Roz needs to know what she missed that awful night by Birch River. Problem is, she doesn't remember, and she must piece together what has happened to find the truth.

So, that's what is behind my novel, and I hope, with any luck, some of you will get to read it someday :)

6 comments:

Jennifer said...

Having read the fist versions of this story, I am so excited to read the final version. I love how you explain how you took yourself out of the story, because, even when you aren't writing something based on a real reality, like your disease, it's important to not be so close to an experience that you can't get past the "you" in the story.
I'm so proud to call you friend and that I will one day get to see your baby "grown". It's not an if , but a when!

Jennifer said...

Having read the fist versions of this story, I am so excited to read the final version. I love how you explain how you took yourself out of the story, because, even when you aren't writing something based on a real reality, like your disease, it's important to not be so close to an experience that you can't get past the "you" in the story.
I'm so proud to call you friend and that I will one day get to see your baby "grown". It's not an if , but a when!

Laura Ellen said...

Thanks Jenn, I love you too :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing. Your book sounds great. And the conference. Hopefully you'll share more about it.

Kristin said...

Thanks for sharing, Laura. I've enjoyed reading your story as it has evolved over the years, and am looking forward to seeing the final version at a book store! I love the title too!

Laura Ellen said...

Thanks Natalie and Kristin!