My memory of meeting Jennifer Richard Jacobson involves nearly throwing myself at her in the exhibit hall at an ALA conference; I love her work so much! Luckily for me, she has a high tolerance for fangirling. She still speaks to me! And in fact, we had a lovely chat last night for my Write Space program over on Instagram; hop over there after you read her essay below and watch the replay. And my goodness, what an essay! I am in awe of her vulnerability in sharing and inspired to walk a bit deeper into the woods with my own current WIP. You will want to add Crashing in Love (Candlewick Press) to your to-be-read pile, that is for certain.
Writers are often asked where we “find” our ideas. Let’s face facts. We don’t find our ideas; our ideas find us. And by that I don’t mean that ideas are fluffy dandelion seeds floating on the wind, looking for a soft and receptive place to stick. No, they are witches hiding in the woods, cleverly devising ways to take us someplace deeper (and often darker) and without fail, closer to the truth.
You might think that the origin of my newest middle grade novel Crashing in Love (Candlewick Press) would dispel this dubious theory. After all, it’s easy to trace this story’s inception. While we painted the dining room, my daughter told me about a man, who when bicycling, discovered an unconscious woman in the road. He began visiting the woman in the hospital, the woman recovered, and the two formed a relationship. Her name was Destiny.1
Ok, so you might say I ripped this story straight from the headlines2. That “ripped” phrase, when a reviewer uses it, feels demeaning. It implies, I think, that the writer took the easier route, that they didn’t need to rely on the more elusive (and exclusive) artistic imagination. In this case, it would be true. I grabbed this story because I could not stop repeating it, and because it seemed (with a few adjustments to the character’s ages and a twist to the plot here and there) an easy story to write. And after writing a hefty middle grade novel about classism and grief3 I was ready for light and easy.
Ha! See the trickery? Two major flaws in my thinking: I didn’t grab the story, the story grabbed me. And no novel is as easy as it appears. I’ll continue.
I was just starting this story at the Highlights Retreat Center. Author Nancy Werlin and I were reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and applying her exercises to our work. In my musing so far, I knew I had a twelve-year-old girl, Peyton, who is certain that this will be her first summer of love. She collects aphorisms and does her best to live by them. And to ensure that she makes the right choice, she creates her “top ten must-haves” for her first boyfriend4.
If you know Lisa Cron’s work, you know that my character needed a misbelief with an origin story. I was having a difficult time coming up with mine. During a brainstorming session, Nancy suggested Peyton’s misbelief take root while her parents announce a divorce. One parent might say, “No one is perfect,” and Peyton might ask, why not? Certainly, thinks Peyton, with a little bit of focused effort, anyone could behave perfectly.
Whoa! Yes. Nancy just handed me an origin story. This novel was practically writing itself!
And if you haven’t guessed, this is where the witches in the woods cackled.
Because if you’re going to write about perfectionism, you need to examine your own ridiculous delusions about control and how they can wreak havoc on a whole lot of things like friendships, and growth, and being happy. And if you’re going to write about divorce, you must face the realities of your own divorce—the painful complexities, your guilt, and the consequent suffering of your children. Sounds easy, right?
Not in a million years would I, during the year this novel was conceived, have said, “I’m going to write a middle grade novel about divorce and the peril of believing one can protect oneself from pain.” No way.
But there you have it.
Am I glad this topic clung to me, lead me down a path of reflection and self-discovery? Of course. We humans are designed to evolve. And we novelists are suckers for being tricked into thinking we’re writing one kind of book, while our authentic characters gently lead us to the book we need to write.
I can’t help thinking, though, there’s got to be an aphorism, some little saying that if diligently followed, will protect me from ever being tricked again.
- To hear more of the details of this story go to https://www.teachingbooks.net/qlu383q
- Why do we say ripped? Why not borrowed, lifted, or coaxed?
- The Dollar Kids
- Admittedly, I had created one of these lists as a middle-aged woman. To read my defense, go to https://tinyurl.com/hrz32x8n
Jennifer Richard Jacobson, a graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the award-winning author of over two dozen children’s books including THIS IS MY ROOM (NO TIGERS ALLOWED (Simon and Schuster), SMALL AS AN ELEPHANT, PAPER THINGS, and THE DOLLAR KIDS (Candlewick), and the TWIG and TURTLE series (Pixel and Ink). Her newest title is a middle grade romance: CRASHING IN LOVE. Jennifer lives in Maine and when not writing, works as a writing coach. You can find Jennifer at:
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