This is an important question. We all want to write authentic, honest, true stories that ring with emotional truth.
You gotta hit some emotional spots, or at least I do, to make that happen.
My creative thesis was the story of a brother and sister whose mother started to go weird and become suicidal. She became unreliable. She became a danger in their lives.
Spoiler – it was based on me.
I wondered how my kids must have felt when I got really, really, really anxious and depressed and lost my job and my ability to speak coherently and really, at times, my desire to be in the world.
I wondered what it would have been like if my kids had a story about kids living through such an experience.
So I wrote it. And wrote it. And re-wrote it.
Claire Rudolf Murphy, in my first semester said, “oh jeeze, people wait decades before doing something like this. Are you sure?”
I renamed the kids – but the younger still had crazy hair and spoke with the family dogs and the older still loved to cook. If you asked my kids, they’d say, “Umm, mom. It’s still us. Drop it.”
And they’d be right.
I killed the dad character. But even the dead dad looked and walked and talked like my 6 foot 9 inch tall Swedish husband. (We have gone over the dead dad thing in marriage therapy. I know what you’re thinking).
I asked everyone I knew and people I didn’t know how they survived writing painful things. I got a lot of great advice – for another blog posting. But it helped. Sometimes.
I asked every person important to me if they thought I was making good choices in the scenes, characterization, plot.
I asked if they were traumatized reading my stuff.
I asked if they’d change the end. Or the beginning. Or the end.
I think you are starting to get the point. Even if I didn’t.
It had to get worse for me to understand.
So it did.
The dam broke.
I got some feedback, reasonable critical feedback.
I lost my mind.
I cried. I wanted to burn my story or send it to every editor to prove it was worthwhile. I raged.
There was a lot of other things going on in my life that left me reeling – but this story. I thought I HAD to write this story. That without THIS story, kids could be missing something essential.
Without THIS story, I wouldn’t understand how much I hurt my kids.
(That wasn’t the sentence I’d been planning to write. But it’s true).
This story of two kids struggling with an unstable parent became twisted with my story of being an unstable parent.
And I was careening through graduation last January through July waiting for someone, anyone, to take my story away from me.
Spoiler. I’m the writer. I’m the boss. I’m the only person who can say stop.
And I needed to.
“Stop writing this fucking story, say it, like a hundred times.” That’s what a good friend told me to do. She writes and she knows things.
“This story is hurting you. You’re a writer. Write anything. Everything. But not this. Not something that makes you crazy,” said the ever-amazing Anne Ursu.
So I did.
I didn’t delete it from my computer.
But I put it in a folder that said “Else and Joey – Old.”
And I stopped writing it.
And I sat in my computer chair and said to myself. “You’re a writer. Write.”
But I sat in the chair the next time, and the next time. And said the same thing.
I said I was going to write a story about kid adventures with just kids (not orphans, but basically parents are there off doing parental things that they are supposed to do and leaving the kids alone). And they would do something with magic.
After all, I used to write to Ron Koertge when I was mad fourth semester: “I wish I was writing about elves.”
So, being a writer and not just a writer but a WRITER minted by the Hamline MFAC program, I did just that. I wrote a whole draft of a middle grade humorous fantasy with a talking weird magical journal.
Part of me felt like a failure that my creative thesis wasn’t “queryable” and I was going to be marching into life as a “real writer.”
But I also felt, once Else and Joey was contained in the computer, that I could breathe again.
That I maybe enjoyed writing.
That writing could bring me joy.
That Sophie, grade six and loaded down with some weird smart ass magic journal that tells her things she doesn’t want to know, that Sophie girl. She’s amazing. She makes me laugh. She makes me afraid. She makes me wonder.
I wonder where I should go next? Cause I’m the writer and the boss of the words on the page and I can restart this adventure whenever I want.
You can too.
Tasslyn Magnusson received her MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She writes poetry for adults and poetry and fiction for children. She also really loves donuts.
You are the boss, Tasslyn. I am glad that you are taking care of yourself and still writing.