This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend a writing conference/retreat up in the North Woods of Minnesota. I went to hear Nikki Grimes speak on novels in verse. Storytelling through verse is my passion. Just like when I discovered graphic novels in the first semester of the MFAC program, I was amazed to see you could tell stories in this fashion. Unlike graphic novels, I feel like I have a fighting chance to write a verse novel.
(For graphic novels I think I’ll just remain a passionate reader!)
I brought some pages of my own verse novel. I’ve been fussing with this story in some way on and off since I started my second semester at Hamline. The story has never worked. Something has always been missing. And boy oh boy has it been frustrating.
This weekend I discovered – again – that the story I wanted to tell was overshadowed by the story I told. I’ve told the same story over and over again. Kids living with a mom who has serious depression. First problem, I know, is where I got this story idea. I got it from my own life. Second problem – I’m the mom.
I’ve created a story about a mom who is in the grips of mental illness who essentially drops out of her kids’ lives and frightens them. Repeatedly. Like sometimes Shining level of frightening. I’ve written a story where the mom remains front and centered in the story. That’s not a kid’s story. That’s not even memoir. That’s probably best suited to my therapist’s office.
Don’t get me wrong – there are some good poems in there. I’ve moved through my own guilt and shame. There’s even a little girl who has become a fascinating character that I’m super interested in discovering more about.
But up to now, it still – even though I stepped away from it – STILL was about the mom.
Here’s the good news. Nikki Grimes had some eye-opening mind blowing ways to think about writing a verse novel. Like – did you know in a verse novel, the verse for her comes last? Writing the poems comes after a lot of other writing and planning and thinking. In a way, poems don’t make a story – but the poems are in service to the story you want to tell.
But I still didn’t have a story with a kid at the center. Then, Sarah Aronson gave a talk about backstory that made me sit up and think – holy shit – there’s a kid in my book! A girl. She’s ten. She wants to talk. Maybe a lot. And people aren’t listening. Even me.
Luckily, she’s kind of powerful and demanding. She wants to speak. She’s been silent a LONG TIME. Maybe it’s time her author listened.
In a plug of utterly shameless promotion, if you want to see some of the things I’ve written on verse novels, please check out my blog “Dr. Sasslyn’s Thoughts” at tasslynmagnusson.com.
Tasslyn Magnusson writes books and poetry for kids. She writes poetry for grown-ups too! Because everybody needs poems! She received her MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota in January 2017. She lives in Prescott, WI (really, really close to Saint Paul, MN) with her husband, two kids, and two dogs.