Friday, April 27, 2012

Inspiration in a Petri Dish

Among my YA writer peeps, most of us readily admit that our atrocious teenage years are the inspiration for our work. For me, it’s those painful but funny (only when I look back, of course) moments that I find cathartic (in a sick kind of way) to write about.
  •  My first “real” kiss at the end of sixth grade to the song Lady In Red…the shock of it all, running home after the dance to my mother and asking, “Are you sure that’s how it’s supposed to go?”
  • Homecoming in 10th grade, finally get to dance with my crush, who seconds into “Vision of Love” proceeds to puke his guts out, missing my toes by just centimeters. Suffice it to say, we never spoke again.
  • Running for class president in ninth grade…against my then boyfriend... who won.
  • After gaining the freshmen fifteen (okay, it was more like thirty) one of my classmates, upon noticing my larger person, yelled down the crowded hallway, “Hey Hannah? Why don’t you lose some weight?”

I have PLENTY of things to inspire my YA writing.  But there is a particular inspiration for Maddie…and it’s not any of the above.


Way back when I published MSW in early 2004, I was interviewed by my hometown newspaper, and when asked the question where did idea for the novel come from, I causally referenced a “painful high school breakup”.

That was putting it mildly.

When I was 13, I had my first major love…it was all stars, Bob Marley and De La Soul, the beach, and love notes… and then within 6 months, it wasn’t. While we never were an official couple after our break up freshmen year, we had “something” (not really “dating”, per say) on and off for a bunch of years.

Most of it was awful…really awful.

Those years of being twisted up with that boy created a whole lot of pain that I would later become incredibly inspired by. What inspired me was that I didn’t understand myself in that relationship or the experiences that went along with it. So, I started, from the moment we initially broke up, to write stories in an attempt to make some sense out of what was happening.

The first draft of Maddie came when I was fifteen, and while that original version (still in a blue five-subject notebook in some box in my basement) definitely was a rip-off from my real life, the current version of that and the other Maddie books are not. What I retained in the later version (the published one) of MSW was the real-life pain I felt back then, kept fresh in my mind for subsequent books, thanks to my highly detailed journals from high school.


I will admit that while I’m over high school, the actual humiliation and pain that occurred… well, does one ever really get over that? It exists in my memory like the pain of childbirth; People tell you that you’ll forget it, but the truth is— you don’t. How can I forget 36 hours of being stunned gun in the back over and over again? How can I forget the twisting and wrenching in my belly that went on days before the actual so-called real labor?

Take those 36 hours and expand them to 5 years. Take those labor pains and replace it with a certain on-again off-again relationship during high school and there you have the pain that “birthed” some beautiful babies—my Maddie books.


Not only did this pain gift me Maddie and her stories, but it also provided a much needed cathartic release which lead me to understand who I was back then. This understanding has been instrumental in the work I do as a writer of teenage fiction, but also in my day job as a tutor and writing coach to high school students (or, as they refer to me, “the teenage whisperer”).  

What I figured out is that I couldn’t stay away from this boy because the way we interacted with each other did a great job of fueling my deep insecurity of not being good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough. When I was involved with him, I constantly felt wrong and stupid and all that other stuff…it was messed up. This relationship fed the part of me that was very dark and self-destructive. But it was not his fault. Not at all. In fact, what was happening around me at home was really the issue (and not for public consumption at this time… although, FYI, like many families of divorce, we are all fine now). In many ways he was just this external symptom, and the real problem, of course, was me.


So…here I am writing what might be the final Maddie book just as, thanks to Facebook, the inevitable has happened. Yep. I sent him a friend request…and he accepted it. Of course I’m not gonna lie…I thought about it for awhile, and I had some trepidation and insanity around it. After all, I had kept my pain alive (albeit in a nice little petri dish and used it only for birthing Maddie stories). Would I be able to just be “normal” and say, “Hey, what’s up?” The answer is…yes…because I really am a grown up now and have a pretty clear understanding of those teenage years.

Best of all, seeing that we are all okay brought peace to that part of me that has to relive that pain over and over again while I write this final book.


Caryn Caldwell said...

Oh, wow. I'm sorry that these things happened to you, though I can definitely see how they would inspire some strong scenes in your fiction. I think it's crucial to remember your earlier self when writing YA. Though none of my friends (or otherwise) from high school would recognize the scenes in my book because they've changed so much, so many of them were inspired by actual experiences.

Catherine Stine said...

Ooh, that homecoming event must've sucked though it's funny to picture. That's why these awful events turn to gold.