I wrote a ton of stories when I was growing up.
In the ones with the sad endings, the kid dies while saving the friend.
I guess it goes without saying that I was a weird kid.
The book I have been writing and rewriting over and over again for the past thirteen years was "finished" multiple times. There are various permutations of the end but none of them ever felt quite right. It bugged the hell out of me and I couldn't figure out what to do.
When I go on school visits or talk on author panels, the question inevitably comes up: Where do you get your ideas?
I usually answer by talking about the Two Sticks Theory. I think Sid Fleischman said this: It takes two sticks to build a fire and two ideas to make a story--two seemingly unrelated ideas come together and spark the book.
My multiply-written book, regardless of all of the variations and permutations it's had, has always begun with the same two sticks.
A Greek myth about a man who decides to chop down a massive beautiful oak tree even though a dryad resides in it. [Side note: Dryads are nature spirits connected to trees. The belief is that if you destroy a tree that has a dryad attached to it, you kill the dryad too.] The man ignores the screams and the pleas of the dryad and chops down the tree.
Stick number two:
When I was eleven years old I went to camp for a week and when I got home I found that the tree in my backyard, the one I loved to climb, had been cut down. My mother didn't like the tree because the roots were messing up the yard so she had my stepfather take care of it.
People talk about the difficulty of writing, and what they usually mean is the time spent. Hours of working on your computer, banging out draft after draft. Self-discipline. That part is all true. But that is not what makes writing difficult. At least for me.
Last January I went to visit my critique partner at Hamline University. Hamline offers an MFA in Children's Literature and my friend is finishing up her coursework there. I went to hear her present her critical thesis, but I also sat in on a few lectures.
The one that pretty much slayed me was given by Jane Resh Thomas. Jane is a writer and teacher. She's the mentor of people like Kate DiCamillo and Gary Schmidt and she is one of the most amazing speakers I have ever had the privilege to hear.
When I sat in on Jane's lecture, I was in the midst of struggling with my revision. There I was AGAIN reworking this story, which for whatever reason I could not let go of and could not get right. And there was Jane, speaking in this booming voice:
WHY ARE YOU WRITING THIS STORY?
WHY HAVE YOU CHOSEN TO SPEND A YEAR OF YOUR LIFE IN DEVOTION TO IT?
WHY HAS THIS STORY CHOSEN YOU?
When you write a story, Jane said, you are not the same person you were when you come to the end of it.
All of us who write for children have a locked trunk in our attics, a box where we hide all of the secrets from our childhood, the things that hurt us, the things that were too difficult to handle when we were children... BUT WE ARE NO LONGER CHILDREN.
It's time to go up into your attic and unlock the trunk.
The heart of your story is like a hot stove. We don't want to touch it, but to do the story justice, we must.
We have to sit on the hot stove and cook.
I came home from Minnesota and started the book again. I wrote every day for seven days a week. Every day I climbed up into the attic. Every day I parked myself on the hot stove.
In the midst of all of that, I purged my house. I literally cleaned out every closet and drawer. The Goodwill guy threatened not to take another carload of my stuff.
There was a certain point--maybe back in March?-- when I realized that I didn't care about publication anymore or even if another person ever read this damn book. The only goal was to come out on the other side of it without suffering from third degree burns.
I finished a couple of days ago.
I am happy to report that I don't have permanent skin damage. But I am sorta wandering around my purged house like a stranger. Apparently, I have different furniture. New pictures on the walls. New drapery.
Jane Resh Thomas was right.
I am not the same person I was when I started this book. I'm not exactly sure who I am. The story, it turns out, is about broken people who have to figure out how to save themselves-- or die trying.