Monday, January 10, 2011

Guest Post: Loretta Ellsworth on Finding Yourself In Your Novel

By Loretta Ellsworth

When I read Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt (Front Street, 2006)(a National Book Award finalist and a truly memorable story) I had an inkling of the ending and put the book down for a bit.

I wasn’t sure I would be satisfied if the book went in that particular direction, although when I picked it up again, the author convinced me it was ultimately the right choice.

What convinced me even more was the author’s note at the end, in which she spoke of her younger sister who had died at the age of eleven. The fact that the author was exploring her sister’s death in the book added a further richness to my reading.

My novel In a Heartbeat (Walker, 2010) is about a heart transplant. It’s the story of two teenage girls. Eagan is a competitive figure skater who has a new boyfriend and a shining career ahead of her. She’s sassy, fearless, and is constantly at odds with her mom. Amelia is fourteen and has been sick for several years with heart disease. She’s homeschooled and has to use a special chair to go up and down the stairs at home. Amelia is shy, vulnerable, and very close to her mom.

This book is told from alternating viewpoints between the two girls. When Eagan hits her head during a competition and dies, Amelia gets her heart. But Amelia begins to notice new changes in herself, new personality traits. She has memories that aren’t her own. And Eagan is stuck in a gray foggy place where she’s trying to sort out her life before she can move on, where she has to reconcile the past and face her own death.

To me, it’s a story of loss and hope and love and redemption.

I started writing it after my nephew died in a motorcycle accident. We were surprised to learn that he’d designated himself as an organ donor on his license, not because we couldn’t see him doing that, but because he hadn’t told anyone of this decision.

His parents honored his request and our family was grateful that Jason’s death was able to bring life to others.

I’ve been in Jane Resh Thomas’s critique group for more than seven years. A question she often asks us is, “Where are you in this story? What does this story have to do with you?”

Because, for a story to have deeper meaning, it must somehow relate to our lives. This is true whether it’s a serious story or a humorous one.

Sometimes we don’t realize where we are in our stories until after we’ve written them, but it’s helpful to find that connection, not only for the sake of our readers who gain an added understanding, but to help us understand our own lives, to process our experiences.

Isn’t storytelling how people make sense of their own history? The stories we choose to tell dictate our interpretation of the world around us.

My favorite author, Harper Lee, said that “writing is a self-exploratory operation that is endless.” And a quote from her book comes to mind as well: “Atticus said that Jem was trying hard to forget something, but what he was really doing was storing it away for awhile, until enough time passed.” (from To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)).

Cynsational Notes

In a Heartbeat will be available in paperback in February, and Loretta's next novel, Unforgettable, will be out next fall from Walker.

6 comments:

Sayantani said...

Lovely post and great quote from Harper Lee. I think the best self exploration, as you say, is the one that comes out without you even knowing it, onto the page. So that as you write your story, the story teaches you something you may not have previously been able to articulate about yourself - even TO yourself. I love this idea of narrating ourselves into existence (or into more self-awareness) without it being forced, or literal, or solipsistic in any way...

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Agreed. Very often I don't know what I'm taking away from a story until it's done (or a reviewer/reader tells me).

Anna Staniszewski said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I just love these questions: “Where are you in this story? What does this story have to do with you?”

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Me, too, Anna! I love that it builds on "write what you know." It's about the essence of experience and/or perspective.

Loretta Ellsworth said...

So often that awareness is clear to everyone but the author. We're sometimes the last to see how our stories relate to our own lives. Great comments!

C.R. Boone said...

I loved this. So much of what I write comes from experiences. And, what a great point about how stories, and the universal themes in them, help us understand our own lives. Robert McKee says in the world of story, "we find ourselves." (from Story, 1997).

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