Thursday, October 2, 2008

Christine: When a Character Hits Too Close to Home

“Why don’t you make her a little older?”

My agent, Sara, has just evaluated my novel synopsis and finds it promising. But instead of making the protagonist thirteen, how about . . . say, sixteen? Skew it to young adults rather than tweens?

Sure, I tell her. I pride myself on flexibility, and particularly considering the bad economy, I’m ready to spin on a dime to optimize my novels’ marketability. Besides, I’d love to broaden my market and add a bit more edge and sophistication to my plots and characters. Sixteen, you say? Sixteen it is.

So why has it been such tough going? I’ve never given myself the luxury of writers’ block, probably attesting to experience early in my career writing for a daily newspaper. No waiting for the stars to align just so when daily deadlines beckon. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, saturate your copy in sweat instead. Just write.

But this book . . . this assignment . . . this character . . . .

I’m struggling.

I start rationalizing: “I’ve written fiction nonstop for four years straight, in addition to my day job. I’m due for a little vacation.” Or, “I don’t have a deadline. I’ll make like J.D. Salinger and take my own sweet time.”

But it doesn’t feel right. I love writing fiction; there’s no other way I’d rather spend my spare time, and the vacuum is making me vaguely anxious and depressed. I yearn to write this book. So I’ll start . . . tomorrow.

Enough tomorrows have passed that I’ve forced myself to face my fears head on. Why does this project have me so spooked?

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure it out. The sixteen-year-old in my head bears a striking resemblance to the sixteen-year-old in my house: my daughter. Terror, thy name is teenager.

My kids have always inspired my writing. I wrote songs about them as cooing newborns. I captured their toddler adorableness in rhythmic, rhyming Seuss-like stories. I wrote stories for their elementary-school classes. Their immersion into the social cesspool of middle school inspired my first novel, Do-Over.

But motherhood was so much easier then. Their problems were manageable, their temperaments sunny, their wounds slight. It was a joy plunging into their world. They got a kick out of it, too, reading over my shoulder and serving as my barometers for authenticity. (“None of my friends would ever do that,” or, “Nobody says ‘fly’ or ‘phat’ anymore. It’s ‘fresh.’”) Other than the time I wrote a humor essay in Family Circle disparaging my kids’ chore prowess and they plaintively begged me to collect all the newsstand copies so no one would ever read it, it was all good.

But my daughter—the sixteen-year-old who will, in some incarnation or another, take on life in my novel—has grown more complicated. It all happened so quickly. She seemed to move from Barbie to Death Cab for Cutie in one breathtaking instant. Her cheerful demeanor turned edgy, moody, angst-ridden. I transformed from beloved mentor and chief confidante to annoying-person-who-by-the-way-has-always-loved-my-son-more-than-my-daughter. (And it’s always been, like, so obvious.)

This is the age when computer screens are zapped with lightning speed the moment I walk into the room, or hushed cell phone conversations are abruptly cut short when my footsteps pad toward my daughter’s room. Boyfriends are center-stage. Homework is an afterthought, and any mention of it is met with aggrieved sighing and eye-rolling.

I know, I know. This is all typical teenage stuff, and I try to take it in stride. But I worry. Is she using good judgment? Are her friends harmless, pink highlights notwithstanding? Is her academic indifference simply a phase? Will she ever adore me unconditionally again? Can I ever again turn on a blinker without her indignation that I’ve done it too soon?

I think I know the answers to all these questions: yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes. I have such faith in this child, and God, if you knew her, I swear you’d be blown away by her fabulousness. She’s stunningly beautiful and kind to the core. She has a razor-sharp wit and a passion for dolphins. She’s a treasured friend and gives great advice. She’s a thousand times more comfortable in her skin than I was at her age and has a great eye for fashion. She’ll be ten times the writer I am if she ever cultivates her talent. She takes my breath away.

Yet I worry. So I’ve shied away from immersing myself in an edgy, moody, angst-ridden sixteen-year-old protagonist. Dare I really get to know her too well? Will her vulnerabilities hit too close to home? Can I embody her, love her, dissect her and know her without feeling terrified by what I’ll learn along the way? Is this a novel that is meant to be written three or four years down the road, when my daughter is safely ensconced in young adulthood?

Nah. I think I was meant to write this novel, and I think I was meant to write it now. My daughter talked me into parasailing during our beach trip this summer, telling me as a burst of wind buffeted us into the sky, “I’m going to live my life without fear.”

I have so much to learn from her. Time to get started.


  1. That's brave! I tried to write a YA novel, too -- I still have thousands of pages of journals from when I was a teenager and thought it would be easy. Hah! I couldn't even read them, let alone write about those years -- being immersed again in all that adolescent intensity was just too painful and tiring. (Needless to say, I don't have kids of my own.)

    It sounds like your book is going to be great. Good luck, and you really are brave.

  2. What a beautiful and honest post. I have a four month baby girl and I can only imagine the transformation--maybe this book is a sign, perhaps you can use it to get close to her? What if you make it something you can do together, ask on her for help and phrase it like, "Honey, you know so much about teenage girls, can you help me with a) b) and c)--like, for instance, what do girls talk about with their friends etc. etc.?? She may roll her eyes and slam the door, but she may think it's cool to give you "insider information" you never know!

  3. Embrace her, Christine! But warn your family to expect some erratic behavior...

    I do find it hard, sometimes, to shake off that angsty mindset or the troubles of my character, so I tend to take a nice walk after working on it for a while.

    And always have a lifeline—your present life. You may find that you understand your sixteen-year-old character and yourself better than you may think. Go for it and love that character for all her teenage fallibility!

  4. Great post! From Barbie to Deathcab for Cutie - ha! :) Love it.

    But now you have to do it. Today. Not tomorrow. Because I for one can't wait to read it!!

  5. I'm so touched by your supportive and encouraging words. Thanks, fellow wordsmiths!