We’re told we need to move on, “get over it,” grow up. That’s what it means to mature after all.
Except for writers. We’re told to go back. Access that age that your protagonist is now. Not get over, but dive into the pool of raw emotion you barely tread through the first time.
I’ve spent all these years trying to suppress those memories. They’re some particularly painful ones I just as soon pretend never happened, let alone access. Bringing it back hurts. (Take this Gunnie Sak, for example. To think I thought this was the prettiest dress I’d ever seen and we probably sacrificed a week’s worth of dinners to buy it for my eighth grade graduation.)
Emotions were so raw, so new, at 14. And buried. Covered up by smiles for the camera, fancy lace, and a light peach silk blend. The transitional time from 8th grade to high school is huge. I see it through my children’s eyes, but letting my own feelings boil to their emotional surface is a whole different dynamic. Try it some time.
In my current YA/NA thriller, Intuition, my protagonist, Shay, is 14. She’s in her last weeks of 8th grade, dealing with a painful breakup, and feeling the need to help uncover a string of murders taking place in her small town. This is a novel–not a memoir–but it’s steeped in the true story of Darrell Rich, a serial killer who terrorized my small town during my early teens. My life was intricately woven with his in that his mom babysat me for years, often for weeks at a time, so we grew up together. The day he picked up his last victim (a 12 year old girl he raped and threw off Shasta Dam) he’d offered me a ride that I’d rejected. My stepdad, who was going through a nasty divorce with my mom during those years, was the public defender co-appointed to represent him. I was subpoenaed to testify in the trial (in his defense) which was terrifying at that age because the whole scene was so confusing. Rich was the last Californian (I believe) to be executed on death row 3 days after my birthday in the year 2000. That’s for starters.
Who wants to revisit that? I see no cyber hands shooting up. Me neither, quite frankly. But sometimes you just have stories that refuse to go away until you write them. This one’s been fighting me for 20 years and, finally, I’ve caved.
And I’m discovering why. Having these experiences…going back there and drawing on those emotions…will make Shay a richer, more rounded character, than she could ever be if I buried it.
“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.“
– Bernice Johnson Reagon