On Becoming a Writer
What follows is the speech I gave at the launch party last week for The Ethan I Was Before at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books.
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First, I need to thank Quail Ridge for having me here to their gorgeous shop. Even if you have already bought the book and brought it with you, I want to encourage you to do some shopping here tonight or to bring your business back here in the future. Amazon does not bring authors to communities and schools who need them, does not offer a safe space to have important conversations about the world around us, but independent bookshops do. So thank you, Quail Ridge, for all your support, for your work in our community, and for having me here tonight. I hope you all will continue to support them as well.
Since I announced that The Ethan I Was Before was going to be published, many people have asked me how I became a writer and how they can become one, too. And I’ve never really known how to answer this question. Because I never felt like I became a writer. I feel like I have always been one. Like it was sewn into me before I was born.
I suppose I think there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who carry a book with them everywhere they go and panic if they’ve realized they’ve forgotten it, and then there are the other people, who I will never understand. Why do you even have a purse if you aren’t going to carry a book in it?
The former are the people, like me, for whom stories are just as necessary as food and shelter.
And for some of those people, reading stories is enough. For others of us, we feel the need to create our own. We are writers because we have to be. We don’t have any other choice, and trust me, sometimes we wish we did.
But if I had to say why I have this need, I might say that it first came from the feeling I had growing up that I was kind of…a misfit.
It’s not that I didn’t have wonderful friends and family and support in my life, but just that I sometimes felt like I was just a bit different than other people. For instance, as a small child, I walked on my toes, and as a result, I had to wear braces on my legs in kindergarten. If you’re picturing Forrest Gump—Run, Forrest, Run---you’ve got it about right. All the Lisa Frank accessories in the world couldn’t hide those steel wonders.
Then in middle school, I shot up to 5 foot 8 and towered over all my friends and especially over my romantic interests. Whereas as a younger child I had been actually, physically reaching for the sky with every step, as a middle schooler, I simply wanted to shrink down, and disappear.
For my middle schoolers in the audience right now, and those who are about to enter middle school, please don’t disappear. Don’t hide your different. Nobody ever did anything great in this world who was spending all their energy trying to fit in. Stand tall and stand out.
Standing out is what I began to do in the ninth grade, when I started wearing rainbow toe socks with flip-flops to school everyday. I figured if I was going to be a little weird, it might as well be because I chose to be weird.
Since then, I’ve made a lot of choices in my life that have made me feel like like kind of an outcast. Like moving here and there to different states and across oceans, where I knew I would feel like an outsider, and when I would have been more comfortable staying right here in North Carolina.
But all of that was okay. It was okay if I didn’t fit in in school, and it was okay if I was a stranger in a strange land, because as a young child, I had developed the ability create a home for myself, and a place to fit in, no matter where in the world I was.
And that place was story.
If I couldn’t find my place in the world around me, I would make a place for myself in the stories I wrote.
That was the first gift that writing gave me. Writing gave me a home.
Writing has also helped me through some of the hardest times in my life. When the world around me gets to be too much, I dive into the realm of stories. I go to find comfort and escape, but also to search for answers to hard questions that I simply can’t get any other way. That’s why next week, I’m planning to take a break from the world and shut myself away to work on my next book.
And that’s why, nearly three years ago, after moving to a tiny English village, where I knew no one but my husband and my dog, where I was recovering from surgery and missing my friends and family and job as a teacher, I sat down and began writing. And I wrote the first words of the book that would become The Ethan I Was Before.
Those were lonely days. Seriously, my only friend was Martin the postman, and I think even he only liked me because I listened to his many--very gory--dog bite stories. And they were cold days, too. We were living in a Victorian-era farmer’s cottage with original 19th century window fixtures. In the study where I worked, there was a gap so big between the two windows that we had to stuff a plastic bag into it to keep the wind and the rain out. (Unfortunately, the spiders still found their way in.)
And yet, in another way, they weren’t all that lonely. And they weren’t cold, either. Because I was spending them in a hot, muggy town on the coast of Georgia, with new friends who I found to be very good company, and who fortunately had no dog bite stories.
You know, people say that if you want to get to know an author, you should read their debut novel, because it’s the one we spend their whole life up until that point writing. And we never know if there’s going to be another one, so we stuff everything we ever wanted to say into it. Looking back at The Ethan I Was Before, I think that’s probably pretty true. When I wrote this book, I was lost and lonely and, besides my family, I didn’t have a lot going for me—no job, no plan for the future. So it’s probably no coincidence that one of my characters, Coralee, says in the book: “sometimes a story is all you have. Sometimes that can be enough.”
This story was enough for me.
Writing has given me home and sanctuary, comfort and solace. But it has also been one of the greatest joys of my life.
I used to think there was nothing better than making words jump to life on the page. And getting to know the characters in this book, and particularly my main characters, Coralee and Ethan, and spending time in Palm Knot, the little seaside town I created for them, that has been an amazing experience, and it has brought me so much happiness.
But now I know there is one thing better than being able to make words come to life. And that’s getting to share those words with other people, seeing them come to life for someone else, and maybe even make a difference in someone else’s life.
So joy is what I feel when I look out at all of you tonight. Because to be able to do this as a job, to do the thing that I love to do more than anything in the world, and to share it with all of you, is nothing short of a dream come true. It’s been the greatest privilege of my life, and it’s not the kind of dream I can achieve alone. Being here tonight, you are all helping me to achieve it, and I thank you so much for your support.
I hope that you will each find home and sanctuary and joy and comfort in this quirky little story, just like I did. I hope that you, like Ethan Truitt, will feel warmly welcomed into Palm Knot, Georgia, hidden Jewel of the South, where nobody is an outsider, even though everyone is kind of a misfit.
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And then we ate cake...