One of the wisest writing teachers I have been privileged to work with (at Hamline University’s MFAC program) was Jane Resh Thomas. In my first workshop with her, we had to reveal a secret. Rather than being deliberately confronting, Jane wanted to introduce to us the notion of “writing behind your back”.
Why do we write about the things we do? It’s true that plot ideas come from everywhere. Writers carry notebooks, they cut out newspaper articles, they eavesdrop. It’s like a bird collecting bits for a nest. I once wrote a novel that came entirely from a short paragraph in a feature article. My obsession with pirates started with accidentally finding a story in a book about a pirate called Stede Bonnet, who nobody had heard of because he was such a failure. Dying to Tell Me began with interviewing a police dog handler and meeting his dog.
But these are plot ideas. Along with characters, they propel the story into being. We write outlines or draw diagrams, or just write until we can see the story.
Writing behind our backs is something entirely different. It’s about the “guts” of the story. What the story is really about, underneath all the trappings of plot, character, setting and action. And too often, we don’t understand what that is, because it truly has come from somewhere deep that we have probably tried to keep buried. It took me many years to realise that a large proportion of the poems and stories I was writing were about abandonment and lost mothers – because my mother died when I was fourteen.
That was just the beginning. Other themes, connected and not so connected, have shown themselves. Or should I say, I’ve stopped writing so much behind my back and become more aware of my own themes and obsessions. I write a lot now about the powerlessness of children. I know where that comes from, too (but I’m not telling you!). I like to write about feisty girls, probably because I was a child who was told to “stop creating”, as in, stop making a fuss. Now I can make all the fuss I want, in a story.
In Dying to Tell Me, I wondered what my theme was. (By the way, this is a question for the second and third drafts – never for the first.) In the end, I decided at its heart, it’s about hiding who you really are in order to please people and fit in. On top of that, it’s about family and loyalty. The plot is a mystery, which gives me lots of strands through which to weave these themes.
In the writing classes I teach, sometimes people are writing so much behind their backs that their writing is stunted. They are so terrified of the thing they really want and need to write about that their fiction is constricted and squeezed of all life. Because life, whether we like it or not, is what propels us to write, and fiction is the “safe” option. In fiction, we think, we can hide from our buried secrets, but it doesn’t work.
The only remedy I have found for this constriction is to write the truth, to get the buried secrets onto the page. Usually this is life writing or memoir – whatever you call it, it’s not meant to be published (although sometimes what comes out does, with revision, make a great memoir). Journalling or free writing is the safest option, where you can write anything and everything and then burn it, if you wish. The freedom to write without fear of criticism or condemnation can save a writer, and lead them into fiction with a lighter heart.
But not too light – darkness and secrets work well in fiction, too!
Sherryl Clark is the author of more than 40 children's and YA books including her latest release, Dying to Tell Me, published in the US by Kane Miller and released in Australia on 1st February 2014. You can find more information about Dying to Tell Me here including links to a sample chapter, book trailer and teaching notes. Visit Sherryl's website for more information about her books and other writing projects.