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Thursday 31 December 2020

Guest Post: Sherry Shahan on The Challenges and Revelations of Writing a (Teen) Novel in Verse

While cleaning out my office I found a tattered shoebox filled with letters written by a friend who was in Vietnam in the 1960s. I spent hours pouring through gut-wrenching accounts of his day-to-day. I knew I had to do something with his letters; after all, I’d kept them all this time.

I started messing around with other writing styles. Journals, notes, poems. I wrote character sketches about my crazy friends in high school. Once I began scribbling, it was a constant flashback. Memories assaulted me twenty-four-seven.

I wanted to be inside the head of each character to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings, not just describe them from the outside looking in. I could have done this with an omniscient viewpoint--but bouncing in and out of so many minds could confuse readers. Instead I chose journal entries, letters, free verse and traditional poetry.

What began as a stream of consciousness had to be shaped into a story with a compelling beginning, middle, and conclusion. Each character demanded his or her own story arc. Yet each story had to be woven seamlessly into the whole. Talk about a challenge!

I became obsessed with metaphor, assonance, startling imagery, rhythm and cadence. Even white space—meaning the negative space on a page—played a role in shaping my characters’ emotions. For example, Phil:

Pages of the new testament fill my pillow,
gospels on a recon in search of a soul.

This poem is only two lines—yet it says volumes about the character. Even more than if I’d filled a page with margin-to-margin prose.

Because Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 is set in a real time and place I read countless accounts of the 1960’s, including The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I talked to dozens of Vietnam vets.

Amidst the poetry I inserted certain—for lack of a better term news reports—about what was going on in the world, e.g., assassinations, riots, etc. With so many events to choose from it became challenging to select what would go in the book.

When I read about Norman Morrison, father of three, who set himself on fire to protest the war, I sat at my computer crying. His piece was included late in the copyedit stage.

A devout Quaker and father of three young children pours
kerosene over his head and sets himself on fire outside
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office at the
Pentagon in an act of self-sacrifice to protest United States
involvement in the Vietnam War.

Other narrative pieces were chosen because I thought they were fascinating or horrifying or both. I added the story behind Arlo Guthrie’s famed song “You Can Get Anything You Want At Alice’s Restaurant” as a light-hearted anecdote. I could have added more history, but I didn’t want Purple Daze to be ‘text-bookish.’

Ultimately, it’s a story about six friends and their sometimes humorous, often painful, and ultimately dramatic lives. Teenagers are still breaking away from authority and convention, still forging their way into an unknown future, especially in today’s tumultuous times.

To me, verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life. Condensed metaphoric language on a single page is a good reflection of their tightly-packed world. Emotions are where teens live.

Before, Sherry Shahan watched the world from behind; whether in the hub of Oxford, on a backstreet in Havana, or alone in a squat hotel room in Paris; whether with a 35 mm camera or an iPhone. Today she watches from her windows in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her work has appeared in Oxford University Press, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Backpacker, Country Living, The Writer and forthcoming from F(r)iction and Shoreline of Infinity. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA Extension for ten years.

Find about more about Sherry at: www.sherryshahan.com