Two things about me: I’m a writer and a student. So far, for most of my twenty-one years, these two things have always made up who I am. Mostly, I put them into different compartments, feeling like I’m living a kind of double life where during the day I go to class or write a paper or study for a midterm but when I get home at night, I work on my book edits. Or I get all of my work done early so I can devote an afternoon to my novel. But sometimes, the two parts of me collide.
This happened a few weeks ago, in my children’s literature class where we were discussing the incredible novel, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson. This is definitely one of the best classes I have taken over the course of my undergrad degree, as my prof. pays attention to more than just the thematic parts of a book you are supposed to talk about in an academic setting. She talks about the writing. Most significantly, when discussing this book, she told us the backstory, based on an essay that Katherine Paterson wrote. It turns out the story behind the story is a lot like the one behind my first novel, PRETTY BONES.
For both of us, before there was a story, there was a tragedy. Paterson felt compelled to pen her book because her young son lost his best friend, a death that was an accident. She knew she couldn’t fully comprehend the tragic accidental death of a young girl, and she also knew she couldn’t explain to her son what death meant. So she wrote about it, and asked herself, how do you come to terms with grief? My prof. stressed in this lecture that since real life is sticky and difficult with no loose ends ever being tied up, Paterson was attracted to what can be the neatness of a fictional story. She knew that even if she couldn’t make it right in real life, she could at least try to get it down on paper. The characters could understand, even if she didn’t. And maybe, she would find answers.
Sitting in class, I was amazed by how much this struck a chord with me. My novel also began with the death of a young girl, and it’s difficult to say whether it was accidental. There’s no way of knowing that, which is the point here. In ninth grade, I came to school one day and sat in homeroom like always, but during the morning announcements the principal interrupted and said he had some sad news. A classmate had passed away over the weekend. I wasn’t friends with this girl, but I knew who she was, and as the day went on, a day that seemed without time, as my friends and I sat in various classrooms with bereft teachers who didn’t seem to know how to talk to us, a friend told me the real story. This girl suffered from a severe eating disorder and that’s how she died.
I knew about eating disorders, but only on the surface, what you are taught in middle school health classes. I was in shock. So the months passed, the year went on, and I researched anorexia, read difficult and disturbing memoirs, tried to find out for myself why something like this would happen. In tenth grade, I participated in a young playwriting unit at a local theatre (the Tarragon Theatre) and when it came time to write my own play, I chose to write about a girl with anorexia. In eleventh grade, at sixteen, I wrote the first draft of my novel.
I’m older now. It’s been seven years since that day in ninth grade. But every year on March 7th, I feel a bit strange, until I remember why I know this day. Every day since, I still wrestle with the questions that Paterson wondered about: how can you understand death? Grief? Friendship?
I also wrote a story to figure it out. I’m not sure I’ve completely understood it, as I don’t know if anyone ever can. But I’m getting closer.