Aspiring writers are often told to follow their dreams.
To tap into the interesting stuff, the dark blood of your heart, the hidden well, you must take another path.
Follow your nightmares.
My young adult novel, Speak , was born out of terror. I woke one night, in the winter of 1996, to the sound of a girl sobbing. I leapt out of bed and dashed down the hall to check on my two daughters. Sound asleep, both of them, no tears on their pillows. They were fine.
But I could still hear a girl crying, hysterical. She was in my head. It was a nightmare.
Nightmares often interrupt my sleep. When I was a child, I had a full rotating schedule of bad dreams that dragged me from bed and propelled me into my parents' room, much to their dismay. There was the Devil vs. The Partridge Family nightmare, the Eating Bed, and the Monster Dentist. As I got older, the characters changed and the intensity increased: the Tornado, the Drunken Hunchback, Alien Invasion, Child Falling Down Stairs, Suffocation. Nightmares are the roadmap to what's bothering me.
Since I can't afford extensive psychotherapy, I write down my nightmares. Armed with a pen, I can fight back, slicing through the metaphor and symbolism to find the small, scared part of me that needs some reassurance. After an hour scribbling in my journal or pounding the keyboard, the most horrific night vision is reduced to a pile of sentences. And I can go back to sleep.
And so I had to write down the Crying Girl. She kept sobbing as I pulled on a robe and turned on my computer. Once the word processor blinked awake, she stopped. She made a tapping noise and blew into a microphone. "Is this thing on?" she asked. "I have a story to tell you."
That is how I met Melinda Sordino, the protagonist of Speak .
I was supposed to be writing about the Irish potato famine. I had been reading everything I could about the horror that engulfed Ireland in the 1840's; the potato blight, the famine, and the uprooting of entire villages. It was fascinating stuff, but it didn't give me nightmares.
Melinda started to weave her story. It had nothing to do with Ireland or famine ships. This was a "today" story, bitter and cold. I had no idea where the story was going. All I knew was that I had to keep writing. I didn't want this nightmare to end.
Melinda came out of left field, surprising me. Looking back, I think I know where she came from. At the time, my oldest daughter was in sixth grade. Her body was changing shape and her attitude was, shall we say, developing into something new. Watching her grow brought back a flood of memories from my own adolescence. Also, I had just finished reading Reviving Ophelia , by Dr. Mary Pipher. The issues of growth, and girls who won't, or can't, speak up for themselves were cooking in the back of my mind.
The opening scenes of Speak flowed from my fingers; the bus ride to school and the ninth grade assembly. When "The First Ten Lies They Tell You in High School" popped up, I said, "Whoa, I like this girl. This might be fun."
I knew what had happened to Melinda from the beginning, but she wasn't ready to talk about it. By the end of the first marking period, I jotted a few notes to myself, imagining what her report card would look like. As soon as I did, the structure of the book clicked into place: four marking periods, four report cards, a school year from the first day to the last.
The first draft took a few months, sometimes written early in the morning, before my daughters woke up, sometimes I'd write all day, page after page until my hands ached. Melinda's voice rang clear as a bell for me. She was angry, bitter, hurt, and funny as hell. She was like a burn victim forced to wear a wool sweater, raw everywhere, and made hyper-observant by her pain.
No one else could hear Melinda's voice. Just me. She trusted me with her story. The first draft was written during the winter, my favorite season. The earth is silent then. In Greek mythology, winter is when Persephone is imprisoned in hell and her mother, Demeter, weeps, neglecting her duties while she anxiously awaits her daughter's return. I knew what she felt like. It was an anxious time for me, wondering if Mellie was strong enough to speak up.
There were many surprises. Who knew she was an artist? Yeah, she had a hard time with her tree project, but make no mistake: Melinda Sordino is an artist. Picasso, with his unique perspective, and Mr. Freeman, her art teacher, who saw that there was something eating away at the freaky kid's heart, made me smile. I wasn't exactly sure what they were doing in the story at first, but I figured that it was my job to type, not analyze.
I worried when Mellie cut school. I fretted about her closet, though I knew she needed a safe place. I really thought for a while that she was going to be a closet jock (little joke there). But no. She's an artist without a voice, unable to express herself or communicate her pain.
I had plenty of memories from high school, but I didn't know if they applied to the world of today's teenagers. To research, I headed to the twin touchstones of suburban adolescents: Taco Bell and The Mall. I watched, I talked, and I listened. And Melinda and I wrote about high school.
My own high school experience was tolerable. My family moved to a new school district just before ninth grade and it would be fair to say that some of Mellie's feelings of isolation stem from personal experience. By the start of tenth grade, and through eleventh, I had found a place for myself playing sports and writing for the school newspaper and literary journal. My senior year was the best. I spent it on a Danish pig farm, an American Field Service exchange student. It was heavenly.
There is one section of the book that was ripped right out of my high school memories. And now I'm going to do something I should have done twenty-seven years ago. Apologize.
I'm sorry, Ms. Tenth Grade English Teacher.
I haven't used her name here, because I think the trauma of having me, as a student was enough for one lifetime. This talented, hardworking woman had the misfortune to have me in her class. She tried over and over to convince me that exploring symbolism was a valid way of interpreting literature, and that authors did indeed use symbolic devices as literary tools to impart images and meaning beyond those of the words themselves. I refused to believe her. In fact, I was a snot, a total pain in the neck, arguing the point, digging in my heels, and making her life miserable. If you want to read what that classroom was like, read pages 100-102 in Speak .
I should hasten to add that the character of Hairwoman was most definitely NOT based on that teacher, but her vain attempts to get me to break out of my self-absorption and into the text are pretty much taken from real life. I was the wise mouth punk arguing with her. So here's the apology.
I'm really, really sorry, Ms. Tenth Grade English Teacher. You were right. Authors DO use symbolism to try and further the themes of their writing. Having done it a few times myself, I can tell you that the symbolism often creeps up and takes the author unaware. Sometimes she feels really stupid about the whole thing and does not understand what she's writing. But eventually, it dawns on her. There are words hidden under words hidden under words.
It just takes some of us a little longer to get it.
From what my readers and their teachers and librarians tell me, Merryweather High is no better and no worse than many schools out there. It is not based on any one school. It's presented through Mellie's eyes, Mellie's experiences. At first, I thought that was limiting, that the outcast's story told by the outcast would only provide a narrow slice of high school life. I know better now. All teenagers feel like outcasts, even the kids who, on the surface, appear to have everything. Adolescence is the period of perpetual doubt; cast out from childhood, unsure which door to the adult world one should choose.
That's the attraction and power of cliques/clans. When you don't know who you are, your clan provides an identity. When you don't have a clan, you're sunk. If you want to spark an interesting discussion, ask a teenager about the clans in her school. Ask where she fits in.
The ending of the book was the hardest. In fact, I had to do it three times to get it right. My patient, very smart editor, Elizabeth Mikesell, gently pushed me to do it over until I found the right ending. I was not happy about it at the time, but she was right. I was too protective of Mellie. I didn't want her to get hurt again; I couldn't stand the thought of leaving her unprotected.
But I had to. The book would have been a sham if Melinda couldn't find the strength to open up her mouth. When I finally hit upon the denouement, it unfolded for me like a flower. I saw the whole thing, smelled it, felt my heart thumping. I was scared. So was Mellie.
And then, that voice. She claimed it, claimed herself as worthy and strong enough to fight back. She screamed the house down and saved herself, scarred, bloody, and alive.
From my journal, written during the first revision of the novel: "I will not allow doubt to poison Speak The braid of story is organic, growing itself to completion. I must trust the story, trust my own storytelling voice. It will not fail me."
In the writing of Speak , I found my own voice, and the courage to follow my nightmares. Stay tuned. I'm taking notes from the voices that speak in the dark. I have a few more things to say.
Editor's note: Speak has earned national attention and received the following honors: National Book Award Finalist, Printz Honor Medal, Booklist's Top 10 First Novels of 1999, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' Golden Kite, L. A. Times Book Prize, and Edgar Allan Poe Award.
Reference Citation: Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2000) "Speaking Out." The ALAN Review , Volume 27, Number 3, Page 25-26.