"Is writing therapeutic for you?"

 

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This question seems to come up regularly in various contexts, and I usually give an answer that amounts to: "Sort of, I think?" 

As with so many things (nearly everything) about the process of writing fiction, I don't totally know how to answer or explain because I barely understand myself what's happening in my brain when I'm writing or coming up with story ides. Or maybe my hangup is with the word "therapeutic," because I've done so much actual therapy that it's difficult for me to equate the two processes.

I like the idea of catharsis, especially since I first heard this interview with David Morris on the Healing Trauma episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge. In it, he touches on the use of drama in ancient Greece. When soldiers came back from war, having experienced the horrors thereof, they used drama--catharsis--plays written by veterans and acted by them--to "publicly transmit the trauma of war so that the population would understand it...and that was how they processed trauma, through art. ... These were fictionalized accounts that allowed people to feel the feelings and to process the feelings openly and to weep in public" Then the whole community takes it on and has a way to understand it.

Though there is obviously a difference between the individual and communal effects of war, and personal stories about people dealing with their families and issues, I think this comes closer to what I feel about writing than the word "therapeutic."

Normally (and this is an experience that a lot of my writer friends report is also true for them), I don't understand how--or even that--the novel I'm writing at any given time connects to me and my life story until I'm well into it. Sometimes, toward the very end, I'll realize, "Oh, I'm writing about my midlife crisis" or "I see, I'm writing about the loss of a friendship" or "this is about my longing for a father" or something like that, even if the plot points of a given story do not at all reflect the emotional experience I may be unconsciously processing.

Then it becomes clear in the way any mystery is clear (that is to say, not very clear at all) that I am saying to myself and anyone who cares to read that "this is tangentially about a thing that happened to me, and it's directly about a thing that happened to these characters, and maybe it's about a thing that happened to you, and by telling and receiving a story about it maybe we can all process and release and relieve something, even something that seems on the surface kind of unrelated to us, that we maybe didn't even know we were carrying."

The level of what could be called trauma varies greatly across the six (or six and a half) novels I've written. Gem & Dixie may be the most directly and most consciously about a certain kind of trauma--the trauma of abandonment and of growing up with addicts and co-dependents in parental roles, and growing up in an indisputably unhealthy family system that has been in place for generations, and feeling helpless and looking for a lifeline. It's also about the trauma of a kind of poverty that isn't abject destitution, but nonetheless creates the daily anxiety of wondering where a meal is coming from, of not being able to see a future past whatever immediate crisis is in need of a fix.

It is partly based on my own experience, mine and my sister's, but also a lot made up. I would not call the writing of it "therapeutic" (and I doubt I could have written it had I not done a decade of direct talk and group therapy already), but it may be catharsis in how it says this happened in a way to me, and this definitely happened and happens to other kids, and maybe it happened to you, and maybe for people like us it's a relief and release to see it acknowledged and dramatized, and maybe for people who aren't like us, it's a way for them to understand what a part of their community has experienced, is experiencing, and maybe we need to do some public weeping.

Or, maybe it's just a good story.That's always

my first and last goal--to satisfy the storyteller in me and the storyreceiver in you.

In any case, it comes out in two weeks! If you are in Salt Lake, Denver, Decatur, Chapel Hill, Nashville, Houston, or Frisco, maybe I will see you and we can cry together. If not, you can find it through your favorite bookseller or library, or pre-order now.

Gem & Dixie // group tour dates & locations

I've officially been given permission to share these tour dates and locations. Most of the times are still technically TBD, but you can assume they will be in the evenings. Other than my local to Salt Lake events, I'll be with authors Becky Albertalli (The Upside of Unrequited) and Katie Cotugno (Fireworks).

April 4 – The King’s English, Salt Lake City, UT, 7 pm (with Ally Condie)

April 6 - The Tattered Cover at Aspen Grove, Denver - 7 pm - joining Margaret Stohl's Royce Rolls Tour

April 11 – Little Shop of Stories, Decatur, GA, time TBA (with Becky and Katie)

April 12 – Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 7 pm (with Becky and Katie)

April 13 – Yeast Nashville (through Parnassus Books), Nashville, TN, 6:30  p.m.  (with Becky and Katie) TICKETED EVENT - https://www.eventbrite.com/e/freshly-booked-with-becky-albertalli-sara-zarr-and-katie-cotugno-tickets-32274526979

April 19 – Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, TX, 7 pm (with Becky and Katie)

April 20 – Barnes & Noble, Frisco, TX, time TBA (with Becky and Katie)

April 21 - Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, UT (with Nina LaCour)

 

book news: breaking hearts since 2007

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It is a little less than eight weeks until the publication of Gem & Dixie, and nearly four years since my last solo book, The Lucy Variations, was published. Four! In YA time that's like twenty years.

The latest Gem & Dixie news:

The book has been well-reviewed thus far, receiving starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and Booklist. Matt de la Peña calls it "heartbreaking and honest and beautifully rendered." Sarah Dessen says it broke her heart. Aaron Starmer said it will...break your heart. Hmm, I'm detecting a theme here. You can safely assume from these blurbs that it isn't a breezy romp.

It's been named a Junior Library Guild selection, and will also be published in Turkey! 

Here is a profile and interview Publisher's Weekly did about me and the book, in which you can learn some of the backstory. (They had asked me for a non-headshot candid, and since there are very few pictures of me in my archives other than goofy selfies with my husband or friends, there I am hanging out on the Seine with awkwardly growing-out bangs.)

I'll be touring in April with authors Katie Cotugno and Becky Albertalli. Details to come very soon as everything goes through final confirmation! Meanwhile, feel free to pre-order the book if that's the sort of thing you like to do.

If you're in or near Santa Barbara, I'll be there next week doing some stuff with Westmont College, including a reading and signing that's free and open to the public on Thursday Feb 16th.

And May I Recommend

  • For a good read and cathartic cry, Nina LaCour's new YA novel, We Are Okay
  • To learn about a lesser known civil rights activist and all around inspiring woman, Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams
  • To feed your disturbing obsession with cults, if you have one like mine: Hulu's The Path
  • To feed your disturbing obsession with potatoes, if you have one like mine: Cheesy Hasselback Potato Gratin. I made this on Thanksgiving and it was super good and made great hashbrowns on subsequent mornings (and noons and evenings). Especially recommended if you have a mandolin slicer because it's a lot of dang potatoes to cut. 

A favorite Elton circa 1980s song, Breaking Hearts (Ain't What it Used to Be):

ten year anniversary makeover

Hello from my new web site, debuting approximately ten years after the publication of my first book! It's still sort of in the works as I figure out what the heck I'm doing. It's coming with a blog reboot--c'est la. 

Watch this space for Gem & Dixie tour updates, Story of a Girl movie updates, and, well, you get the idea. The key word is "updates".

Also, in 2017, I'm kicking off a newsletter using the TinyLetter platform. You can sign up here. The content is going to be a thrilling mix of deep thoughts, pop and high culture stuff I like, and pictures of me with Kevin Bacon and regular bacon. It will look a lot better than the old thing that used to mail out my blog posts.

I intend to keep the "tiny" in TinyLetter most of the time, but the first issue might be on the less tiny side as I plan to write about what I've learned in ten years of being a published author.

Until then!