Author and editor Stacey Donovan‘s fearlessness and introspection in her YA novel Dive beautifully demonstrates the power of telling the untold story inside of you.
In this Q&A with Stacey, she shares invaluable advice she’s gained throughout her decades-long career—how not to agonize over the small stuff, how to write objectively, and what she’s looking for in a strong competition entry.
What are some of the challenges of writing about your life?
I find that we can get lost in our own stories instead of in the story we’re writing. When that happens, it’s hard to move the plot—the what-happens-next part of the story—forward. Instead, we’re spinning around inside ourselves, still trying to find answers, insight, or relief from whatever is on our minds. Think hamster wheel, but now we’re the hamster, with pen, on the same wheel. Get me off of this wheel and onto the page, where I can explore what brought me there to begin with. What brought me to writing about my own life is the desire to make sense of being alive.
What effect did writing Dive have on your life?
Writing Dive was cathartic for me in many ways. Writing it made me realize that fiction can be a means of wish fulfillment. For example, the father in the book teaches the main character about birds, which she loved. She loved that he taught her, and she loved learning about birds. In real life, I taught myself about birds; my father didn’t teach me much about anything. In Dive the main character gets to experience a sense of love through learning about birds. Even though that didn’t actually happen, I felt my main character’s emotions through that experience. Writing Dive also changed my perspective on human relationships in general. I came to understand that it is possible to make a seemingly impossible or unbearable situations tolerable and at times even joyful. This happened as a result of the relationships the characters began to have with each other as the events of the story changed them and thus changed their relationships to each other.
Some of the cliché of personal narrative are that stories can come across as overly sentimental or melodramatic. How can writers avoid these cliché?
My method is to let the words tumble out the way they want to in the first draft. Then I go back in and search for lines or paragraphs or scenes that essentially say the same thing I’ve already said. Delete any redundancy. We have a tendency to repeat ourselves when an issue or subject is important to us, or when our emotions can’t help but somersault, then somersault again, and again. I have found that my writing is much stronger when I don’t barrage the reader with the same word or feeling or experience over and over so that the reader will experience or understand it too. Similarly, when we are emphatic about whatever it is we are writing about we rarely need exclamation points to prove it! What we have just written, and rewritten, then polished should after all those steps convey what we set out to do on the page without overkill! I think you understand me but I may need to say it again in case you don’t!
Being so close to a topic makes it difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective. Is objectivity something a writer should strive for when writing a personal narrative?
When I remember that whatever it is I’m writing about is because I want others to read it, I also remember that my reader can only understand as much as I am willing to reveal. For example, if I am writing a scene in which I’m standing on my head at the bottom of the stairs, I have to be objective enough to remember that I must tell the reader that I have landed on my head at the bottom of the stairs because I have fallen down the stairs. Striving for objectivity is essential.
How has your approach to writing changed over the years?
It has become natural and effortless for me to leave my “inner editor” in the kitchen playing video games while I write a first draft. When I’m ready, I’ll say “IE, bring me some fries,” which is another way of saying I’m ready to start listening to the other voice—the inner editor’s voice—that has developed over the years. It’s almost like having two people inside me at the same time: the writer and the editor. When I first began to write, I would agonize over every word and find myself going off on tangents that had nothing to do with what I wanted to write about. I would get frustrated and think that I could never write anything ever again, so why even bother. Now I tell myself, “Give it a break, get some fries.”
There’s the chance in writing either fiction or nonfiction to reveal a part of ourselves we might not reveal off the page. I don’t mean spilling secrets (though that’s always terrific for the reader and lightens the burden of keeping them for the writer), it’s more about spilling self. Revealing who we are on the page is a way of communicating with others, a way of stepping out of our isolation, a way of feeling connected to the rest of humanity. I’m looking for the writer to be who they are, to reveal who they are, rather than hope that the words used or the story itself will help keep them protected from their deeper selves. That will only help the writer maintain distance from the reader, the opposite of what both the writer and the reader want. Think depth, think revelation, think connection.