Writing the Dark Stuff by Jenn Crowell

Posted by March 28th, 2014

ETCHED ON MEMy latest novel, ETCHED ON ME, is an at-times-gruelingly intense story of a young woman’s recovery from self-harm and fight for her right to be a mother. The book didn’t start out that way, though.

It began as a touching but mild-mannered tale of a couple navigating their relationship along with an international adoption. Then I read about a real-life custody battle in the UK, and thought it might make a small, poignant subplot. When my fictional young mother upstaged the couple, I decided to rewrite the book using multiple POVs, giving each situation equal weight.

All the while, I knew deep down that the book had the potential to go frightening places that I didn’t want to visit. What I wanted was a tidy ending in which the heavily pregnant young mom escaped in the nick of time. I wanted to feel safe in my literary choices. The thought of writing a scene in which a mother has her newborn taken away by a social worker gutted me as a mother. “I can’t do that,” I kept protesting to my writer friends. “No way could I handle it.”

But then my mentor in my MFA program, Leonard Chang, leveled with me. “This is extremely professional work,” he told me, “but you’re ducking the heart of the real story.” He suggested I try writing Lesley, my young mom, in first person. Let her talk simply but honestly about the prospect of losing her daughter.

I’m not writing in the voice of a 22-year-old from North London! I wailed to myself. (All my previous drafts had been in third-person.)

But I sucked it up, and decided to give it a try. The next morning, I sat down at the keyboard, and Lesley’s inimitable voice poured organically out of me. I wrote the very scene I swore I could not write. And kept on writing.

If there’s one thing I’m most proud of with ETCHED ON ME, it’s the fact that I went to all those dark places. The book is so much stronger and more honest because of my willingness to go there – and I’ve grown so much as a writer. Pushing past my resistances taught me that the process of crafting a novel is deeply personal but not about me. The scenes and trajectories that I swore I couldn’t handle were the exact ones that made the novel what it needed to be.

I was worried that readers would find the no-holds-barred realism and heightened emotion in the book difficult or off-putting, but to my delight they have responded positively, citing that realism as one of the best aspects of ETCHED ON ME. So don’t be afraid to go to those dark places. Take risks. Be bold. Your readers will thank you.

About Jenn Crowell

Jenn CrowellJenn Crowell published her first book, Necessary Madness, when she was just eighteen. Her latest book, ETCHED ON ME, is out now from Washington Square Press, an imprint of Atria Books at Simon & Schuster. You can learn more about Jenn and ETCHED ON ME on her author website, and you can connect with her on Twitter and Facebook. Learn more about Atria by following them on Twitter, too.

 

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