It happens to every writer. You’re at a cocktail party, grazing contentedly on canapés, contemplating whether or not you can stuff a few in your purse without anyone noticing, when a guest corners you.
“So I hear you’re a writer,” he or she says.
You’re tempted to fib because you recognize the hungry gleam in the guest’s eye. Sadly you know what’s coming next.
“Have I got a story for you!”
For the next half hour you find yourself backed up against a wall as the guest tells you every tragic event that’s ever happened to her—everything from illegitimate babies to stalkers to mistreatment by her evil twin. And then, after an hour or so, comes the punch line: “If you write my story, I’ll give you half the profits!”
“So deeply tempting,” you say, “but no thank you.”
Why? Because as most writers know a series of events (no matter how dramatic and eye-popping) does not a novel make. Fiction is only a metaphor for life. Real life events are often too messy and random to make for a satisfying reading experience. Also there’s a tendency to become hemmed in by real-life events. Any author who finds himself saying, “but that’s how it really happened” is favoring truth over effective storytelling.
And that’s why I’ve always avoided writing about real life…until a couple of years ago.
I used to teach special education at an inner-city high school. Ninety-eight percent of my students qualified for free lunch, most lived in housing projects, many came to me straight from youth detention centers. Almost all had severe learning difficulties or behavior problems.
During that decade my life was a series of crazy events. Kids arrived at school with bruises and cigarette burns. Many smelled because they had no running water. Some lived in condemned housing. As for me, I was assaulted twice, and one of my special education colleagues was stabbed numerous times and later died from her injuries. Every Friday afternoon, I’d gather with my peers, and over a few beers, we would try to make sense of a milieu that was beyond the average person’s comprehension.
Then, after ten years of teaching, something truly terrible happened which caused me to leave the school. After I quit, I started writing novels.
Never once did I consider writing about my teaching career. My novels were buoyant and humorous, and I intended to keep them that way.
After my fifth novel, I enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing and, in order to graduate, I had to write the first one-hundred pages of a novel or as my professors called it, a thesis. Something about the word thesis seemed to demand gravitas, and I felt I couldn’t write my usual fluffy fare.
“Why not write about teaching?” my husband suggested. I resisted. It seemed too large of a leap to go from writing light, funny fiction to writing about extremely complex social problems. And what about my readers? Would they follow me on this journey?
“Maybe not,” I told myself, “But it’s only a hundred pages. I don’t have to finish it if I don’t want to.”
I started to write my school novel, picking and choosing what real-life events would go into the narrative to best serve the story. There was one caveat: I’d definitely include the awful event that made me quit the school. It was the most dramatic episode of my teaching life and it seemed to sum up my experiences.
Because my subject matter was so serious, I tried to make my prose solemn and weighty, even though I’m typically not a very ponderous person. Sadly my strategy backfired. The novel read like a slog through a swamp in lead army boots. After extensive revisions, Girl Meets Class ended up being fairly lighthearted, despite the dark nature of my experiences.
And what about that awful incident* that made me quit?
It didn’t make the final cut. The intelligence of the narrative took over and it no longer fit. It wasn’t my story anymore; it belonged to my character Toni Lee Wells. At the beginning of Girl Meets Class Toni Lee is a much worse teacher than I, but in the end, she comes away with an understanding of her circumstances that eluded me during my stint at the inner-city school. As author John L’Heureux says, “The writer distorts reality in the interest of a larger truth.”
Girl Meets Class will be released on September 8 but is now available for pre-order for $2.99 If you’re intrigued, you can read the first chapter here. Also if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a free download of my novel Earthly Pleasures.
*Just in case you’re curious, here’s the awful thing that happened: One of my more violent student learned she was pregnant and decided to take out her rage on me and her fellow classmates. She took control of the classroom, threatening and screaming. I pushed the panic button but for fifteen minutes no one came. I kept pressing and pressing and the only response I got was, “We’re on our way.” Meanwhile the student had me ambushed and was spitting in my face and issuing horrible threats. I feigned calmness but truly feared injury. (This was the same year that a colleague was murdered by one of her students) But by the time help arrived, I was an emotional wreck.
Why did it take so long?
The security guard was out of the building and the assistant principals, knowing the student’s propensity for violence, were afraid to come to my aid without backup. At the time, I was a single mother of a small child and felt I could no longer work at a place that had so little regard for my safety.