It has been just over a month since WHEN I’M GONE met the world and Wow–has it been an amazing journey. For a month WHEN I’M GONE has enjoyed its time in the top ten in Amazon’s Kindle Store, been blessed with over three hundred reviews from generous and helpful readers, become a Wall Street Journal bestseller and resulted in such a lovely deluge of moving emails about how Natalie and Luke’s life, love and farewell brought peace to those in this world who have lived their tale.
You’d think with all these amazingly wonderful “big things” going on in my life that WHEN I’M GONE and my life as an author would be front and center in my life’s stage. But, as life would have it, I’ve had a lot of other big things going on at home during this same time. These things are less likely to be placed in a list of greatness and more likely to be placed on the shelf of “things I made it through” which include struggles and changes for just about every person in my family. Between doctor’s appointments and meetings with teachers and phone calls and well timed supportive texts, the good and the hard have twisted together to create an almost lovely swirling pattern. It should feel like chaos. It should feel like a whirlpool or a black hole, but instead, it feels like a pinwheel. When the wheel stops turning momentarily, you can see the good and the hard parts clearly, but when the day is moving forward, they blur together into a spectacular balance of light and dark.
But in all that swirling and spinning I think it is easy to get dizzy. So, my best friend gave me this suggestion the other day—Look for the little things.
It is funny because I think most lives are made up of a lot of little things. Books are a good example of this concept. They are hundreds of thousands of letters strung together into thousands of words and sentences and hundreds of pages and many many chapters. Little things built up into something that, as Stephen King explains in his book ON WRITING, can transport us all into a shared experience. He explains it in his simple but profound words as “Writing is telepathy.”
Without each tiny piece, a story would never develop and so many of my closest literary friends wouldn’t even exist. Little things, those letters, and words, becoming whole human beings, worlds and lives. It is almost magical.
But it is more than just words that make books so transportive. There are other “little things” that make a story rather than a collection of words and phrases. I’ve noticed lately that successful writers notice all the little things about their characters, settings, personalities and their lives. I’m rereading a YA book right now by Lauren Oliver, DELIRIUM. This book is one that changed my life.
The story itself is compelling: A future where love is seen as a disease and at eighteen, you are given a “cure” which takes away your ability to feel any intense emotion. Of course, our protagonist Lena ends up having a problem with these rules just as she’s approaching her eighteenth birthday. I bet you all want to go read it right now (you should). But what I enjoyed most about this book wasn’t the totally engrossing love story but the writing. It was different than the other YA books I’d been reading around that time.
Back before picking up Ms. Oliver’s writing, I’d let someone close to me read my first chapters of WRECKAGE. Let’s just say it did not go well! They told me that it was too wordy, that I used too many images, similes, and metaphors (I do love me a good metaphor) and that it was not the kind of language people would want to read in a novel. It was one opinion out of many but for some reason, I listened and believed that I must not actually be a writer after all. So I put my writing away.
Then I read DELIRIUM.
It was a TOTALLY different genre than I was writing but the language was beautiful, and she did what I wanted to do–transported me to this world she’d created. The imagery was stunning, the language just so beautiful that it made me slow down in awe of the author’s ability to spin words into images that popped up fully formed in my mind. I also loved how easily I could relate to the main character Lena, how full and real and detailed she seemed from the first moment I “met” her. After reading this book, I realized that maybe my writing “flaw” wasn’t as tragic as I’d first thought. Maybe, with some work and study and tweaking, my language could start to evolve and improve the quality I’d been reading. Without reading DELIRIUM, I don’t know that I would’ve had the courage to finish writing WRECKAGE.
A few months ago I purchased my own copy of this book and have been slowly working my way through with pen in hand, highlighting the parts of the story that speak to me in a particularly poignant way. What I’ve found is that it is the “little things” that make me connect to this book. The fact that Lena’s mom hated Jello. That oranges make her think of her mother’s funeral. That gray is her favorite color. Part of me thinks I’d know Lena if I met her on the street. (Though if I did she’d probably be pretty freaked out about all the stuff I just happen to know about her!)
When I write a story, I push out a first draft where I try not to go back and correct or change as I write. I get the story down (and all those pesky letters, words, and sentences build up into something resembling a plot, characters and lives), and then I go back. This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I go back and I really get to know my characters, and I try to add all the “little things” that may be missing in the text but have formed in my brain as I’ve written about their lives. This is when I write about Jessie’s eclectic collection of theater shirts or the crack on the back of Natalie’s iPhone case from when Clay dropped it in the supermarket. This is when characters become people, houses become homes, and feelings go from words to actual emotions that stir up inside of us in some shared way.
I like to look at the “little things” in my world and take note of what makes me and the people around me “real.” It is a fun experience if you’d like to try it. Sometimes it means taking an extra long look at someone when they don’t know you are watching them (not as creepy as it sounds). Or slowing down when you are in nature to take in every sensory detail and commit them to memory. I think that is the thing about writers–they feel deeply, they love deeply, they hurt deeply and then they remember deeply. And then, they share.
Whether you are a writer or not, it can’t hurt to take a moment to see the little things in your life that make you and the people around you memorable and special. I promise you’ll find greater value in the people you spend your days with, or the stranger you pass in the mall, or the cluster of trees you’ve walked past a thousand times. And if you are feeling dizzy from the mad rush of life, take a moment to focus on one of these small, bright spots that make you smile, and let you know that you aren’t a character on a page but that you are alive.