88 Cups of Tea presents Essay & Podcast Series: Intimate Stories from Writers in partnership with our friends at VCFA
I was raised in New England surrounded by adults who rarely discussed or explored their emotional lives. As a novelist, building the emotional arc of a character has been both a challenge and a revelation. The first draft of my middle-grade debut, A Stitch in Time, was a romp—a mystery with evil aunts and a trickster protagonist. It was fun to write the wild scenes full of sleuthing and pranks. But hidden under all the manic action, my protagonist, Donut, was a newly orphaned child in a lot of pain. Like Donut in that first draft, I avoided digging into her pain until my wise advisor at VCFA, Rita Williams Garcia, asked me what the heck the book was about. Thank you, Rita. And so I began again. The story is a grief narrative. And I set out on that journey with no armor—a voluntary sortie that pushed me to explore my own childhood experiences of death and loss so I could understand Donut’s experience. The story is not autobiographical and neither is Donut’s emotional arc but the core of her experience of grief is my own.
Marion Dane Bauer gave a lecture at VCFA about discovering the recurrent themes in her work. Over and over our personal themes make it into our books like strands of our own DNA unconsciously creeping into our stories. After the lecture I leaned against a nearby wall and sobbed because I knew what my themes looked like. I rarely cry and this uncontrollable weeping was terrifying. A group of faculty and students surrounded me like musk oxen circling their young. I blurted out that I didn’t want to go there. It was just too hard. My protectors, my musk oxen, my brave mentors and colleagues had my back: “You can do this.” “We’re here.” “Yes, it’s hard but you can go there.” I kept at it and it didn’t do me in. Not at all. I have learned that if I am brave enough the themes of loss and betrayal in my stories will hold my unique fingerprints, my emotional truths.
In A Stitch in Time, Donut is trying to cope with her grief. The loss of her pops is so painful she tries to keep it at a distance. In each new draft I dug into Donut’s heart and my own, building the emotional arc of the story. At each moment where I needed to express Donut’s unfolding grief I sat, silent for long stretches, searching for a metaphor, a simile, an action, dialog or physical response that captured her feelings. It was a slow process and sometimes painful. I lost my own dad when I was fourteen and was set adrift with no adults to offer comfort or safety. Draft after draft I’d dig into Donut’s heart and my own, building the emotional arc of the story. However, my story is not Donut’s story. My grief is not Donut’s grief. And no, it’s not writing as therapy, it’s about clarity—searching my past and myself with purpose to gain insight into Donut’s journey and putting it into words that hold it well.
The old adage, “show don’t tell” makes it all sound so easy. But it’s not. To show is to reveal and to tell is to cover up. Donut was in a rage at the world. If I simply tell my readers “Donut was angry” they can skim over her emotional state, let it slip away without engagement. I don’t name it. Instead I have Donut storm down the road. “She kicked those rocks so hard they’d kill a cat.” The reader has to unpack the anger, uncover it, engage with it—feel it. For me that is the essence of a powerful reading experience—to cross over, join the character on their emotional journey.
Objects in stories can carry an emotional charge. In A Stitch in Time Donut’s Aunt Agnes plans to cart her off to Boston, far from her Vermont village. Donut runs away using her pops last invention—a folding tin boat. She names the boat Nehi and it carries her safely across Dog Pond to her hideout. This boat is a powerful object in the story—Donut’s physical link to her pops. I have a footstool that my dad made when he was a kid. It is an ugly thing—wobbly and crooked. But that footstool emanates a strong mix of emotions for me that have changed over time—sadness, longing, a smile. This footstool is Donut’s boat. Although the Nehi is an awkward, tippy craft, Donut insists it is perfect, like her pops. But, like many sacred objects, the Nehi has its own narrative arc linked to its owner. When it sinks and Donut nearly drowns she is devastated as she has lost her pops a second time. But her relationship to this object provides a turning point in the story. She comes to realize it wasn’t one of his best inventions and like the Nehi her pops’ wasn’t perfect. Thus, Donut’s view of this tin boat changes over time while it acts as a repository of Donut’s emotional and psychological state.
Place can also carry an emotional load. Early in the story, Donut and Tiny, her best friend, hike out to Dog Pond and set out on the maiden voyage of the Nehi. They drift over what she calls the deep spot—“where the sunlight couldn’t reach, a place full of secrets, where big fish lurked in the cold mud. A dark stillness rose up to the surface…” Throughout the story Donut tries to fathom the meaning of death. The deep spot frightens her, the not knowing frightens her. As a kid my fear lurked in a dark closet in our house that smelled of decay and dust. In a later chapter Donut is alone, fishing, out over the deep spot. This place has already been imbued with ith meaning and latent fear which intensifies the dramatic moment when the Nehi sinks and Donut almost drowns. As writers we can load objects and places with an emotional charge that is subtle and at times unconsciously felt by our readers. I don’t deliberately set out to create these objects in my narratives but when they show up I nurture them and weave them into later drafts to harness their emotional punch.
At a school visit a ten-year old girl demanded to know why I’d sunk the Nehi in the story. Her fists were clenched and she stared up at me waiting for my answer. I explained that if nothing exciting or sad ever happened in a story it would get kind of dull. “But Donut loved her boat!” she argued. “Yes,” I thought. “Donut loved her pops.” I don’t think this girl consciously made the connection but she was deeply moved by Donut’s loss. And I told her it was very hard to write that scene. Very hard to sink the Nehi. And it’s hard, sometimes, to read the sad parts of books. She nodded. Unclenched her fists. She got it. And that’s why I try to be brave when I write.
Daphne Kalmar’s debut middle-grade novel, A Stitch in Time, a grief narrative set in rural Vermont in 1927, was released in June, 2018. Stealing Mt. Rushmore, a middle-grade novel set in 1974, about flawed presidents and a missing mother, will be released by Feiwel and Friends, on March 24, 2020. Daphne was a teacher for over twenty years and has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can learn more about Daphne on her website or on Twitter.
Vermont College of Fine Arts is a global community of artists continuously redefining what it means to be an arts college. It is accredited by the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE) and offers the Master of Fine Arts degree in a variety of fields, including Writing, Writing for Children & Young Adults, and Writing & Publishing, along with an International MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation. With low-residency and fully residential options, VCFA has the graduate program to fit your needs. Learn more at vcfa.edu.