I have been struggling to find a thesis—the novel-length work I will have to write and edit in order to graduate—and nothing as yet has inspired me enough to spend two years writing, enough to complete.
A few weeks ago, a character came to me. Her name is Sarah and she is a depressed and suicidal teenager. As I began to write her, I was forced to relive many painful memories from my own teen years. I wanted more than ever to tell her story, both to help this shy, sweet, broken girl, and to give hope to others out there who struggle with depression in their young adult years. But after a few scenes and a few days of writing, I ran out of things to write. I didn’t know where the story was going, so I didn’t know how to get her there. My advisor said not to worry about it, just get to know the character and let her lead me where the story needs to go, “Let her surprise you.” I stopped trying to determine the ending and the story arc, but this did nothing to inspire new scenes.
A little over a week ago, I started Camp NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t planning to participate this time, but NaNoWriMo has been great in helping to force the words out of me, so I thought maybe it was the kick I needed to get Sarah’s story written. It started well enough, and then I ran out of words again. I usually write speculative fiction for NaNo and you can always come up with more when there’s magic involved, but I’ve spent very little time writing literary fiction; it’s much harder to force more scenes when you have to stick with reality and can’t invent weird things to happen.
A few days later, I had another breakthrough. In pondering over my time as a teenager, I remembered that I had been very dedicated about keeping a diary. Sometimes this was the only place I could be honest about my feelings and deal with what I was going through, and it occurred to me that Sarah must keep a diary as well. So, I began writing her diary. It through new insights right away and I felt like I was finally doing as my advisor advised and getting to know my character. Seven entries later, I am floundering again, but I still think the diary is key. I considered telling her entire story as entries—I’d already attempted first person, present and third person, past—but now that the entries have fizzled and become repetitive, I feel like that’s not the answer either. Now I’m looking at alternating between brief entries and real-time scenes using a different narration style. I don’t see her story working in first person, past tense—at least not outside her diary—but that still leaves me a couple of other options. As much as I hate present tense narration as a general rule, the state of the character and the content of the story would make it appropriate for Sarah’s story, so most of the scenes are written in this manner. At the same time, I sometimes like to take a step back and work in the third person. I already have her diary, as plain and intimate as you can get about a person, so maybe distance would be good for the actual scenes. A benefit of third person is you don’t know the ending; she could succeed in killing herself and we won’t know, so it builds the tension. Stories written in first person are very unlikely to end with the protagonist’s death, so the other method creates more tension and the distance is fine because we have her diary to deepen the intimacy.
Deciding on the narrative voice is all well and good, but it seems to do nothing as far as moving the story forward and giving me more to write. I’m still stuck and building random bits of crap scenes just for the sake of writing something, which seems to be getting me nowhere. I’ve toyed around with a lot of stories in my first semester as I’m looking for a thesis (I’m supposed to decide by the end of my first semester, but it’s not looking good for that), but this one is one that matters to me. I just don’t know how to write it. I don’t know how to write a story for depressed teenage girls when I saw no hope at that age and all I can offer is that: You’ll get stronger; you’ll learn how to deal with it, if you just “hang in there.” Maybe more important than finding a solution, than fixing it and making the pain go away is knowing that you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who feels this way. You’re not a bad person because of it; sometimes people are just depressed.
I’m still trying to write this story. I think it’s an important story to send out into the world. But at this point, it’s not looking good. Another story option has opened up and I’m pursuing it, but I’m keeping Sarah in for my Camp NaNo goal—for the time being—so that I have motivation to continue writing her story. Come on, Sarah, give me something…