Writing From Feeling, a guest post by Bill Harley
In the end, a good story is not about words. While writing is a craft with many parts, being a talented crafter of sentences, paragraphs and plot isn’t enough. In the end, we use the words to communicate experience, and human experience is centered in feeling.
I try to write from feeling. I’ve come to believe if I get the feeling right—what the characters are experiencing and feeling themselves—I’ll make a connection with the reader. Writing teachers will often talking about using all the senses, but for me, the most important sense is what it feels like inside. My middle grade Charlie Bumpers series is told through the eyes of a well-adjusted fourth grade boy in a functional family. For all his failings, Charlie is very sensitive to the world around him and what other people are feeling. While he’s not very attentive to many details, his heart is true, and it’s his heart that guides the story. Whether it’s being disappointed in the part he gets in the class play, or experiencing loss after loss on his soccer team, the thing that drives the story is what things feel like to him. “What is Charlie feeling?” was a question I continually asked myself, and I wrote from there. And as I wrote, I often had those same feelings myself.
How do you measure success when you write from this perspective? For me, it came in the form of a nine-year old boy who came up to me holding one of the Charlie Bumpers books. “I like your book,” he said. “It’s funny.” I nodded. And then, more tellingly, more importantly, he said, “I know how Charlie feels.”
Like we say around our house, “There’s one in a row.”
My new book, Now You Say Yes, presented a deeper challenge. This book tells the story of two kids who suddenly lose their single parent and are faced with the prospect of being separated and sent into foster care. The older one, Mari, decides they should drive across the country, from Los Angeles to Lynn, Massachusetts, hoping to be taken in by their estranged grandmother. This is a pretty desperate move. While I was, like Charlie, once a nine-year old boy in a typical elementary school, in Now You Say Yes, Mari, the main character, is a fifteen-year-old girl—something I never was and never will be. She’s adopted out of the foster care system, and there’s a whole lot of baggage that comes from that—baggage I don’t have. The other main character, her adoptive brother Conor, is on the autism spectrum. I have never been diagnosed as such, although after a lot of work on the book, I’m beginning to think the autism spectrum is very wide and includes many more of us than I had ever imagined.
How do I tell the story through their eyes, show who they are through their behavior? First, I did research – I talked to a lot of people, read a lot of books, and paid attention to people who were similar to these two kids. I began to see how they might see the world.
I had several break throughs in grasping their frustrations and challenges. In thinking about Mari, who harbors a deep hurt and anger over her early life, I was suddenly brought back to my own experiences as a kid. It’s only later in life I’ve realized my family watched me regularly boil over. So much energy, then frustration, then anger would sweep over me until sometimes I literally couldn’t see. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. I drew on that feeling when I wrote about Mari.
In trying to see things from Conor’s point of view, I was taught by an experience with a young man on the spectrum, a friend of our family. Driving him to his mom’s workplace, he told me which way to go, but I told him I knew a better way. At that, he fell silent and stared out the window. Half-way to the destination, I realized he was right, and I was wrong, and then I saw how his brilliance was so often overlooked and ignored. I had done it, too. His spatial knowledge and mapping are extraordinary. I apologized and now, when he offers advice, I always listen. Being ignored and taken for granted is a very common experience for people on the spectrum. But I know what that feels like, too, and I could use that.
And so, after listening and reading, and thinking, I wrote from feeling. Of course, none of us can know exactly what others are thinking and experiencing, and while I can’t get completely in the head of a foster care kid, or someone who is diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum, I do have access to what their feelings might be. And those feelings are the guide for what I write.
It’s an act of faith, isn’t it? – trusting that our emotions are similar to other people’s regardless of their background, experiences, and mental make-up. But this faith, this ability to imagine, is at the heart of writing. E.L. Doctorow wrote, “A novelist is a person who lives in other people’s skins.”
In the emotional turning point of Now You Say Yes, Mari finds herself surrounded by hundreds of people she doesn’t know, watching a solar eclipse. While everyone else stares at the sky, she instead looks at the people and sees all their brokenness and realizes it’s that brokenness that binds them together—we’re all broken. There, for a moment, Mari feels what everyone feels, and realizes she’s not alone.
At the center of Now You Say Yes are feelings. The feeling of being ignored and overlooked. The feeling of being powerless. The feeling of wanting to belong and wanting to be valued. The feeling of caring for someone so deeply you will do things you’d never thought you’d do. These feelings are universal, and it’s where my best writing comes from.
Meet the author
Bill Harley is well-traveled, well-read, well-educated, well-spoken and well-loved. Accompanied by his guitar, his narrative songs and stories, both original and traditional, are a celebration of our common humanity. Best known for his work with children and families, his ability to navigate through a confusing world with humor and wisdom is evident in his masterful storytelling as well as his numerous award-winning recordings and books. A two-time Grammy winner, he is vibrant, outrageous, unpredictable and genuine with songs and stories about growing up, schooling and what it is to be human—our connections with one another and with the planet we share. Recognized by audiences and peers as one of the finest performing storytellers in the country, his work has influenced a generation of children, parents, performing artists and educators. Bill tours internationally as a performing artist, author and keynote speaker from his home in Seekonk, Massachusetts.
About Now You Say Yes
Award-winning author and storyteller Bill Harley returns with an unforgettable middle grade novel about two orphaned siblings on a cross-country journey in search of their place in the world.
“I rooted for outcast-misfit protagonists Mari and Conor every mile and (every single page!) of their intimate and epic, grief-fueled road trip. Bill Harley’s Now You Say Yes reminds us that acts of kindness—big and small—make all the difference.” —Patrick Flores-Scott, award-winning author of Jumped In and American Road Trip
When her mother dies, fifteen-year-old Mari and is desperate to avoid being caught up in the foster system. Again. And to complicate matters, she is now the only one who can take care of her super-smart and on-the-spectrum nine-year-old stepbrother, Conor.
Is there anyone Mari can trust to help them? Certainly not her mother’s current boyfriend, Dennis. Not the doctors or her teachers, who would be obliged to call in social services. So in a desperate move, Mari takes Conor and sets out to find their estranged grandmother, hoping to throw themselves at the mercy of the only person who might take them in.
On their way to New England, the duo experiences the snarls of LA traffic, the backroads of the Midwest, and a monumental stop in Missouri where they witness the solar eclipse, an event with which Conor is obsessed. Mari also learns about the inner workings of her stepbrother’s mind and about her connections to him and to the world…and maybe even a little about her own place in it.
A beautiful exploration of identity and family, this heartwarming and engaging middle grade novel comes from renowned storyteller and two-time Grammy Award winner Bill Harley.
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Publication date: 08/01/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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