What Death Taught Terrence
Beyond writing–which is ostensibly the writer’s main occupation–any writer who wants to be an author (read: published and read) must also be a salesman. No one is going to believe in your work until you believe in your work. Oftentimes, writers are told: “You have thirty seconds. Give me your elevator pitch. Make me want to buy your book before we both get off this elevator.. Sell me.”
Those types of pitches will bring on fear-induced cold sweats for me. Therefore, if you’ll indulge me just a little, here’s the story of why I wrote my novel, What Death Taught Terrence.
This is no elevator pitch.
As a kid, the fact that I was “different” was obvious to me from my first conscious memory. Other kids hopped and jumped and played on the jungle gym at recess. I rode a bike across the playground, my twisted feet (a result of my cerebral palsy) velcroed to the pedals so they wouldn’t slip off. And they wanted to slip off, let me tell you. For my first couple of years of schooling, the bike and the velcro marked me as different and cool, until a couple years later when they suddenly marked me as different and weird.
I started to avoid going out for recess. I’d stay in the classroom, but only if my personal teacher’s aid would stay in with me. So that I could dictate stories to her. Turns out I was writing Bernstain Bears fan-fiction before anyone knew what fan-fiction was.
When I was in the third grade, my teacher took my father aside and said to him, “Derek will be a published author someday. He’s that good.”
All I knew at the time was that, when the class would gather for what was called “writers’ workshop” and I could meld my imagination with a computer keyboard, I was more alive than any other time in my school day.
But how did I go from loving to write to writing a novel? I still ask myself that question sometimes. And I’m not sure I quite know the answer still.
All I know is, when you’re different–when everyone goes out of their way to tell you you’re different–you long for what makes you the same. What makes you similar to the people who are trying to tell you you’re different? (Different, when you’re a kid, is often a stand-in for what they really mean; less than.
I went through most of my schooling feeling less than and different. And if I did succeed at something, the response was often, “It’s amazing you were able to do that, considering your challenges.”
This was true with pretty much everything except writing.
With my trusty computer keyboard, I could always write. It came easy to me and was incredibly freeing. Unlike math, which felt so you-better-get-this-math-problem--right-or-the-world-will-end that, more than once before a math test, I flat-out threw up or cried real tears. Or both.
I was twenty-six when my then-girlfriend said, “You should write a memoir. Tell people what it’s like to live with cerebral palsy.”
I looked at her. I was dumbfounded. At twenty-six, what did I have to say that would interest anyone?
“Well, you should write something,” she challenged. “You shouldn’t just waste this talent of yours.”
I agreed with this. But what could I write that would truly show my talent? That’s when my mind began to drift back to my adolescence, to reading in the school library, where I first realized that–as a handicapped kid–the handicapped characters in most books had nothing whatsoever in common with me. The handicapped characters in books of that era (and, to a lesser extent, of this era, too) were of two camps. They were either too broken to matter, so they served as a side-character intended to make the main character seem inclusive and forward-thinking, or they were the sage saint dropped into the story to tell the able-bodied how to live.
I lived in a middle-ground between both of these stereotypes. Therefore, so would my main character, Terrence McDonald. I would write a story that both illuminated the handicapped life experience (at least a version of how mine went, anyway). I would also show that the handicapped are truly loved by their friends and family. This is why I decided the book should be multi-point-of-view. But what sort of plot-device would readily allow for a multi-point-of-view narrative?
What if Terrence had just died and, now that he inhabited the afterlife, he needed to review his life. Not just from his perspective but also from the perspectives of many of the people he’d known throughout his life?
I went into the writing believing–rather naively–the book would compose itself quickly in my head. That it would jump with little effort from my head onto the page.
Twelve years later–nothing came quickly, but it all came out the way it was supposed to–I held the finished version of What Death Taught Terrence in my hands.
I hope you’ll read Terrence. He would love to meet you!
And take my story as inspiration. Your story may pour from you in six weeks, or its gestation period may be much closer to a decade. However it comes to you, rejoice!
And when you’re ready for an editor, contact me! We’ll make your art shine!