I’m happy to have Mike Mullin here today, talking about writing with courage. I love his post, and I’m honored by what he wrote. I believe Mike Mullin already has lots of writerly courage, and it’s something I like and respect. I think it can help make deeper stories. Take it away, Mike!
Writing with Courage
When Cheryl invited me to be a guest poster on her blog, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about: courage. You see, I’ve been admiring Cheryl’s writing from afar for almost two years—since I first read Scars. And while there may be a few better prose stylists or a few better plotters working in young adult literature, there is no-one writing with more raw power—with more courage—than Cheryl.
Re-reading the paragraph above, I realize that “admire” is the wrong word for how I feel about Cheryl’s writing. Insanely envious is more like it. Seriously, when we finally meet, I’m going to steal a strand of hair from her to use in a voodoo ritual—your juju will be mine, Rainfield!
Courage, particularly in writing, is rare, precious, and essential. I certainly don’t have it in the generous measure Cheryl does. For over a year, I’ve been trying to write a blog post—yes, a mere blog post—about my own childhood brush with sexual abuse, and I’ve found I can’t. My experience was, thankfully, far less traumatic than Cheryl’s, but I still believe there are lessons we could take from what happened to me, if I ever found the courage to share it.
I was a voracious reader, but in fifth grade I had read absolutely nothing about pedophilia. While the subject is fairly well-covered in today’s young adult literature, it was then and is today—to the best of my knowledge—nearly nonexistent in middle-grade novels. Yet children are more likely to be abused as middle graders than as teenagers. I believe if I had read more about it—if our middle-grade literature had been darker—I might have been better prepared for what happened to me.
That’s not to say that I’m completely devoid of writerly courage. Achieving any measure of success as an author requires it. But I tend to mask the parts of my novels that cut closest to the bone in fictionalized flesh.
For example, I’m occasionally asked what my favorite part of ASHFALL is. (ASHFALL, my debut novel, is about a teen struggling to survive and find his family after the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging the world into a cataclysmic natural disaster.) I always answer that the scene in chapters 37 and 38 is my favorite. It was never part of any outline; I wrote it spontaneously while I was visiting my Uncle Chuck, who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. The most difficult part of that visit wasn’t watching my Uncle Chuck die—we’d known he was going to die for some time—it was seeing his wife and children showering love upon him, even while they were trying, and failing, to hide their own grief.
In chapters 37 and 38 my protagonists, Alex and Darla, meet a woman who’s just lost her husband. She’s pulling three young children behind her on a toboggan, and one of them, Katie, is desperately ill. Alex wants to stop and try to help. Darla, who is far more practical than Alex, argues that they should go on—that they can’t help everyone who’s suffering. Alex wins the ensuing argument. They stop and try to help, but Katie dies anyway. I think the power of that scene flows from the fact that I chose to pour what I was feeling into it—despite the pain that writing it caused me. That, perhaps, is also a form of courage.
I believe writerly courage can be developed like any other aspect of writing. One of the reasons ASHFALL broke through and got published, while my earlier manuscripts did not, is that ASHFALL—despite its post-apocalyptic setting—is at its heart a personal story, a coming-of-age story based in my own teenage years. I credit one book in particular for helping me write closer to my own bones, Ralph Keyes’s Courage to Write. His numerous examples—particularly his stories of other writers’ struggles to find courage—inspired me to dig a little deeper and put a little more of myself on the page. If you’re an aspiring author, I highly recommend it. Perhaps I’ll re-read it soon, searching for inspiration to finally begin that blog post.
I knew I had something good in Chapters 37 and 38 of ASHFALL when my wife read them. We were on our way to an education conference in Pittsburg, and she was reading the manuscript out loud while I drove. (That’s a fabulous revision technique, by the way. By listening to your prose, you pick up errors that your eye will skip over while reading.) I heard a catch in her voice and glanced at the passenger seat. Tears were streaming down her face, shining in the mid-morning sun. I thought, yes! I’m a great writer and a terrible husband!
What about you? What inspires you to write courageously? Let me know in the comments, please.
Thank you so much for that thoughtful post, Mike! I think you have a lot of writerly courage–you wrote about grief and pain that you’ve seen and experienced. You dug deep.
People, you can find out more about Mike and his books here:
About Mike Mullin
Mike Mullin’s first job was scraping the gum off the undersides of desks at his high school. From there, things went steadily downhill. He almost got fired by the owner of a bookstore due to his poor taste in earrings. He worked at a place that showed slides of poopy diapers during lunch (it did cut down on the cafeteria budget). The hazing process at the next company included eating live termites raised by the resident entomologist, so that didn’t last long either. For a while Mike juggled bottles at a wine shop, sometimes to disastrous effect. Oh, and then there was the job where swarms of wasps occasionally tried to chase him off ladders. So he’s really glad this writing thing seems to be working out.
Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and her three cats. Ashen Winter is his second novel. His debut, Ashfall, was named one of the top five young adult novels of 2011 by National Public Radio, a Best Teen Book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and a New Voices selection by the American Booksellers Association.
About ASHEN WINTER
It’s been over six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex’s relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world so vividly portrayed in Ashfall, the first book in this trilogy. It’s also been six months of waiting for Alex’s parents to return from Iowa. Alex and Darla decide they can wait no longer and must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex’s parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.
Read an Excerpt
The first two chapters are available on my website: www.ashenwinter.com. You may reprint the first two chapters in whole or in part on your website so long as you do not charge anyone anything to access them.