#HFGather: Crafting and Sharing Books from the Heart

Feb 27, 2024 | HFGather, Minds & Bodies, Podcasts

Author/agent Sera Rivers and agent Linda Camacho joined us for an #HFGather conversation facilitated by author Heather Demetrios about their personal experiences crafting and sharing books with readers–Sera sharing as an author shaping her past into a novel and Linda as a friend of the Rebecca Dykes Writers’ mission and as a literary agent with her experiences selling books and supporting the authors and illustrators who create them. Heather will facilitate the conversation, and talk about her experience with the Rebecca Dykes Writers and her experiences teaching at the Highlights Foundation’s Writing Through Trauma to Empower Readers.

The three had a thoughtful discussion about:

  • Showing vulnerability when uncovering stories that they wish they’d had when we were experiencing a multitude of challenges
  • Supporting writers who want to tell stories that are really painful and difficult to tell
  • How to help writers craft stories that don’t traumatize or re-traumatize readers
  • How cathartic it is to fictionalize your experience
  • How to handle family and friends who might be impacted by your story
  • And more

If you missed the live session, you can watch it here, and/or scroll down to read a full transcript when it’s ready.
Please note: closed captions are available in the video below. You can see them by hovering over the bottom of the video and choosing the “CC” icon.

Support Programs Related to Tonight’s Panel

As you may already know, the Highlights Foundation hosts programs related to what we’ve shared tonight, throughout this year. Two such programs are the online two-night mini Writing About Mental Health for MG and YA Readers and the in-person retreat Writing Through Trauma to Empower Readers: A Working In-Community Retreat for Storytellers. They’re part of our Essential Conversations series, offering transformative support for authors who are crafting books for kids and teens that center their lived experiences in areas of trauma, mental health, grief, and beyond.

It’s such important work that can inspire and empower children with authentic representation, and hope. Through our scholarship program, via a grant from Hawthornden Foundation and other support, we are able to award several scholarships to the in-person retreat.  The organization you heard about tonight—Rebecca Dykes Writers—has also awarded a scholarship to this program.  But the current demand of those who applied outweighs the money we’ve raised so far. Here’s a link where you can donate to this effort if you’re called to and able.  If we can raise enough money to fund additional participants for this program, we’ll do so.  Any funds remaining will be used to help writers attend future programs like this, as well. Thank you for your support.

Listen to a podcast version of the #HFGather:

Full Transcript

Well, I’m going to go ahead and get started because we have such a wonderful conversation ahead. Welcome to all. I’m sending you wishes for safety and peace tonight and always. I’m Alison Green Myers. I’m the program director here at the Highlights Foundation, and I’m here to welcome you to the HFGather for the month of February. With me tonight from the Highlights Foundation is our executive director, George Brown. Hi, George. Nice to see you. And I can see already, as attendees, many of our Highlights Foundation team members, so welcome to all of you.

A note for you as our guests who are gathering, this is a webinar, so we can’t see your video, we can’t hear your audio during the session, but we can see you in the chat, and we can see you in the Q&A feature. There are closed captions available if you’d like to use them, and of course, closed captions will be included when you watch the recording or have the recording sent to you. If you’re here with us live, we have the chat enabled for hosts and panelists to be able to see your messages right now, and then I’ll open it up fully in just a moment so you can chat with everyone. We would love for you to use the Q&A feature, though, to list questions, not the chat. The chat seems to go very, very quickly, and we don’t wanna miss any great questions that you have for us during the conversation.

In these spaces, in the chat, on Zoom, really anywhere we come together as the Highlights Foundation, we ask for your respectful engagement. We ask you to join us tonight and always with no hate, no harm, and no harassment of any kind. I’ll place a link to our community standards in the chat for those of you who are really just getting to know us or for those of you who would like to read our full commitment that we bring to our programs, which includes safety and inclusivity as much as we can, everywhere we go.

When we were thinking about tonight’s Gather, in particular, Heather and I went back and forth with a lot of titles. We were trying to think about titles, and so Heather, I thought it might be nice to give just a little bit of background because tonight’s Gather grew from a 2022 program that we held in partnership with Rebecca Dykes Writers. It was an effort to support creatives who are called to tell stories of their lived experiences, especially when it comes to writing about trauma and grief, and especially in wanting to do it respectfully and authentically for children and teens. Some of the stories shared at that 2022 program included picture books about loss and also about love and middle grade novels about bullying, but also about finding community. And there were many young adult novels about pain, but also about the journey to recovery. And so tonight’s Gather is meant to bloom from that first program and grow some new stories.

I’ll offer my gratitude by starting out to Heather and to Linda and to Sera. They’re here to share their perspectives with us. And I have to say, they’ll be sharing an awful lot of vulnerability too when it comes to writing and sharing stories that come from the heart. I think they’re very personal and quite profound, and I think right now, especially, these stories are being asked to share more and more, and authors for kids and teens are being asked to really put our hearts out there to show up and show our vulnerability. We’re asked to uncover stories that we wish we had when we were experiencing a multitude of challenges as we were young. We were also trying to grow then and go forward, and we’re still trying to grow and go forward. So I thank you, Heather and Sera and Linda, for trusting our community tonight to share these stories.

For those of you listening right now or reading the transcript, check in with yourself during tonight’s discussion. When we talk about it and when you craft stories that really come from the heart, come from those tough lived experiences, you never know what kind of personal connections will flood in. If you need to pause, please do. If you need to take a deep breath, please do. I ask you to join us tonight open-hearted. These will be a lot of stories shared. You might even share some things with us when we open up the chat. Come to it with respect, come to it with tenderness, think about those kids who need to hear those stories right now. So we’ll have a conversation between Heather and Sera and Linda, and then I’ll come back at the end with some questions that you’ll be putting in the Q&A feature.

But first, let’s start with Heather, Heather Demetrios. Heather, for those who don’t know you, I’ve had the pleasure to know you just a few years and have enjoyed our time together so much. This subject, the topic tonight, and really the program with Rebecca Dykes Writers, it’s pretty personal to you. You have a lot of connections to it. I wonder if you might open up by sharing a little bit about yourself and how you connect to tonight’s conversation.

Yeah, first, I just wanna thank everybody for coming tonight, for showing up with your full selves and everything that has happened in your life and is happening and will happen and for your tender care of your readers. Before I say anything, I just want us all to take a collective breath because I think, you know, what we’re talking about, what we’re working with, you know, the more we can feel connected to our bodies and to ourselves, the more that we’re able to tap into the stories that want to be told and that need to be heard.

So if you wanna just take a minute, if you wanna put your feet on the ground and just feel your connecting of your body to wherever you are. So if you’re sitting, if you’re laying down, whatever you’re doing, just noticing those points of contact. If it feels honest, you can put a hand on your heart or your belly, you don’t have to. And then just taking in a deep breath in through your nose and filling your belly and then breathing out any tension. And we’ll just do that two more times together. In through the nose and out through the mouth. And one last time, in and out.

I love the idea of all of us breathing together and that sense of connection, which is really what this work is about. So as Alison was saying, this whole program that we’re doing with Highlights is very personal to me. I will start, for those of you that don’t know me, I’m a predominantly YA author, and I got my MFA in writing for children at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m sure many of you in the chat have some connection to VCFA. Linda and I were actually in the same class together there, as was Jane Hong, who is the founder of Rebecca Dykes Writers. And Rebecca Dykes was her daughter, and she died as a result of gender-based violence. And Jane’s reaction to that was to continue her daughter’s legacy of humanitarian work, she was an aid worker in Lebanon with the British government, and also to build on her own desire to tell stories. And she thought, what better way to help protect vulnerable young women, and really, people, by then telling stories. And so together we kind of worked out what that would look like and began working with Highlights.

And so the work that we do really is a combination of things. One, how do we help support writers who wanna tell these stories that are really painful and difficult to tell, either because it’s a personal experience or someone close to you or a topic that you are really activated by and you wanna talk about for young people? I myself have a novel called Bad Romance that was based on dating violence that I experienced in high school, as well as different other forms of abuse. And it was really interesting when I was trying to tell people about the book, and, you know, they wanted to know, what’s the love story? And it’s like, well, actually, it’s a love story of someone falling in love with themselves because it’s, you know, an unhealthy relationship. And that kind of took some people aback and when I was writing that novel, I was so alone because I didn’t have a toolbox yet for how to navigate going back through reading my diaries from high school and didn’t expect the nightmares, didn’t expect the various responses I was having to the work or the challenges of trying to take my life and turn it into a novel, as well as another aspect that we work on is how to help writers craft stories that don’t traumatize or re-traumatize readers.

So how can you help someone feel seen in your book, their experience reflected without causing harm, right? So really that whole mantra of do no harm. And so that was something that Jane and I worked on a lot, what would that look like, and what would it look like to create a supportive environment for writers to explore their stories and get that toolbox of support? So that’s how we ended up with Rebecca Dykes Writers and the series of empowering young readers and writing from the heart. So that’s kind of my background with everything. Alison, do you want me to share more, or do you want me to jump into some questions, or?

I appreciate that. I think it was just a nice grounding for kind of starting the conversation. I’m going to hide myself and let you engage in the conversation, and now there’s a puppy on the screen. And just a reminder to our community, if you’d like to put messages in the chat, you’re welcome, but please place questions in the Q&A feature, and I’ll turn things over to you, Heather, thank you.

Well, I’m so happy that we have a puppy for this work. I highly recommend having cute, furry beings around when you’re writing difficult material. So Sera, I wanted to start with you, and I’m gonna read my questions because I wrote them pretty well, I think. So my question for you, and also please share a little bit about your background because I know, well, for everyone else, Sera was a facilitator at our first retreat that we had at Highlights, and it was incredible just to get to hear her story and the book that she was working on, and I’m sure she’ll tell you all more about that. But also just the wisdom that she shared about how to navigate writing personal material, and what does that look like, and how do you take care of yourself while you’re doing that? So Sera, what have been some of the challenges you’ve encountered writing your own story, putting it out into the world? And then second part of the question, how did you work with them to get to where you are now with your book, working with those challenges?

Yes, thank you. I first wanna just apologize. If I seem distracted, I’m listening, but my puppy, who sleeps at this time, is wide awake, and so I think he knows I’m in a workshop, but my partner’s traveling, so I apologize. But he will be good. He just might pop in and out. So yeah, so I started writing, so first, let me just share, in its current form, my novel is young adult. Some might say it’s historical fiction, which I can’t handle because it’s set in the early ’90s. But it is, let me give you my one-sentence pitch: 15-year-old Sarai Brooks must learn how to break free from the cult’s indoctrination, find faith in herself, and become fierce and brave like Queen Jezebel if she is to become the loving parent she never had. And its current title is Jezebel.

And it originated as memoir because I grew up in a fundamentalist religion, very patriarchal, very abusive, especially towards women. And I thought that my childhood was, quote, normal, I know that’s not a word we use, but that’s how I felt back then, until my friends as an adult said, “Uh, no, people don’t grow up like that.” And so I decided to write the story. The challenges I faced in writing it was really just going back through my trauma and not recognizing a lot of abuse and patterns of abuse and cycles and trauma until I read the first draft. And then honing that and figuring out what to include and not include was tough. And also the way the story ended, it ended with the birth of my son. I was a teen mom. Well, yeah, I’m still a mom, but I was a teen when my son was born. And it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but I was like, okay, this is how it ends, it ends with hope, she has a child, she can move forward, even though, like, in that moment in time, everything wasn’t perfect, not that it ever is.

So I got an agent. It took me 2 1/2 years to find my first agent, and she sent it out to a bunch of editors. And all the young adult editors said, “Oh, I love this, but it’s too dark for YA.” This was back in, like, 2016. And then all the adult editors said, “Oh, I love this but it’s totally YA.” And one editor said, “Oh, I really love this, but I can’t buy a memoir if you’re not a celebrity. Would you fictionalize it?” So she really got me thinking, and that, I think, was a bigger challenge than writing my memoir because it was really difficult for me to divorce the actual life events I went through to give this character and her experiences and her family a whole new story but with the same feelings and sentiment. What I loved about that experience, it took me five years to revise, everybody. And what I loved about the experience, though, is I was able to rewrite my history and ultimately give my teenager self the ending I wish that I actually had at that age. My son is now 27 and successful and wonderful, which is great. So I would say those are the biggest challenges. And for anyone who ever hears that an agent or editor is interested in their work, really there’s no time limit. The editor that loved it five years ago is one of the people, my agent left agencing, so now I have a new agent, but that editor is reviewing it now. It doesn’t mean she’ll buy it, but she was so excited that I finally finished it after five years.

And Sera, can I ask a follow-up question because as you were speaking, I was thinking about my own experience writing. It was a memoir at first, and then I changed it to fiction because that’s what my editor suggested. And at first, I was resistant, but then ultimately felt really happy with that. I felt like it gave me a little, like, that little bit of distance to actually go deeper into the material and deeper into the hard stuff because there was just, like, that little buffer of safety. And then when I finished the book, I felt like it was a really healing experience for me, really cathartic. I’m curious for you, did you experience that buffer? Did you experience catharsis? Would you say writing this novel was healing for you? Not that it has to be, I’m just curious.

Yeah, it really was cathartic. One thing that I realized fictionalizing helped me do was actually add in, it became more honest and raw because I realized I was holding back certain things because, I don’t know why. Like, so I really was able to delve into more of the emotional feelings and the repercussions of growing up suppressed and oppressed and all the words. So it was definitely cathartic. And one of my favorite things is my brother was 27 when he died, and when he left the religion, he died in a car accident. And we were taught, if you leave the religion, God will kill you. And so he, to me, back then, I was very young, we were much age difference, I felt like obviously you can’t leave the religion, God really does kill you. So I fictionalized him and made him only a year older than the main character. And even though that Michael is a completely different Michael than my brother, I felt like I got to revisit my relationship with my brother, which feels really bizarre. And I even had a dream where he, like, approved of this younger version of himself, which I believe he really came to visit me ’cause he’s only come to me once before. So that felt very, very healing in so many ways.

And how did you take care of yourself as you were writing this book? Because, you know, you’re having these dreams, you’re having all of this stuff coming up. Did you have outside support? Did you have practices that you engaged with, or was the writing itself really the support?

Yeah, no, so I have a couple critique partners. So I was able to call them when I felt overwhelmed, when I was like, “What am I doing?” when it reopened wounds I didn’t realize that weren’t fully healed. At one point, I actually started going to a therapist again because I was like, I really need to take care of myself, and you know, I feel like I’m opened a whole can of worms, like, even though I’m fictionalizing this. And that, she helped me get through. Also, shameless plug, but the Rebecca Dykes workshop was just really, really helpful. Even though I was the faculty, I walked away with just as much resources as the attendees did. Just Heather, all the meditative things and self-care and all the other faculty just really helped us all learn different ways to tap into healing and how to know when to stop, like, when to stop writing and take care of yourself.

Yeah, I’m so glad you mentioned that because I kept thinking as you were talking, just almost, like, seeing you telling your story to us and just the ripple of resonance that went around that group of women. And I mean, I myself have experienced so much spiritual abuse from a fundamentalist childhood, and I know other people were telling you the same. And it was like you telling your story was so healing for us to be like, “Ugh, I’m not alone.” And like, “We can tell these stories, and it’s safe to do so.” And Highlights, of course, is such a good place, a good container for that work. Thank you so much, Sera.

So Linda, as you’re sitting here, I was just thinking, you know, as Sera’s talking about her different agents, and you’re an agent, of course, and one thing everyone might not know about you is just the easy manner and the warmth that you carry into every room. And I just feel anybody working on challenging material would feel so safe having you as an agent, that you would really have the patience. Like, you were talking earlier when we were talking beforehand, that you’ve had writers who spent, like, two decades working on this story. And it’s like, yeah, that’s how long it takes. There’s not, like, this pressure, you know? And especially with this kind of work, we can, as writers, hit those speed bumps, and you’re a writer too, so you know, where you’re like, “Yeah, I’m going, I’m going.” And then you’re like, “Whoa, that was really intense, and now I need a break.” And so it seems like, you know, you have the capacity to offer that to your writers.

So I have so many questions for you. One is kind of off of what Sera was saying, that, you know, all of these people were saying this story is so dark, and I keep hearing from writers, you know, no one’s gonna want my story because it’s centering trauma, it’s heavy. You know, it may or may not have a happy ending ’cause what happened still happened, right? And so I’m curious just, what is your advice for writers? What are you seeing in the industry? I feel like I’m seeing a lot more openness to these kinds of stories, but I’m not in the trenches in the way that you are. So if you have a writer coming to you saying like, “I wanna tell this story, but I don’t wanna pour my whole heart into this and then just get rejected because it’s too heavy,” what are your thoughts on all of this? I know that’s, like, a big topic.

No, no, I mean, that’s a good question. Man, and you’re right, it’s a big question. Whenever we have conversations generally, you know, agents will have those editor meetings, lunches, what have you, they don’t necessarily talk in terms of trauma. They’ll usually say things like, more and more, they’ve been wanting things that are trendy, right? They’ll say, we want things that are trendy, we want escapism, you know, a lot of genre, they want things like that. There have been a little bit, there’s been a little bit more interest in darker things. However, I find it super interesting how editors, and this still happens a lot, editors don’t mind, they don’t use the word dystopian anymore. But things like that, like, when you think of The Hunger Games and people killing each other and there’s trauma there, right, within that story and all those kinds of stories, they don’t mind when it’s wrapped in a particular genre, but when you do things like contemporary realistic fiction, it seems to surprise them. I don’t know why. Like, I think it feels maybe too real as opposed to saying dystopian or horror, this particular genre, which we can use it as escapism. And you still have all of those great truths wrapped up within those genres.

So I’m finding that editors still struggle with something that sometimes feels too real. However, it’s all subjective, right? It’s really subjective. You have to be willing to, and this sucks, but you have to be willing to be rejected. It’s like bracing yourself for that because, yeah, there are gonna be some editors who are gonna go, “Whoa, that’s just too much for me. I can’t deal with it.” And I’ve encountered that even when I’ve done things where it was something super genre, I think one was like a mystery and a child was missing in the mystery. And so a person went, “Oh, no, I’m a mother, I cannot read stuff like this.” I’m like, oh, that’s fair. I didn’t think about that, but that makes perfect sense. Like, now that I have pets, like, I’m very sensitive to pet things. You know, I’ve always been sensitive for animals, but now just feels a different level.

So there’s some people that if they see things like fundamentalist religion or, you know, abuse with a boyfriend, they’re just gonna be like, “No, I can’t do it.” But it doesn’t mean that there are no editors who won’t. You know, it’s a matter of finding that right person. And it is gonna be a bit harder, a little bit, especially if you’re writing contemporary, and again, there’s so many categories, right? I think if we’re talking about picture books, I am seeing an interesting trend towards more concepts that are darker, a little bit, ’cause they’re encapsulating it in social-emotional learning.

Remember, Heather, when I did the picture book semester, I did a whole thing about grief in picture books and I was like, we need more. We’re seeing stuff come out of that. So I think in the picture book space, we’re seeing a little bit more of that. That’s really great. It’s still not the same kind of conversation they’re having abroad versus here. You know, it’s a very different kind of picture book. Middle grade, I feel like the sky’s the limit. And YA too, but I feel like, again, yeah, there are gonna be some editors who are afraid to touch it. They want that escapism. You know, some of them, for instance, refuse to talk about the pandemic and stories, right? Like, you know, people have gone through traumas at the pandemic on top of everything else, and a couple editors will go, “Yeah, I’d be open to it.” But more often than not, they’re like, eh, they don’t want to live in the now, they just wanna live somewhere else.

But again, I’ve definitely had editors where I’ve reached out, and I’ll go, “Okay, I know you don’t usually do this, but look at the story.” So that’s, like, even me as an agent, I don’t like to say I don’t do certain things because I never know what I’m gonna like, and I am always surprised because it really is in the execution, ’cause even when I go to pitch sessions, I find pitch sessions are not super helpful for me as an agent because I can love the pitch, I can hate the pitch. And a lot of my clients write okay pitches. You know, like even with their queries, perfectly fine. Nothing amazing, nothing terrible, there’s some who are really good, but it’s all in the writing and then the execution. And so especially when you’re writing for kid lit, I get the question constantly where they’ll say, “Linda, I’m writing, you know, maybe abuse, you know, like, maybe the parent is physically abusive, and it’s middle grade, can I do it?” And I go, “Yes. It just depends on how you do it.” So it’s always execution. What is the story, right? What’s the premise, right? Because you’re still writing towards a market, if you’re talking about traditional publication, right? Self-publishing is its own thing. But if you’re talking about I want traditional, I want a bigger house, you know, you are gonna tailor it if you are looking for a certain kind of publication. But don’t be afraid to write about serious things because it’s all dependent on how it’s wrapped up in the story.

I really appreciate what you said about editors coming to our work, own histories. You know, it’s like they are people too, and they have histories too. And so when you do get a rejection, it might have literally nothing to do with you or your writing. And I think for people working in this space, that’s really helpful to hear, just to calibrate the reactions we get to those rejections. Do you have sort of places that you kind of point writers to when they start to feel discouraged, when they have a story they wanna tell and they know their precedent? Like, I think about What Jamie Saw, for example, as a middle grade, right? That is a hard book to read, but beautiful and important. There are always gonna be those books, but it can feel so difficult when you’re, like, getting those rejections.

Is there something that you say, okay, you know, here’s the thing I want you to read, or an anecdote that you find helpful? Like, I think about my novel Little Universes, it came out during the pandemic, so obviously it didn’t sell well, and I was discouraged about that. But then I got an email, I think it was like an Instagram message from a female reader who said, “I was thinking about killing myself, and then I read your book where the character has a drug addiction and is suicidal, and then she came out of it, and I knew that I could get out of it too. And so thank you.” And it’s just like, holy crap. Like, it doesn’t matter about the numbers, you know? But it’s like, you know, I don’t get to tell that story that often. And it’s like, I want writers to know, like, you’re writing for that person, you know? But I don’t know what what advice do you give?

Yeah, I usually use anecdotes because, you know, even when I try to think of the people who’ve written certain raw material, you think of like Ellen Hopkins and, you know, certain people who are famous, but not everyone reaches that level of fame, nor do you have to to be, quote, unquote, successful to make a living somewhat as a writer, and that’s debatable what that means, right? But if you want to get your book published, the question is, I always say, why? You know, what do you, yes, you can want to hold your book in your hand, want Barnes & Noble. I mean, I get excited too. So, I mean, it’s a whole other level when it’s your baby, right? But if that’s the only thing that’s driving you, that’s not sustainable, right? Like, it’s one thing to say, “Yeah, I’d love to be a bestseller, and I have all of these, you know, goals,” but if you only focus on that, you’re gonna peter out. Even if you hit that goal, all right, you’re a New York Times bestselling author, what about the next book, you know?

And with publishing, one minute you’re here, one minute you’re there. It’s a rollercoaster ride. You know, whether you’re the writer, whether you’re the agent, editor, it’s just a maelstrom. So I would say you really have to remind yourself while you’re writing, like, who are you reaching out to? And yeah, a lot of it is, I have so many clients, you know, some I’ve taken on, most of them are debuts, but some of them I’ve taken on. I’m their maybe third or fourth agent. You know, they used to do well, maybe now not so much, you know, various levels of their career. And there is no timeline. And I think that’s what’s so hard about it because you want to know, I put my heart and soul into this book, something needs to come out of it. And sometimes that book is a learning tool for you to get to your next book. That’s what it is, right? Sometimes that story isn’t ready for now.

I’ve had clients where, like, one of them from VCFA, actually, Yamile Saied Mendez, the book that I took her on for, we only sold it, I think, seven years into our partnership. You know, so you it wasn’t ready before. Clearly, it became ready later. And one other person too, she was writing contemporary, realistic, YA, bordering adult. And that was a thing, like, some adult editors were like, “This is YA,” and then some of the YA editors, “This is adult,” like, we can’t agree on anything, and marketing is all very arbitrary as well. But we eventually sold her book, and it literally took seven years of going back and forth and trying to figure out what it was. And there was some tough stuff in there that some editors were just like, “I don’t know about this.” And it was really hard for some people’s stomach, frankly. But it happens, and there’s somewhere we’re still hoping that book comes about. And it breaks my heart to say, yeah, we haven’t sold it. Hopefully we do, but I can’t guarantee it.

But I really have to bring them back to why are you doing this. Really, what is it? And it does help if they get a fan letter. You know, especially when one of my clients who was doing really well, but during the pandemic, of course, sales flagged, as most did. And she was feeling really down about it, and she got this fan letter from a little girl, and it just changed everything. So it really does have to go back to the why of it. And again, it really cannot be just about accolades because I was telling my clients, you know, like the icing on the cake, great, I’m gonna be so excited if all these things happen, but is that the only thing that’s gonna make you happy? And some people, I can tell. Like, in the conversations when I’m gonna take them on as a client, you know, I’m not for everybody, and they’re not for, you know, it’s a two-way street, right? So I’m never gonna be the agent to say, “I’m gonna get you the New York Times Bestseller List, I’m gonna get you six figures,” ’cause I can’t guarantee that. I would love all of that to happen. But if I get the sense that the client is only going to be happy with those kinds of deals, then I’m not the person for them. But frankly, even if you are that person, you really have to ask yourself, what else is sustaining me, even with all that ambition? It’s so dangerous sometimes.

I love that heart-centered approach, and I feel like both of you are just such, like, you’re really tapped into kid lit, why it matters. Obviously, it was important for you as you were growing up. I always say books saved me. You know, that’s what got me through the toughest parts of my life growing up and a huge part of why I’m a writer, so that why it’s so important. And for our upcoming retreat, we’re talking about, among the faculty, you know, how books are windows and mirrors, right? We see ourselves reflected, but we also get a window into possibility. And I think that’s what makes kid lit so special is there is that kernel of hope. Like, no matter what is happening in the book, there is that bit of hope at the end. And so for both of you, I’m just curious what’s coming up as we’re having this conversation, just in terms of, you know, encouraging writers, you’re both writers, you’re both agents, on this journey because it’s a tough one. Why is it worth it? Like, why do we keep doing this to ourselves?

I’ll say for me, I’m doing it because when I was younger, it was really hard for me to find books that reflected what I was going through, and I also wasn’t allowed to read. Like, all my books had to be approved. So like, I snuck a lot of books, but it was just really, you know, difficult. And for me, The Giver was the book that just really saved me. But my mother gave it to me once we were out of the religion. And it’s funny because the ending of that, which I’m not gonna tell you what the actual ending is if you haven’t read the book, but there’s kind of debate on if it’s a good ending or a bad ending. And I was the only person, like, kid around that was like, this is a good ending. And everyone was like, “Uh, no, it’s the opposite of what you think.” And to this day, I still have not read Son, which is the follow-up book because I just, I know, like, I have to read it, I own it, but I’m so, like, hanging on to just, like, my, like, feeling of what happened to those characters. So I really, really want to be able to help teen moms realize that their life is not over, that they can be successful, that you can be a teenager and a mother and whatever else you wanna be in life, right? Like, it’s not one thing or the other. And most of my friends were teen moms. It’s just how, like, my community was. So that’s why I write, and I will be damned if this book, this book is, like, it better come out one day. That’s all I gotta say.

Yeah, I have hope. I have hope, for sure. Yeah, I think that’s the thing about writing, it’s like you can’t help yourself, right? I don’t think it’s, I mean, you have to make the choice to commit to it, definitely. But even if you don’t, you feel a difference when you’re not writing, right? There’s that whisper, and it’s just something that’s always there. And even when I was a kid, I was not the best at expressing myself, you know, face to face in person. But writing, I always felt freer in the way I could talk. So I just always felt more open on the page. And even before, even in high school and college, a lot of that was just journaling, right? Or just journaling my emotions, my feelings. And it made such a difference. So I just don’t think we have a choice, honestly. You can certainly suppress it. I mean, is it hard to do? I love Netflix, and I definitely watch a lot of TV, and I prefer to talk about writing than actually writing half the time. But I feel a difference when I am writing, even if it’s just for myself.

And that’s what I always say too. Like, whenever a client is stuck, whenever I’m stuck, if you just take the pressure off and just write the thing, you don’t even know half the time what’s gonna come out, and your subconscious will always figure it out for you until you put on the editorial hat. Even for me, ’cause I used to work in marketing, a big struggle I’ve had for so long was I’d start writing a story, and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s not marketable.” You know, I keep the agenting hat, the marketing, I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know, like, that’s not a thing today.” Like, if I make it like werewolves and romance, maybe that’s a thing, but when you start to do that to yourself, it doesn’t feel real anymore, you know? So yeah, I just don’t think we have a choice. But I would say even in terms of the, quote, unquote, happy endings, right, what a good ending versus a bad ending, you don’t have to wrap everything up in a pretty bow. It just, is there some element of hope, right, a light at the end of the tunnel. And I like those endings. I always think of, like, Guillermo del Toro movies where, you know, you could read them either way, you know? I like to think of the optimistic way. Some people don’t. That’s okay. But you can go either direction, and I think if you at least have that where there’s an element of hope, you’ll be fine. And don’t make it cookie-cutter boring ’cause no one’s gonna want that anyway, honestly. Like, I think it’s boring, and that doesn’t feel real anyway.

And I think that goes back to what Sera was saying about how writing that book, you know, it sounds like you had to write it, like, it was coming out of you and that, you know, it hasn’t sold yet, but you already have dividends from it, right? You’re already seeing the healing that happened, the beautiful dream with your brother, like, all of this processing that you did and then even being positioned to sit here and tell us that story, probably more articulately than you ever have because you’ve gone through this whole thing. And man, I’ve never heard anyone talk about teen moms the way you just did. Like, I can’t wait for this book to come out because that is a voice that’s just, it is not heard, it’s not heard in YA. And I think it just, kind of back to what you were saying, Linda, about that sense of, like, you just have to do it and, you know, getting market out of your head. I talk about that as the Greek chorus. I’m like, that’s the Greek chorus, it’s market, it’s your agent, it’s this, that, they need to exit stage left, you know, and it’s just you and the work. And you know that at the end of the day, no matter what happens, like, you wrote that book for yourself, right? You did that, and that was good for you. And who knows the ripple effect of just doing that, right? Thank you so much for this beautiful conversation. I expect we have questions, Alison, do we?

We do. That was beautiful. Thank you so much. And many of the things that you’ve already talked about really have helped with some of the questions that are in the Q&A. There’s one question that looks like a thread and about three other questions in the Q&A. And it reminds me of a conversation that we had last year, the program. And I remember that Isaac Fitzsimons actually spoke about it. And the question is, how do you handle your family? And in that, you know, do you remember Isaac talking about that? And that can be, you know, we’re smiling and laughing about it, but it can also be hurt, you know, that when we come into stories, when we’re telling our experiences, they really are our experiences. If you have siblings, you know that your siblings might have been at the exact same event as you, but their perspective on things are just completely different. So can you speak a little bit to that? If you’re really writing from this personal space, if you’re really telling these experiences and there are people, maybe your family or friends, other caregivers that are alive and could be reading it and impacted by it, how do you handle that?

So I just wanna say I’m laughing because family is really, like, the hardest part, I think, of writing about your life. So the way I deal with it is my family has never read any portion of my book whatsoever. And I have certain family members that are really anxious about it, or, you know, they will tell me things, like, didn’t happen a certain way. I’m like, okay, but they did from my perspective. And my favorite thing I like to share with writers is every single person’s experience, even if you’re all in the same room, is completely different. So I had one traumatic event in my story that I had no idea where my little sister was. And so I asked her, “Where were you when this happened?” And she said, “I was right there in the room.” And I am 46 years old, I was 14 when that event happened, and to this day, I do not see her. I see every detail of that room, I see every detail of, like, know what happened, I feel everything, she’s not there. So she was there, though. So my point is, my experience is not my sister’s experience, but it’s still, both of us have our truths. So I just like to, when my family does eventually read the book, you know, first of all, it’s fiction now. So that’s not you, it’s fiction, I had to dramatize things, whatever. But your truth is always your truth, and I actually recommend not having people read things until at least it’s complete to a place that you feel very happy with it because they can change your history, not even meaning to.

Yeah, for me, my book Bad Romance, which, you know, has already gone through the process and been published, I asked my mom not to read it. I usually send her a copy of my book before they come out, and I did not send her one. And I told her, like, I don’t want you to read it. I’m sure she probably did, but, you know. Before I started really working on the book in earnest, I talked to my sister because a big part of the book deals with a lot of stuff that happened at home that was really, really tough. And she is a big part of that. And so even though it’s my story and I know I have every right to tell it, I checked in with her and she said, “I’ll back you.” Mostly I would need someone to back me up, you know, if the family came for me.

And then the other thing was, originally, it was a memoir, and I actually talked to legal at one of my publishers, which is Macmillan, and they said, you know, “You’d probably win the court case, but this ex-boyfriend of yours could totally sue you.” And so I decided to make it fiction ’cause I was like, I don’t wanna be in court with that guy, like, basically. And it ended up being the right decision, but there was a lot of calculus involved. And since the books come out, I haven’t experienced anything negative. Everything’s just been, like, people saying thank you because I went through that relationship too, or my daughter is, or my friend is. So I think, I know a lot of people get really in their heads about the family thing and Mary Karr talks about this really well in her book The Art of Memoir, which if you haven’t read it, great craft book. And she talks all about, you know, the family thing, and it’s a really personal decision for everybody, and no one decision is the right one, it’s just the one that you’re comfortable living with, yeah.

Yeah, no, in terms of conversations, especially when I have them with clients, it really is that, where it’s, you know, what’s your pain tolerance, you know, for certain things, and having those open dialogues, but really it’s all ditto here. I wish we could say well do A, you know, step A, B, C, D, but it really does depend on the person. Like, I’m in a situation now with writing something, and my mom’s involved in this particular thing. I’m like, I’m gonna have to, like, mention something, you know? But yeah, am I gonna have her read it now? No. But I might give her a heads up about something in case she feels a certain way about it. But that’s how I would approach it. Depends on the person.

I just wanna add one last thing. Also, because of me being just wanting to not upset any of my family members, I never talked about writing it. If they asked me, “Oh, how’s your project going?” I would say, “Oh, it’s going,” like, just be very vague. “Oh, yeah, I’m searching for agents.” “Oh, yeah, I have an agent,” like, but only if they asked, and I would never give them, like, real answers, like, just very generic, vague answers.

I think that’s great. I was surprised. Well, when my family read my book, I ended up having a conversation with my father that was about 35 years in the works. And I honestly think had a fictional story never come into the world about something, you know, and my dad could see a reflection of my mother in it that we never would’ve had that conversation. Was I worried about other people in my family seeing it? Sure, but I’m glad that, you know, that conversation was had, and it was hard. I’m sure he did feel a little hurt, but I think that writing can be a journey for us as the writer, and it can also be a big part of what we give to our family. That is why we write things down too.

It makes me think a little bit, there’s a few questions in here, and I think this one’s really important. Just I think a week ago, we finished a multi-month program with our Muslim storyteller course in children’s book publishing. And one of the storytellers was talking about just right now, particularly, how painful it is and how hard it is to create. And one of the things that they shared was sometimes writing soothes, and sometimes we have to realize that writing can wait for us. And I love that thought. You know, Linda, you were sharing a little bit about working with clients and that eagerness to put something out or get something out and then sometimes taking it in and saying, can it wait for me to be ready for it too? That big story, this big piece, this big thing that I have to say, Sera, like the story you’ve created, you know, it’s waited for you to get to this point. And so many people are asking, okay, so I’ve waited, and I’ve told it, and it’s sold, and it’s coming. And how do you actually prepare for sharing that much of your heart with the world? What do you think?

You know, I always tell clients to keep their support system around them, right, whether it’s family, friends, whoever it is, to really keep them around you because, yeah, like, you’re bearing your soul. And there’re gonna be people who are, you know, it’s no longer your story, right? Once you put it out there, it’s yours, but it’s not exactly yours. They interpret it as they will. And you’re gonna get many interpretations that are gonna shock you, you know, in ways, that are not gonna be the most pleasant reactions, but you’re also gonna have some great interactions. It’s just, you have to be willing to take those unpleasant ones. But the only way I think that you can best handle it is by keeping that support system, to know that you’re not alone. You know, whether, you know, talk to your agent, talk to your friends, talk to everybody around you because I’m not gonna pretend to say it’s easy. It’s not, it’s gonna be an emotional rollercoaster, which you can prepare as much as possible, but it’s hard to tell until you’re in it, which is why, please, support system is so critical.

Yeah, I think many people know this about me, but I’m a meditator, I’m a meditation teacher, and I had a really hard time when my first books came out. It’s just like, you know, your biggest dream in the world comes true, and we all react to that differently, our systems react to that differently. And I actually fell into a really deep depression, which is not actually uncommon for a lot of people when those sorts of things happen in your life. It’s just, you’ve been working so hard and then it happens, and you’re kind of like, now what, you know? And so for me, that’s how I found meditation. And I think having a practice that cultivates compassion for myself was so essential because we all have our inner critics, we’re our toughest, toughest critics. We have a job where anybody can give us performance reviews on the internet whenever they want, you know? People say things, and they don’t mean to, but it’ll hit you in different ways.

And also it’s a tough world out there for us as creatives, and we’re trying to manage our energy, you know, keep working on the next project, which is what I always tell people, like, start working on another project. You know, don’t get caught in this, like, my book’s out and this is all I’m doing is promoting. But I think if you can find, you know, that support system, as Linda was talking about, and then some kind of spiritual technology, some kind of emotional ballast to support you, a daily practice where you are really checking in with yourself and not getting way lost up in the clouds of worry and anxiety. And then celebrate. Celebrate yourself. Celebrate what you’ve done because so many people wanna tell their stories and wanna share a story and impact other people, and they never do it. And even just writing alone in your room if no one sees it is, I think, a huge act of courage and part of what gives me hope for humanity in such a dark time. So just keep writing.

I love that. So we are coming up on time. I’m going to ask one more question from the Q&A, and then I might include some of them for those of you who have never come to one of our HFGathers before. We will pull a blog post together. We’ll try and answer some additional questions that we might not have gotten to. Several of the questions have to do with craft, you know, literally the steps of turning, you know, memoir into fiction and, you know, some of them have to do with researching and finding additional readers, and so we can kind of provide some guidance for that. But this question, I loved. This question, came in and said, you know, what books recently have you read that you really feel center a child and also really holds that great amount of hope and reality in them when it comes to grief or trauma? What do you think has been out there? I bet you all have just tons of titles. We probably don’t have enough time for it. You wrote your thesis on this, Linda. Let’s go.

Yes, you know, it’s so funny, I always have to schedule reading time because then time will go, and I’m like, “Wait, I haven’t read a book.” Like, that’s not anything to do with me, and I always, so. You know, it won the Caldecott this year, Vashti Harrison’s, Harris, oh my God, I’m ruining her name. Vashti Harris, I believe, my brain, but Big. You know, it’s so funny that, you know, I’d seen that book around, you know, and she’s a bestselling author. And you know, I was like, “Yeah, I’m sure I’m gonna get to it, it looks really cute.” I thought it was just, I didn’t know what it was gonna be about, but it’s about a girl who, you know, a Black little girl who is big, right, bigger than the other little girls. And I always like to see different kinds of characters represented, especially in terms of body shape, right? And what was beautiful about that story, it wasn’t just, ’cause I see a lot of body positivity, which is important, but in this story, the character kind of gets depressed. Like, you see that she goes to a dark place, and kids can handle that. I like it when you can show the dark side. Read that book. It’s just so beautiful. It made me cry. It’s beautifully done. For all intents and purposes, it felt pretty dark. But at the end, there is a beautiful, hopeful message at the end of coming to love yourself. But there is this whole spread where you just see the darkness, and I think we need to see more stuff like that, so I love that book. I only read it, like, you know, last month, which is so ridiculous ’cause it’s been out for a while. But yeah, please read it. It’s so good.

I love it. Great.

Mine is for older kids, and it really, this book presents trauma through the horror genre of YA. And it’s really dark, so there’s content warnings in the beginning, but it is, I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast Is Me, by Jamison Shea. I listened to the audiobook, and it is just, like, amazing, phenomenal. But it’s gruesome.

You recommended that. You’re right. I started that. I am on a picture book kick, and I just wanna do, like, a little plug for one of our faculty members, Bethany Walker. So she is teaching at our Highlights retreat. She’s a clinical social worker with a specialization in trauma for children. And she wrote the most beautiful picture book called Lena & the Dragon. And it’s just the most, it’s like something happens, we don’t know what, and this is how this child is experiencing feeling all the feelings and dealing with this every day. And if you wanna see an example, and this is no matter if you’re writing YA, middle grade, picture book, of trauma-informed writing, writing that allows the reader to be seen in their experience without going so, so dark that, like, then they get, you know, triggered. It’s a great book. It’s really fabulous.

I feel like, so now we’ve done picture book, we’ve done YA, I should throw in a middle grade here, just so we can make sure and we have it, I don’t know. I’m gonna go with Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich, the You’re Breaking My Heart. It’s a gut-punch of a book, but it’s done so incredibly beautifully. There is a sibling death in it, and there are the way that the main character, you really feel that tug of processing at that age level with fault. What could be your fault? What did you do right, and what did you do wrong? It’s so incredible. It’s so beautifully done. We could probably go on for the next hour with that, but we’ll take a step back from there, and we’ll take a step back, and we’ll say thank you. We’ll say thank you to the three of you, first and foremost, but.

Thank you, Alison, and thank you to the attendees who are interested in this.

Absolutely, so a few additional words from me as we wrap up, I’m gonna say, especially for those who were asking questions about craft, you were looking for opportunities for learning, I wanna drop two links into the chat. One of them is part of our minis series. Minis are just two-night classes. It’s with Crystal Allen and Katie Keridan, and it’s Writing About Mental Health for Middle Grade and Young Adult Readers. It’s a two-night mini. They’re coming with writing exercises, tons of examples. They’re coming in and sharing stories similar to what we talked about tonight, but then digging into how you’re crafting your stories with that.

Another one that I’ll be placing in the chat is, well, along with one of tonight’s hosts, Heather Demetrios, we have A.S. King, Bethany Walker, who you just talked about, Padma Venkatraman, and Azra Rahim will be at the Highlights Foundation for the Essential Conversation that we have, Writing Through Trauma to Empower Readers. We really do believe that this program that is part of an essential conversation that we need to engage in for all of the reasons that you’ve talked about tonight, this particular program offers support for creatives. And right before everyone came on, I was talking to Sera and Heather and Linda and saying so many people want to attend this program.

We are grateful to the Hawthornden Foundation who has supported us with five scholarships to the program. We are grateful to Jane and Rebecca Dykes Writers, who is supporting us with one scholarship to the program. We have so many additional writers who are seeking support. So I’ll also place a link if anyone is able, at this time, to provide any support. We would love your support in getting more writers help to tell these stories. So I’ll be placing them in the link. You’ll also find them when we follow things up with all of you in the recording. And I’ll just say, along with thanking our panelists tonight, I’m going to thank those who are here with me from the Highlights Foundation, George and everyone in the chat. And so our whole Highlights Foundation team, they help to make programming like this and all of the programming possible. I do wanna say to those of you who have gathered, please stay safe. Please help us find some peace right now. These stories help us speak up for children. They need to hear your voices right now. They need you right now. So be safe, and until next time. Good night.

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