These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel.That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history.
I started writing the story from a memory. I was taking the Picture Book Intensive at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and we had been given the prompt to write from an early childhood memory.
What came out was a memory of walking through the living room late at night to get a glass of water. The dark stillness, the flicker of the TV light, the sound of the record, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana are vivid. I was probably about four years old.
Nothing “happens” in that memory, but the assignment was to turn it into a picture book.
Because it was a picture book, the language was spare, evocative, and poetic. It didn’t work as a picture book, but it inspired me to begin writing vignettes, initially as prose poems and then as verse. As I began to drill down, more memories began to bubble up. I found myself writing a novel in verse.
Although I was writing from personal memories, I wrote in third person. I made the character older, and distanced her from me so I could tell, I thought, a larger, more interesting story.
It took a couple of years and many re-writes, but finally I started sending the book out on submission. The reactions were positive –– editors and agents told me that they thought it was beautifully written. (“Heartbreaking and lovely.”) But it wasn’t for their list, it was historical fiction and hard to sell, the character seemed too sophisticated. But one response really stuck out. An editor I respect they said that it felt as though the story was told from the perspective of an adult, not the child. It was verging on nostalgic. Clearly, I wasn’t “in” the story.
Out of frustration, I decided to try to write one chapter in first person. I’m not a big fan of first person and feel it is easily overused. But I chose the first chapter, the one that had started the process, just as a writing exercise. I was totally unconvinced that it would be possible. “I hate writing in first person,” I said to myself.
I remember starting to shake as I re-wrote that first chapter. Suddenly it was real, vibrant and alive. And suddenly it was a bit close for comfort.
I’ll confess to a lot of tears in the months that followed. But being a writer is not about being comfortable.
Today, I’ve launched a book trailer for These Are Not the Words. I’ve used some photos that my father took (more on that in a later blog) and a recording of Billie Holiday singing Tell Me More, a song she wrote in 1940. I have a vinyl LP of Billie that belonged to my parents, and decided to record it, rather than to use a digital file. I wanted that rough edge sound. I recorded myself reading a chapter of the book and then worked with a technician friend, AL Connors, to bring it all together.
Putting the trailer together was hard. The photos pull me back to those years. The living room is the one where that first memory came from, where I hear Billie, always. It’s the photo and the sound that started me writing the book.
I am not Miranda Billie Taylor. But we share a lot of history.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Amanda West Lewis is the author of seven books for young readers, including September 17, which was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award and the Violet Downey IODE Award. Her new novel, These Are Not the Words, is available from Groundwood Books. She is a writer, theatre director, calligrapher, and drama teacher. She is the founder of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and she has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New York City, she now lives in Brooke Valley, Ontario, with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones.