YARN is honored to have the one and only Francisco Stork back in the Essays section, with a reply to his earlier essay “Depressed, Not Depressing,” about the process of writing the novel that became “The Memory of Light“–a novel about a teen girl recovering from a suicide attempt that has been racking up the starred reviews since it came out in January. This may sound like a craft essay just for writers, but it’s not–it’s about the human condition, just like all of Francisco’s memorable writing.
The Craft of Hope
By Francisco X. Stork
Four years ago when I wrote my last article for YARN, I was about to start writing the book that was recently published as “The Memory of Light.” Because the book is about a young girl who suffers from depression, I wrote about my fear that I too might fall into a hole I couldn’t climb out of and what I was planning to do so that wouldn’t happen. I spend a lot of time creating the characters for my books, which means that I spend a lot of time living inside their minds and seeing the world as they do. The creation of a character in a book is like an iceberg – twenty percent consists of the above-surface portrayal that takes place in the written page and eighty percent is the below-surface imagining that happens inside of my mind way before I start writing. It was this below the surface process that worried me.
Working on “The Memory of Light” was difficult in many ways but falling into a permanent episode of depression was, fortunately, not one of the difficulties. The difficulties that I encountered had more to do with craft than with my own mental states. Writing about depression in a way that is not depressing is not easy. Depression is not attractive. If you’ve ever been around a person with depression you’ve probably felt a strong urge to grab the person by the shoulders and tell him or her to stop it with the whining already. And if you’re the person who is depressed, you are intimately aware that you are quickly using up the good will of the poor people who come across your path. There’s self-absorption in the depressed person that is hard on others. Hopefully, the people who live with us remember that what looks like childish, pouty egotism is another symptom of the illness. Many of us, when we are depressed, choose to limit our contact with other human beings precisely because we are aware that our words and even our presence tends to suck the air and light right out of them.
I remember one of the editors that turned down “Marcelo in the Real World” saying that no one would empathize with Marcelo, the non-neurotypical main character of the novel. “It’s all about empathy in YA fiction,” I remember her saying. She was not right that young readers would not be able to empathize with a character on the autistic spectrum. But her words about the need for empathy in YA fiction were true. As I continued to write for young people it became evident that empathy is one of those inviolable rules of YA fiction. One can argue that empathy, if defined as the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it, is not necessarily the same as “liking” a character. My favorite example of this is Raskolnikov, in “Crime and Punishment.” Dostoievski’s masterful craft allowed me to feel what it was like to be a murderer who saw himself above moral law, but I didn’t like what I saw. But in children’s literature, (including middle grade and young adult) the link between imagining oneself in another person’s shoes and liking the main character is very strong. This imperative to create a likable character is a challenge, as you can imagine, when the character’s way of thinking is not the way the reader typically thinks, like Marcelo’s, or where the character’s thoughts are the dark and negative thoughts triggered by depression, like Vicky’s in “The Memory of Light.”
There are a few ways to get a reader to like a character suffering from depression. One of them is to “soften” the portrayal of the illness. The darkness of depression is ameliorated with tinges of happier colors. The character, for example, although depressed, manages to fall in love. Or the character somehow manages to retain his wit and snarky observations despite her depression. Another way to create empathy for a depressed character is to evoke the sympathy of the reader by describing some of the possible triggers for the depression – bullying, abusive parents, rejection by cliquish peers. The problem for me is that these empathy-gathering techniques seemed artificial. They also minimized and trivialized the seriousness and the reality of depression.
I believed that for the book to work, for the book to reach and touch those who suffer from depression and so those who don’t could better understand the illness, the one thing that was absolutely needed was a realistic, accurate presentation of what happens inside the mind of someone who is depressed. I also wanted to present a depression that was more “organic” than “situational.” Vicky goes to a private school, lives in a well-off neighborhood of Austin, Texas, with a heated pool in the back yard. Her parents are not perfect and could be more understanding and sensitive of Vicky’s condition but they are not unloving. It was important to show that Vicky had all that our culture perceives and pursues as valuable, because I wanted to focus on the illness and the process of recovery, regardless of how it came about.
From the point of view of craft, what I needed to do then, was create a believable character with whom the reader could empathize the way that we empathize with a close friend who is in pain. The bond of friendship gives us the ability to intuitively understand what our friend is thinking and feeling even if we don’t necessarily like those thoughts and feelings. Friendship draws our interest to the other person. The focus of our attention goes out to our friend and we want to know more about what is happening inside her mind. I needed to get the reader to love Vicky with the compassionate love of friendship so that the reader could become invested in Vicky’s recovery and would want to know more about how Vicky was going to be whole again. The suspense in the book, what would keep the reader turning the page, was the hope that Vicky could find a way to overcome all that stood in the way of her healing. It is in the love of friendship and through love that we discover and appreciate (and respect) the uniqueness of another human being. The friend we love brings newness to our lives and we are fascinated by the way she thinks, by what she says, by who she is. Vicky needed to be interesting because she was loved and loved because she was interesting. How Vicky saw her illness and her world and how she expressed her views needed to be unique enough to captivate the reader, to add richness to the reader’s life, to evoke the reader’s friendship and love.
When we think of craft we often think of technique. We think of the perennial rules of good writing like showing who the character is by what she says and does rather than by what the author tells the reader about the character. And all of that is true. But the creation of a character capable of evoking love from the reader requires more than technique. I said above that creating a character is a process that mostly happens outside of the written page. By outside of the written page I mean the author’s imagining and thinking and experiencing. A character in the novel is the connection between the soul of the reader and the soul of the author. It is through the character that the reader recognizes the she is in the presence of a kindred spirit, that she is not alone, that there is someone who has felt the way she has. If Vicky is a believable character capable of being loved by the reader it is because I, Francisco Stork, opened myself enough to feel what she was feeling and then was able to transform what was mine into something that was purely and uniquely hers. The Memory of Light took four years to write because I needed all that time to explore the submerged part of the Iceberg. There was a lot of journaling that was done, a lot of remembering, a lot of trying different ways to name experiences that evaded description and words. And then, after all that, I had to find a way for Francisco Stork to get out of the way so that Vicky could live and be her own sixteen-year-old, beautiful person.
Crafting a unique, real, interesting Character that could be loved was what I needed to do to engage the reader and make Vicky’s hope for recovery the reader’s own hope. The other thing that I needed to do was structure the telling of Vicky’s story in a way that allowed for this hope to slowly grow. “The Memory of Light” starts at Lakeview Hospital in Austin, Texas the morning after Vicky’s suicide attempt. It actually starts before that with a prologue that consists of Vicky’s suicide note to Juanita, the nanny that has taken care of Vicky since childhood. The note reflects Vicky’s need to tell her nana that what she is about to do does not mean that Vicky does not love her nana (or her father and stepmother or sister). The next day, at the hospital, Vicky wonders how it is possible to love someone and still want to kill herself. Vicky’s story begins at the rock bottom of her existence but the trajectory that it immediately takes is upward toward life. In that concern for another human being that is present in Vicky in her worst moment there is already the seed of love, the seed of her recovery. Every chapter of the novel represents a step in the direction of learning how to live with depression and of discovering how to hope again. Depression is portrayed realistically, yes, but the book is not about depression. The book is about how we find life worth living, how we find our purpose and discover the tasks only we can do, depression or no depression.
I believe in happy endings, but not in unrealistic ones. For some of the people who suffer from depression there is a happy alleviation of symptoms sometimes for a period of time and sometimes forever. For others, like Vicky or like me, a happy ending means more of an ability to find a way to appreciate the small things that bring beauty, truth and goodness to our lives and the ability to be useful to others. Medication and the help of kind and experienced professionals, support of family and friends, taking care of our bodies and watching the direction of our thoughts are all tools that help us find our version of happiness. It is no small thing, really, our version of happiness. It may not be the happiness our society teaches us to wish for but it is nevertheless very real and very true.
And it is ours.
Francisco X. Stork is the author of “Marcelo in the Real World,” winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens and the Once Upon a World Award, and “The Last Summer of the Death Warriors,” which was named to the YALSA Best Fiction for Teens list. He lives near Boston with his wife.