KEYNOTE: Big Reveals: Writing and Self-Discovery
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Tara Kennedy: Hey welcome. You are listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast and this is Tara Kennedy from the WriteOnCon team. I’m thrilled to chat today with middle-grade and picture book author Sally J. Pla about big reveals writing and self-discovery. So I know there’s a lot of talk about, in writing, about writing what you know but given your interest in writing as a form of self-discovery it sounds like you find it a good tool to maybe find things you don’t know.
Sally J. Pla: Hi. Yes. Thanks for having me on, Tara. It’s great to be here and yes this is a topic that really interests me a lot. Just in the process of writing well I guess I’m working on my third children’s novel right now and in my picture book work too but mainly in writing longer fiction. It’s amazing to me how the process works of self-discovery, of realizing, and finding what really matters to you kind of through what you write. And a couple of different and interesting ways so and there’s a really personal story that kind of got me there. I don’t know if you want me to get into that now or if, what do you think?
Tara: Okay Yeah, I guess yeah maybe I should just start with what really makes, made me get fascinated with how we find out who we are through what we write. And it was in the process of writing my first novel for kids the middle grade novel called The Someday Birds which is sort of as I wrote it I felt it was pretty much a gift to my three boys, my sons. You know we as they were growing up we take them on of cross-country journeys. You know the typical Griswold family vacation that you take with your kids to show them the country and show them the world. And we went out west to Yellowstone. And we went east to Colonial Williamsburg one year. And it was really tough on my middle son who is autistic and my life was so much wrapped around him growing up to help him adapt to things and learn about the world and feel more at ease about the world that when it came time for me to kind of quit my more business freelance and dedicate myself to writing my first book, I knew that’s what I wanted it to be about.
About him and the experience of raising my boys and what it feels like to live in that world and live in that skin, you know. So I started writing this story about Charlie. A totally fictional story it wasn’t really my kids at all but I settled upon this main character named Charlie who was 12 and who really loved reading and braiding and art. And he loved birds, and drawing birds. But he loved being indoors and drawing them from the safe comfort of his own home and not having to go out into the wild, crazy world and get dirty and messy. But he’s forced on this road trip. I relied on the road trips that I did with my kids.
As I was writing that story and writing about Charlie, I started to get really triggered about my own childhood and my own upbringing. And I started to realize that Charlie’s voice was not based on my son’s at all he was based on me. I was writing my own authentic childhood voice about my own fears and my own experience of the world. My own anxiety and sensory issues and it freaked me out so much I ended up in therapy. With a therapist actually suggesting I get autism testing myself. And that, I ended up with an autism diagnosis as a result of writing The Someday Birds which was absolutely mind-blowing. You know, one of, the typical head explosion.
Wow you know I just, it really was an amazing experience for me to realize how much of my own experience of the world I tucked away. And then pretended and told myself was justification until it hit me on the head that you know, no. You know, I’m really trying to I’m reaching a deeper truth for myself and it’s been wonderful. That’s been incredible for me. I mean, revelatory in really good ways. And it’s helped me reach out to kids and be more authentic about the what really matters to me. And when I’m talking to them about and the neuro diversity matters a lot to me and honoring and respecting each other’s really differently operating brains.
That’s something that really matters to me. And knowing that this is coming from me deep inside has really been an incredible gift and change. When I talk to school kids across the country about my books I’m able to talk about that now personally. So that’s been an incredible gift. But more generally, it just made me realize you know how deeply the theme is connected to our own hearts and what we care about. And how whether we like it or not we are going to come out in the fiction that we write. We just are.
Tara: Yeah, that that makes a lot of sense. So do you think that there are intentional things that you can do to try and focus your writing for self-discovery or is it more being open to it or both?
Sally: Yeah. I think it’s exactly both things. You know, I think there’s two ways that this comes into play. Thinking about writing and self-discovery and I’m really interested in them both and they think they’re both super important. I mean, first it’s like engaging in the type of writing that’s a deliberate self-reflective act. And even that breaks down into a few different categories, I think. I mean, there’s journaling. Writing your morning pages or written meditations. You know, and just that self-reflective act that we do every day. If any of you read like, I forget her first name now, Cameron.
Tara: Julia Cameron?
Sally: Julia Cameron, thank you. The Artists Way with the morning pages. Where you just let it flow. You just let it out. And it’s sort of like throat clearing spiritually for you for the day. And then you get on with your regular writing. I mean that can be really, really helpful. But there’s also I think meta journals. If your, if you’re writing on a writing project to consider a meta journal. Like writing about your writing. Just sort of, I’ve been keeping one for every project and finding it super helpful. I like sketch in it. I’ll jot down ideas or like just high-level thematic thoughts about what I’m trying to say. Why I care about the story. How it seems to be going. Well, you know, what plot problems are cropping up or just lists of potential names for characters or doodles. Or you know, just whatever ideas are brainstorming along the way. Even if you’re like, oh today the writing went really, it really sucked you know. Or the next day, oh I got this good idea. And just have like a meta journal, a place to record that is super helpful. I have found.
It’s really helped me uncover stuff. There’s also you know, just another word on like a theme. Like we’re always told as writers that we need to start with the question what does your character want. And that’s such a lovely and a beautiful question to ask. But I think that there’s this direct correlation between what your character wants and what issues you care about as the author, you know? And I’m feeling like, it’s you know, for me what my character wants, you know, with Charlie for instance in The Someday Birds. What I knew that he wanted and needed was to learn how to feel more at ease in the world. It was what I wanted for my own son. It was you know, It was what I wanted for me, I guess. Not even realizing it. But you know, that’s, that was sort of like my my theme. Like how to be more at ease in this totally inscrutable world. And it’s what my character wants because it’s what I wanted too. So theme is like so connected with what matters to our own hearts. Issues that matter to us so much. And theme is like the key to creating a really meaningful story.
It’s the most important part I think is really realizing everything will fall into place structurally so much better too. And even your characterizations they seem to fall into place so much better if you know that one main question. You know, what really matters? What are you really, not just what does your character want, but what do you want? What are you trying to say? Really trying to say to the world? Trying to say to kids? You know, I really think about it, you know? Or journal about it. That’s, I think make it just makes things much more easy and it leads you to really interesting self-discovery as well.
But you know, there’s and that’s all talking about all of this stuff like the meta journals and the journaling and the mourning page isn’t all that kind of stuff or whatever you want to do. It’s all that intentional self-discovery. You’re excavating. You know, like that aging rich quote about you know I went into the cave or I forget what it is it was just excavating doing the deep dive. Into finding the treasure of what it is you’re looking for. But there’s that unintentional self-revelation too. Like my story about how writing my first book led me into like, therapy and trying to figure out who I was. And it’s the whole idea of like, no matter what you write it’s going to reveal something to you and about you to others. I mean it cannot be helped.
You are the creative choices you make in your plot choices in the worlds and the characters. They’re all gonna be self-reflective of your life. And you can start to see the patterns in there. Like it or not. Which is really an interesting thing. So I was on a panel like at a conference last year. I think it was the Pasadena Lit Fest. And the moderator was Dana Middleton. She was like so good. She was the best moderator and she has the most amazing questions. And one of them, she asked me personally like why in everything that I’ve written is the father kind of a distant figure? I was like, what? Is that true? I went back and I thought about my books and I was like, wow it’s true. I’ve always made like the father be off on a business trip or you know everybody’s like oh you know but Dad’s not available. What a bummer. And you know, Charlie’s dad is in the hospital across the country. Stanley in Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. His dad is living overseas. And in my work in progress the father figure’s like traveling on business all the time. And the story opens with them packing a suitcase. I never even realized it you know I grew up with a dad that was really distant and who was never around. I just never realized why until I thought about it. Huh? You know? So that’s just like another example of how like it or not it’s like this unintentional self-discovery can come just through your act of writing. It’s gonna come out. It’s just amazing. I don’t know yeah, it’s anyway. So I’ve been rambling for a really long time. I’m sorry.
Tara: Oh no. That’s fine! It’s all great stuff. So to tie into something you said a little earlier about so what if the journaling or the fiction writing reveals something you’re not as sure that you like about yourself. What do you, I mean, you mentioned you ended up in therapy and that might obviously be one choice. What processes and procedures might you want to have in place for handling that?
Sally: Well that’s why I think the meta Journal is super helpful for those kinds of things. You know to just really explore that idea some more and and see what it is and push on that, you know? Or talking to a friend or talking it through. I think the one thing I found is the more honest you can be with yourself and with everyone else around the easier these things get. And I think sometimes for us it’s that whole like really great Mr. Rogers quote that he has once about anything mentionable is manageable. And if you can mention it, isn’t that the most awesome quote? I love that.
Tara: It’s great.
Sally: He’s like whatever is human is mentionable. If we can mention it, we can manage it. And it’s so true that often times I think maybe we approach fiction even because we are thinking oh you know I have idea this idea or have this issue and I want to talk about it. Well I’ll hide it. I’ll dress it up in fancy fictional clothing and I’ll pretend that it belongs to some other story. And that way I can look at what’s mine in a way that’s safe for me, you know? And maybe a lot of us do that without realizing it. Without getting like to pop psyche about all of this but, you know. I’m just observing and finding that it’s true for me and I suspect that it’s true for others as well. But then the truth of it comes and it sort hits you. And if you’re able to be honest about it and to really mention honestly and talk about it. Even if you don’t like it. Or yeah, just just to be able to talk about that. Then that could be helpful.
Tara: That’s great. And then sort of the flipside is that you know, do you think that awareness so, as an example, when the moderator pointed out to you that you were creating distant father figures for your characters. Did it help you sort of realize things for yourself?
Sally: Yeah, it totally did. You know I guess dealing with that you know there’s, you can sort of flip it around too and say yeah, I guess I’m really grieving that more than I thought about my own you know, childhood and stuff. Or that was just a fact of my childhood. That’s my view of childhood. So when I’m representing my fiction for children it’s just coming out. But how can that be a strength too? It’s a strength because it creates kids that are independent and powerful. And you know, it you know, there’s some overcoming there and learning to be independent and gaining control of your own power. So that’s the flip side of that too. You know, and giving kids agency. Because like it or not there aren’t as many authority figures there.
Tara: Now you have two, no three books out now and they are all contemporary. Do you think it is a little bit easier or harder to explore, find these things when you’re doing contemporary or does that just happen to be the stories that you wrote and probably just would apply for other genres?
Sally: Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t know. It wasn’t really a conscious decision to write and contemporary realism. But yeah, I guess that might be. I’m not sure if it’s easier or harder in in different genres. My work in progress is not, however. It’s turning into a sci-fi novel set in the near future. So in a way, it’s making it easy to treat some of these things and in a way it’s making it more difficult. But basically you know, stories are about human emotions and reactions between characters and what we walk away with is that that sense of emotion and humanity feels authentic to us and moves us. And that can help, can happen anywhere in any time period in any genre. So I don’t think it matters.
Tara: And I also know that you said that you really like editing. Cleaning up those first drafts. Is that something that you think about in the editing process as far as how to you know, either dial up or dial back so that your reader can pick up on the themes you were working on?
Sally: Yeah, yeah I’m really hung up on theme. For me, it really seems to be the magic key that unlocks a story for me if I think about it. So I really do try to revise thinking about the theme, you know. Does this contribute? You know, what is the saying? You know, what is this character saying or what is the scene saying that adds little bit of resonance to my overarching idea. You know, of what I’m trying to deal with. Does it add or doesn’t it add? So I do revise for that for sure to try to fine tune that. Yeah definitely. Definitely.
Tara: Then do you also sometimes find that you have to sort of tone it down is maybe not the right word. But I know there’s always the the concern that we’re getting a little bit too much, when an issue is important to us we can get a little too soap boxy about it in our first drafts? Or maybe that’s just me.
Sally: Oh yeah, yeah you know anything that doesn’t seem natural or doesn’t flow right. And yeah you know you want it to be first and above everything else a wonderful, rollicking good write of a story that’s really fun for kids to read. It’s not a lesson couched in story language. It’s a story. So it has to be that before everything. Yeah, absolutely. And I guess by theme, I don’t mean like a moral or something that’s gonna be preached. I just mean like some kind of idea that you’re exploring. You know, like for me it’s, I guess, the theme is just how do we overcome fears in the world? How do we overcome our anxieties? How do we learn how to feel more at ease? You know for me that’s or how do you find your place as an outsider? How do you, how do you strive to find your place? And what does that look like when you have found your place? How does that feel? You know, on that level of kind of thinking about it but like not a moral or anything.
Tara: Then as a reader are there books that you’ve read that you felt we’re just great aha moments or that helped you as a reader find something?
Sally: Oh gosh. There are so many amazing books that you know I’ve been trying to do a lot of I should’ve been doing them I’m trying to like very up my reading lately. I love middle grade so much that I’m immediately like, zoom. Right to the middle grade section all the time. I go to bookstores and libraries but lately I’ve been trying to like feed in some other stuff too. But and also you know, being a member of the neurodiversity movement and you know really championing people whose brains work a little differently.
I want to give a shout out maybe to a few of those books too that are, there’s some wonderful new ones out. And they’re mainly by a interestingly Rachel Lucas has a book called State of Grace that does an incredible job getting inside the mind of an autistic teenage girl. Contemporary realism. And and there’s a book by Hillary Reyl called Kids Like Us and it’s about an autistic boy that goes overseas and finds his way. He’s like, thematically is like that you know, the outsider finding his way. Finding first friends. There’s a book that I absolutely love in YA by Amy Giles called That Night that just came out and it talks about kids after a school shooting. Teenagers that manage, it’s not about the shooting at all. It’s about healing. It’s a book about healing and processing PTSD. I just thought was really timely and really wonderful.
In middle grade, books that I’ve absolutely loved have been like, and middle grade is such a large category too. From chapter books from really, beginning readers basically all the way through quite sophisticated upper middle grade books that really are more like general audience books that anyone could read. Ones that i think are especially great, i just love anything by Leslie Connor. I love her. Alana K. Arnold I love her books. Especially Her Boy called Bat books for an autistic protagonist. Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs. Like any book that shows like this kindness, that has that sense of exquisite kindness to it like Leslie Connor or Kate DiCamillo or Katherine Applegate. This quality, this human quality I love.
But I’ve also been reading in terms of self-discovery, a little bit if you’re interested. Any of you know, Renee Brown’s works are amazing. There’s a book by someone called Hal Stone. This is an older book but I found it amazing called Embracing Your Inner Critic and for some reason this book unlocked a lot for me creatively. Let’s see, there’s a blog by Austin Kleon. I don’t know if you guys know him? His last name is KLEON and he’s got a great blog on productivity and plumbing your depths and getting inspired and excited about stuff. There’s a wonderful book called Wabi-Sabi for Artists designers Poets and Philosophers and it’s by Leonard Koren KOREN. I’ve had that book for years and I was just rereading it the other day and absolutely loving it. So yeah, just a bunch of different stuff. I’m reading a lot of sort of like future shock books these days. About future tech and stuff. It’s been really fascinating
Tara: And then do you have any moments you wanted to share about times when readers have talked to you about great discoveries or you know comments being seen in your books?
Sally: Oh my goodness. I had so many. This is the reason, this is like the reason why it’s so incredible to talk to kids or to get letters or cards from kids. We’ve made a connection and they see themselves in the story and it, I had I have a few students, a few kids that one in Canada and one in Maryland and they have been writing me and one in California. They’ve been writing me for years. And like, sending me their poems and things like that. It’s these connections are everything in the world. It’s just incredible. And the kids, you know, after a school visit you know the kids that are clearly on the spectrum that stay afterwards to talk birds, you know. Or to talk very honestly and frankly about fears and things, you know. It’s just amazing.
I think the more honest you are with kids that, you know, the more incredible honesty you get back from them. I’ve had these, you know, I talked to this one group and you know, I spoke really honestly about everything that I’ve just been talking to you about right now, Tara. And then we had lunch after the big you know, the visit you know we had lunch with just like maybe about 12 kids. They were amazing. They just blew me away. The sophistication of their thought. Their awareness of the world. Their experiences of the world, you know? One was afraid for, you know why don’t had moved here from London, and had relatives in Syria and was like, why doesn’t Americans talk more about what’s happening to the poor refugees in Syria? This was a 12 year old. You know? And another girl had an incarcerated relative that she was really fearful about. You know, another was a refugee from Haiti. Her family you know, and had concerns and issues and they spoke so vividly about these things.
I mean, kids these days are dealing with really, really intense issues. And to be able to speak honestly about who they are and these are parts of their life experience. And to be able to articulate that, that’s incredible. And say to those kids, I honor everything you’re saying. You got, you should write your story. Everybody should feel that they have, that they should write their story. That they’re worth enough. Their story and their life experience is worthy and important and deserving of honor and respect. And we all should be writing who we are.
Tara: So great. And so, I know you said your next project is more sci-fi, future shock. Are you able to talk a little bit more about that?
Sally: It is it’s just still really under wraps work in progress. But it’s about a girl for the first time my main character is a girl and for me that’s kind of like a self-discovery win. Yes, I finally feel brave enough that I’m gonna get a little closer to myself. And yeah it’s been, it’s it’s a finished draft right now and I’m working on my revising. I could revise, I’m like a revising freak. I could revise until the cows come home. I love to do it. I’m never satisfied. It was like that old quote by I forget who, Picaso or DaVinci, someone said, a work of art is never finished it is only abandoned. I’m kind of like that. You have to like, tear it out of my hands otherwise I will just keep scribbling and changing. So I’m still scribbling and changing but it’s coming together and I’m excited about it. And yeah it’s just about a world. It’s about not fitting in. And finding your way in a very different world. And it’s also confronting issues of global warming. What’s the world look like you know, in 50, a hundred years? And how are kids gonna be resilient through that.
Tara: Well thank you so much for chatting with us about that today. It’s been a lot of fun.
Sally: Oh it’s been great. Thank you for having me on. Thank you for the chance to talk to you guys.