Please give a huge welcome to Beth Fehlbaum. She is gracing us with a amazing heartfelt post.
Writing as Healing: My Creative Process
Writing has always been a way of satisfying my need to know. Even as a small child, I processed my problems by allowing what was in my head to trickle down my arm and escape through my fingertips. In my late thirties, I was working through the immense emotional, physical, and mental damage that years of childhood sexual abuse had left me with. The pain I was in was so great that the memory of it is very much like the pain of childbirth: unfathomable. In an effort to cope with the overwhelming feelings, I was writing short stories and poems and sharing them with my therapist. One day, he suggested that I try writing a novel. It took about four months of stopping and starting, always ending up stuck in spiral thoughts that looked like this: Why? How could this have happened to me? How could the person I thought I could never live without have turned her back on me? Why?... it never stopped.
One day, I decided to try imagining the experience I was having through the eyes of someone else. I dug deep and found a girl who was not me, but whose feelings I could understand: Ashley Nicole Asher, age 15, whose outcry to her mother about her stepfather’s abuse was ignored. I created for Ashley a biological father she had never known, and a tiny East Texas town that would become Ashley’s new home. This became Courage in Patience. I wrote the first draft of Courage in Patience in the wee hours of the morning, in about four months. There were more rewrites in the revising and editing process, but that first cathartic draft had a pretty quick birth. I am a teacher and I was working at the time, but because my life was so entrenched in recovery and my mind was working so hard to process and heal, I was sleeping very little. To be honest, I dreaded sleep. I preferred to be with Ashley and her newfound family in Patience during those quiet night hours instead of fighting the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder- driven nightmares and flashbacks that were happening frequently. I’d come home from school and work out, fall asleep for about four hours, then wake around 11 p.m. or so and write through the night. I have no idea how I functioned at the time! I just remember my mind constantly “writing.” When I’d wake around 11, it was like my feet could not get to the kitchen table and my laptop fast enough to let the rest of me record what was happening in my head.
By the time I finished writing Courage in Patience, I had come to know in my heart what my therapist had been telling me all along: what had happened to me was not my fault, and—this is an even bigger deal, believe me—the fact that people who were supposed to love me and protect me had chosen not to do so was NOT a reflection of my inherent worth as a person. I learned those things by writing Courage in Patience, because I wanted Ashley to know that about herself.
Hope in Patience was not such a quick write, and while it was a healing experience, I was less frantic by then. The pain was beginning to settle, but I was struggling mightily with the notion that the losses I had experienced were not just temporary. I started writing Hope in Patience the summer after Courage in Patience released, mainly because I realized that Ashley had unfinished business, and that was acceptance of the situation with her mom. Ashley—and I—were still waiting for the people who should have loved and protected us to—you know—snap out of it! Ashley thought her mom had to change because, well, she’s her mom, and no mom could really be that cold and messed up… could she?
No more middle of the night writing: my body had readjusted to a normal schedule, and I could not pull the all-nighters that I had with Courage in Patience. I treated writing Hope in Patience like a full-time job. The entire summer (between “Mom Stuff” I did with my college-age daughters, that is), I wrote from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. I did a lot more research than I did for Courage in Patience. Unlike Courage in Patience, which takes place during the first summer that Ashley lives in Patience, Hope in Patience takes place during the regular school year. I researched World War II, since the Ashley’s American history teacher, Coach Griffin, is a WWII fanatic. I bought an American History textbook off Amazon and used it as the basis for what Coach Griffin teaches.
Ashley’s stepmom, Bev, teaches the novel Farewell to Manzanar, and I reread the novel (I used to teach it when I taught middle school). I wrote to Dwight Okita, the wonderful poet who wrote, “In Response to Executive Order 9066”, for permission to use the poem in Hope in Patience. I also wrote to Densho: The Japanese-American Legacy Project, for permission to quote from a video they have online. I studied World War II propaganda and newsreels. Ashley is in a class called Human Ecology—I LOVE that label!— it’s the study of families and child development. I researched a lot of Consumer and Family Science lesson plans. Throughout this process, I had kind of a spider-web-looking flowchart because I wanted all three of these classes to intersect. Luckily, I have enough experience in planning cross-curricular units that it was not very difficult for me to do.
Ashley’s stepfather, Charlie, goes to court for breaking her arm, so I did a lot of research into the trial process. My brother, Brett, is a police sergeant, and for many years he worked child abuse cases. I peppered him with questions about the legal process and sent him the early drafts of the chapter in which the trial takes place. He walked me through the Victim Impact Statement and told me whether the events in the courtroom seemed realistic.
I drew on my therapist’s expertise not only for myself, but for writing Hope in Patience, too. I needed to understand from an objective point-of-view the “why” behind self-mutilation, because I had never done it to the extent Ashley does, and I needed to know it from the mental health professional’s standpoint, too. I questioned him about how he would actually talk to a teenage girl. I wrote to Tom Russell, a Texas singer-songwriter, for permission to use a few lines from his song, “It Goes Away”, which Ashley’s therapist, Dr. Matt, plays for her during a therapy session.
I even researched haunted houses—you know, the kind that people put on around Halloween-- and Halloween theme parks, so that the Tour of Terror that Ashley goes on would be authentic.
Even though I worked steadily on Hope in Patience for one entire summer, it took me most of the following summer to complete it. I really don’t write novels during the school year. My full-time job requires so much creative “juju” that just keeping up with lesson plans, grading, housework, and promotion of my already-out-there- books pretty much leave me too drained to storyweave. That said, I started the third (and final??) book in the Patience series, Truth in Patience, this past summer (between moving two of my daughters to Colorado and working on final edits for Hope in Patience). I’m about four chapters in, and I expect to complete it this coming summer. In the meantime, Hope in Patience releases the end of this month, and I am so excited to tell you that it’s already been nominated for a 2011 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers! I invite you to stop by my website, http://www.bethfehlbaumya.com, and read chapter previews of Courage in Patience and Hope in Patience.
THANK YOU Beth for taking the time to stop by today and sharing this with us.
Hope In Patience
Fifteen-year-old Ashley Asher has spent half of her life living in fear. Her stepfather has been sexually abusing her for years, but her mother doesn't believe her. After his latest assault lands her in the emergency room, Child Protective Services finally removes Ashley from her home, and sends her to live with the father she barely remembers and his new family.
Her new life in Patience, Texas, is much better. She's in therapy to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is trying to make her way in a new high school. She's getting used to living with her father, stepmother, and stepbrother, and she's made new friends in the summer course taught by her stepmother, Bev. She even joins the track team at the urging of her new African American friend, Z. Z.
But Ashley is so traumatized by her past that she sometimes scratches herself until she bleeds and sleeps in her armoire, even though she knows she's safe now. Worse, when her stepfather is finally put on trial for hurting her, she learns that truth and justice don't always go together. Will Ashley adjust to a better life? Will she trust enough to date Josh, the cute guy on her track team who likes her? YA readers will be caught up in the heart-pounding story of a damaged girl trying to heal herself and get on with the rest of her life.
Take some time and visit Beth Fehlbaum here.