Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 12, 2011

When the Story Isn’t So Sweet

Maybe it begins with people asking How are you? in a way that makes it clear there’s one option for an answer. Or those casual conversations where people confess a problem and there’s a beat after the compassionate murmur, a silence that seems to call for the feel-good twist or lesson, the silver lining. I’ve done that, smiling way too soon. Sometimes it’s appropriate, but often it feels like a slap to the speaker. And may be the place where a writer is born, as we look for time and silence and paper to write our hard and complicated truths.

Even if we’re writing something about mothers and children more perfect than real, or more of a romance than a real relationship, writing can be tough. But when the story doesn’t swing toward a happy ending, there’s one more reason for doubt to sprawl across our shoulders. Sometimes I can’t quite shrug her off, but on better days I manage to call up a girl whose face I can’t remember but who sat by the professor in a college writing workshop. She was well dressed and never stumbled over words. I didn’t really know her, but somehow I imagined her coming from a together family and being in a supportive relationship that would slip right towards marriage and well-adjusted children. At any rate, she didn’t seem anything like me. But once I submitted for critique a story based on my messy life, and I remember her pronouncing it good and honest and saying, “The character seems just like me.” And the professor, who was decades older than us and male, nodded, too.

Was it possible other people carried around secrets, flaws, unhealthy obsessions, and memories of disasters? Of course it was. I’d never recognize this girl today, even if she hadn’t aged. But when doubt crawls to my corner, it’s the single faces I try to call into the room. This young woman at college, or the sole girl in a hall filled with writers with more and higher stacks of books on their tables. This girl chose Aani and the Tree Huggers as her one book to buy because Aani looked a little like her sister. As we locked eyes, the lines toward other more popular authors blurred into the background. That’s the state I imagine myself back to.

These one-to-one moments aren’t going to pay the bills or lead to another book getting published. But they’re where my strength comes from: one person heard and it seemed to matter. So I try again to write the way some people speak in front of an audience, catching one pair of eyes. It’s me to you or you to me and always word by word.



  1. Lovely post, Jeannine. I can always tell when someone doesn’t really want to know…how you are doing. And I think we all have secrets about our lives that others long to hear, which helps them feel better about their own dark interiors.

  2. This is beautiful, Jeannine. And honest and true.
    And I think the virtue in this is that if you can reach that one person, your work is a success.

  3. Love you, too, Jo.

  4. Thanks, Carol. Thank goodness for writing and reading.

  5. Thanks, Erin. I’m so glad you’re out there touching the hearts of many teens who need your perspective. xo

  6. beautiful words…and so very meaningful

  7. So true, Jeannine!!

  8. Lovely post, Jeannine.

  9. I love it when we see eye to eye, Jeannine. And of course I love saying that.

  10. Thank you, lovely Kelly.

  11. Oh my…this is beautiful. Yes, we all have secrets and we’re never quite sure what the story might be behind another person’s face.
    I love this: “It’s me to you or you to me and always word by word.”
    Those one-to-one moments make all the other craziness in this business worthwhile. Thanks for the reminder.

  12. Your post catches me on a day of feeling sad about several friends who are dealing with serious illnesses. I’ve been thinking how life is so precious. And how right you are about really listening to each other and coming to the understanding that we all carry secrets that shape us, and how being fully present for a friend or a stranger connects us in the most meaningful way.
    Thanks for a wise and lovely post, Jeannine.

  13. Yet another achingly beautiful post. However, re: the following:
    “These one-to-one moments aren’t going to pay the bills or lead to another book getting published.”
    Not in an immediate sense… but as you say in your next line…
    ” But they’re where my strength comes from: one person heard and it seemed to matter.”
    … moments like that help to sustain you through the trials and tribulations of creating your next book, and the ones which come after. And you don’t get another book published unless you first HAVE another book TO publish.
    Bill paying will follow. — PL

  14. Susan, I was thinking a bit of you when I wrote this, then, while I let it cool a day before posting, you wrote much the same thing on your blog. We each, and I suppose everyone, sometimes see or speak from doubt and sometimes hard-earned wisdom.
    I just know this is going to be your year. Love your resolutions!

  15. You’re right: life is so precious. And we are so lucky to have each other’s company here. xo

  16. You’re right. What a process. Moving forward….

  17. Jeannine, Jeannine, Jeannine!
    Me, too. ❤

  18. We are such kindred souls, Jeannine. And so much of my wisdom seems to be hard-earned. Sigh.

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