Be Willing to Let Yourself Cry by Jennifer Niven
The answer is that I did cry while writing it, but I also knew it was okay to cry because that meant I was accessing the emotion I needed in order to write the story.
I wrote All the Bright Places the summer of 2013, following the death of my literary agent of fifteen years. The last time I saw him, I was nearing the end of a series of books I’d begun writing in 2008 and was feeling depleted and ready—creatively— for something new and different. He told me, “Kid, whatever you write next, write it with all your heart. Write it because you can’t imagine writing anything else.”
Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and that boy was bipolar. I witnessed up-close the highs and lows, the Awake and the Asleep, and I saw his daily struggle with the world and with himself. The experience of knowing him—and losing him—was life-changing. I’d always wanted to write about it, but I wasn’t convinced I would ever be able to.
But that summer of 2013, I thought again about this boy and that experience, and I knew in my heart it was the story I wanted to write. Issues like teen mental health aren’t always talked about openly, even though we need to talk about them. I’d never felt as if I was allowed to grieve for this boy I loved because of how he died. If I was made to feel that way after losing him, imagine how hard it was for him to find help and understanding when he was alive.
After I decided to sit down and work on the story, I thought of a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t. All these years later, it was still too painful. I was already grieving the loss of my agent and friend, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to live and breathe something so sad during that particular time. And there was another doubt in the back of my mind. When I was a screenwriting student at the American Film Institute, the primary criticism I got from my teacher and my fellow writers was that I didn’t put enough of myself in the stories I wrote. They wondered if I would ever be able to truly open up and put every hard, sad feeling and experience on paper.
My previous books contain pieces of my life and of me, of course, so I had done it before, to some degree, but never like this. As a writer, it’s part of my job to put myself out there, to open up and pour myself into the words and the characters. As novelist Paul Gallico once said, “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” But it’s not always easy to bleed so publically.
When I sat down to write the first chapter of All the Bright Places, I told myself I would just see what happened. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to write anything at all.
And then I heard Finch’s first line: Is today a good day to die? And I saw him up on the ledge of his high school bell tower, his classmates down below, the same ones who called him “Theodore Freak.” And then suddenly, Violet was there too, on the other side of the ledge, the popular girl, frozen and needing help.
For the next few weeks, I barely left my desk. The story of this boy and this girl who went from that bell tower ledge to wandering their state—seeing every out-of-the-ordinary site, making it lovely, leaving something behind—flooded right out.
At first, I cried. But then at some point, I stopped crying and really focused on Finch and Violet, these two characters, who were both outside of me and inside of me at the same time. Writing about fictitious characters helps a lot when writing something so personal because it gives you the distance you need to be objective— at the same time, all that feeling and real-life experience adds layers and depth to the characters and makes them ring more true.
In just six weeks, the book was born. I like to say it’s the book I was writing in my head for the past several years without knowing I was writing it. One month later, my remarkable new agent sold All the Bright Places to Random House in a two-book preempt. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how quickly everything has happened.
One early reader wrote to tell me that as soon as she read the book, she ran downstairs and hugged her mother. Another reader wrote, “I found after reading this that I wanted to do so much more with my life than just live.” I hope that the book inspires more of those feelings. I hope All the Bright Places will inspire others to look deeper at the people and places around them. And I hope it inspires discussions about teen mental health, so that people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.” Suicide is something we need to talk about. It’s also something I needed to talk about.
My mother, Penelope Niven, was an author as well. She used to say to me, “You have to be able to write in spite of everything. You have to be able to write because of everything.”
As I told that young writer, and others like her, you need to be willing to let yourself cry, knowing that you will write your way through it, and knowing that you will have something on paper which is real and honest. More so than any of my previous books, All the Bright Places proved to me I could do that.
Jennifer Niven’s first novel for young adult readers. All the Bright Places, will debut from Knopf/Random House January 6, 2015. The book tells the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die, the foreign rights have already sold to twenty-eight territories, and the movie rights have been optioned with Elle Fanning attached to star. As a companion to the book, Jennifer has created Germ, a web magazine for and run by girls (and boys) — high school and beyond — that celebrates beginnings, futures, and all the amazing and agonizing moments in between. You find Jennifer online at www.jenniferniven.com and on Twitter as @jenniferniven.