Writing a Better Story by Jen Petro-Roy
If you grew up as a figure skater, you can still feel the crispness of those cold rink mornings, can still hear the scrape of your blades on the ice and the sound of the Zamboni.
If you lived by the ocean, you can still smell the salt in the air, can describe the grittiness of the sand in your shoes.
Writing what you know can get you in tune with the sensory details that help ground your reader in the world you’re creating, that help them connect with your characters.
For me, writing what I knew became a lot more complicated with my newest books, Good Enough and You Are Enough. As I wrote about twelve-year-old Riley, who struggles with an eating disorder and exercise addiction, I was immediately catapulted back to the two-year period of my life when I went through treatment for an eating disorder, when the hospital became my home for months at a time and the irrational beliefs in my brain isolated me from a “normal” life of friends, family, and school.
Ever since I recovered from my eating disorder, I wanted to write a book about my experience. For a long time, I assumed that I’d write a traditional memoir—I’d talk about my time in treatment and the lessons I’d learned.
Then, after I just couldn’t find my groove, I transitioned to trying to write a young adult novel. I mean, eating disorders were a subject for teenagers, right? But after dozens of false starts, that idea faltered, too. I could never find the voice, never find the right feel for that story.
It wasn’t until I decided to write about eating disorders as a middle grade novel that everything came together. Because, for me, middle grade is home. It’s the place where my voice shines. It’s where kids are beginning to discover more about the world and about themselves. Where they navigate what it means to be part of a family and part of a friend group while still remaining true to themselves. Middle grade tackles issues of belonging and identity.
Ultimately, those issues are what eating disorders are about, too.
As I pored through old journals and started putting Riley’s journey on the page, I cried. I remembered, deep down in my bones, the way I used to feel. How I never felt good enough—in body or soul. I could sense the anxiety in my body again, could recall the illogical thoughts that I used to believe were gospel. I remembered the ups and downs of recovery, and how the unpaved and bumpy road eventually evened out. How it eventually became so smooth that I could move forward.
Day by day, things became easier. Day by day, I recovered.
I wrote what I know in both Good Enough and You are Enough, its nonfiction companion book, in which I talk about my own journey and give tips to teens and tweens on recovery, body image, and self esteem.
I wrote what I know and it hurt. Remembering things hurt. But it also made me smile. Because of what I’ve learned. Because of what I hope readers learn from Riley’s journey in Good Enough and the experts that I interviewed for You Are Enough.
I wrote what I know and I healed a bit more.
In the end, isn’t that what literature is supposed to do—for the author as well as the reader?
Jen Petro-Roy is a former teen librarian, an obsessive reader, and a trivia fanatic. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in Massachusetts. She is the author of P.S. I Miss You, Good Enough, and You Are Enough: Your Guide to Body Image and Eating Disorder Recovery. Jen is an eating disorder survivor and an advocate for recovery. She can be reached at her website, www.jenpetroroy.com, and on Twitter and Instagram as @jpetroroy.