For fourth-year CCIT and professional writing student Alison Ross, writing personal narratives are not without its own share of struggles. Her upcoming book Nothing Happens, Everything Happens, is a collection of coming-of-age stories. Written for a creative non-fiction class, Ross’s book will be published this coming June.
TM: How did you overcome the struggles you faced will writing the book?
AR: I ended up cutting out a few thousand words from my manuscript before I submitted it for publication. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff I cut out because it was unnecessary or because it wasn’t that well-written. But there’s also stuff that I cut out to protect people. But by protecting those people, I made some stories objectively worse.
I cut out a lot of not-so-pleasant scenes about my mom, but I also cut out some positive scenes with her. The positive scenes kind of lost their meaning without the harsh ones.
I still have the manuscript that I actually wanted to publish in a word doc. I plan on printing it out and putting it in a binder. I’m going to give that version to people that I trust, and just sell the watered down published book to everyone else.
TM: Where do you draw inspiration from when writing the book?
AR: I actually take a lot of inspiration from classic rock songs. I bond with my parents over classic rock music, and my stories make a lot of references to classic rock songs that have similar themes to my book. In high school, I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I constantly thought about how I should soundtrack the dumb videos I made. I love connecting songs to stories, and that’s very much a side of me that comes out in the book.
There’s this one cheesy 70s pop song I make reference to, “Surrender” by Cheap Trick, which is a song about a kid who realizes that his parents are actually a lot cooler than he thought. That’s pretty much what my character goes through in the book. I bet my writing profs read my stories and think ‘What is it with Alison and making references to these old songs?’
TM: What’s the hardest part about writing?
AR: I think that the most important thing about writing is creating interesting characters. It’s also the hardest thing about writing, especially writing non-fiction. In fiction, if a character isn’t interesting, you can just make them interesting. In non-fiction, sometimes you need to really dig deep to find what makes a character compelling. I find that this is especially true when you’re writing personal narratives. I remember, a few years ago, one of my writing professors told our class: “I think your portfolios are all going to be character studies, and I don’t think they’re going to be character studies about yourself.” I wanted to please the professor, so I tried to make my portfolio a character study. But when I shared the stories with my classmates, some of them didn’t care much about the character. They actually wanted to hear more about me, the narrator.
Maybe I was trying too hard to make my portfolio a character study, when what the people really wanted was an autobiography.
Another challenge I’ve had is writing stories that are tributes to people from my life. The people that I want to pay tribute to are not necessarily the most captivating characters, and I need to find a way to make them interesting to someone other than me. Sometimes it almost feels exploitative, trying to squeeze every ounce of personality out of someone just to entertain an audience. There’s this one teacher I had in middle school that I tried to pay tribute to in my book, and sometimes I worry that I’ve reduced her role in my life to being a character in my head, rather than someone who was once a great friend. I really hope she won’t see it that way.
TM: How do you write? Do you try to write in a certain style?
I wouldn’t say that I try to write in a certain style, but I find that I do my best writing when my writing sounds dry and sarcastic, because that’s just the kind of person I am in real life. I’m not a poet, and I don’t think anyone would consider my writing pretty by any means. But I think there’s a certain audience that likes that wry style of writing. At least, I hope there is.
TM: Who were your influences in writing and why?
There isn’t really one author who I would consider my biggest influence, but while I was writing Nothing Happens, Everything Happens, I definitely was inspired by other coming-of-age stories. One of my favourite books is To Kill A Mockingbird because that’s just how vanilla I am. I love how Harper Lee writes about the things that shaped Scout’s view of the world. It’s mundane on the surface, but there’s an underlying darkness. Another coming-of-age book I really like is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which I first read in high school. It’s basically a subversive, sarcastic version of The Fault in our Stars, and it’s great. It’s funny and it has heart, which, at this point, is all I really want for my book.
TM: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read a lot and write a lot.