I didn’t realize I don’t take compliments well until a friend pointed it out during what was (for me) an awkward, self-conscious, dragged-out moment with a waitress who was just trying to be nice.
I didn’t realize that it was hard to make me laugh—really laugh, not just chuckle—until my son pointed it out at the dinner table (after making me really laugh).
I didn’t realize that I was intimidating until it was pointed out by—well, actually a number of people, but most notably my own father and my own husband about twenty years apart.
I didn’t know these things about myself until others told me they were so. Which is strange, because I generally make a habit of noticing things. I’m the one who sees the red-tailed hawk in the tree we just passed at 75 mph. I’m the one who sees the crooked pictures in the restaurant and straightens them as I leave. I’m the one who sees the way the light is hitting the clouds just so and points it out to my son and my husband so they will look up from their devices before the moment has passed.
The habit of noticing little things and wanting to make sure others notice them is part of what I think I started to write. Way back when, it took the form of sporadic journaling. Then sporadic poetry. Then fairly regular blogging for several years. If I think about it, that’s what most of my writing has amounted to—noticing and celebrating and making sense of the world around me and encouraging others to do the same. I write it down so that moment doesn’t disappear. I write it down to give that moment some weight. I write it down so that moment is imbued with meaning.
I guess I was so busy doing that, I didn’t pay as much attention to the landscape closer to home—myself.
Thinking about it now, I wonder if that’s where writing novels started for me. If it has been my attempt to pay as much attention to the inner world as the outer world. To acknowledge the heights and depths of the human experience and then put it down in words so that it doesn’t disappear without having been examined and appreciated.
Oftentimes writers get the question, “For whom do you write? Yourself? Or the reader?” My answer has always felt a little selfish to me because other writers all seem to answer that they write for the reader. Um, not me. I write for myself. The reader is not why I’m writing. I’m why I’m writing. And never more so than with my newest release, The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water.
Drawing on some of my own experiences as a child, I developed the character of Kendra Brennan who, as a teen, suffered sexual harassment and assault at the hands of a friend’s older brother. She worked through those experiences by writing a fictionalized version of events as her first novel. But a letter from an anonymous Very Disappointed Reader has accused her of getting the story wrong, taking the wrong person’s side, using people for her own gain, and more. To move forward, Kendra must look back—into the events of those long-ago summers in the cabin on Hidden Lake in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula. She must confront the man upon whom she based the antagonist of her first book—and perhaps discover she is asking the wrong questions altogether.
As you can probably surmise, The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water tackles the things we don’t want others to notice. The things we keep hidden, even from ourselves, because to face them takes the kind of self-examination we would rather avoid. We don’t want to face the ways in which we have failed others and ourselves, the ways other people have hurt us, the ways we neglected to see the things that were right in front of us all along.
This was not an easy book to write. But it was the one I have needed to write for more than thirty years. I needed to write it for myself. I’m glad others will be reading it. But I didn’t write it for readers. I wrote it for me, as a way to process painful memories, to examine how the events of the past shape us into the people we are today, to give an unresolved issue some sense of resolution.
As I think of the events in my life that inspired me to write The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, I realize that those events may also have had a hand in making me someone who is just a bit uncomfortable with and suspicious about compliments. They may have something to do with why it’s difficult to make me laugh with abandon. And they certainly have a lot to do with why, at times, I come off as aloof, unapproachable, or intimidating.
They happened in the past, but they are continually with me in the present. Because who we are now is made up of every experience we ever had.
Ultimately—obviously—my books are for readers, and they’ll mean something a little different to everyone, depending on the events that have shaped them into the people they are today. I can’t control what this book will mean to readers. I can only say what it has meant to me to write it.
Release. Forgiveness. Moving on. And if that were the end of all the little stories in our lives, we should count ourselves lucky.
ERIN BARTELS is the award-winning author of We Hope for Better Things, The Words between Us, All That We Carried, and The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water. She lives in the capital city of a state that is 40% water, nestled somewhere between angry protesters on the Capitol lawn and couch-burning frat boys at Michigan State University. And yet, she claims it is quite peaceful.
She is a. publishing professional for twenty years, is the current director of WFWA’s annual writers retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Find her online at www.erinbartels.com.