In certain situations I push myself to be intimidating, just so I don’t get scared.
Sometimes I have to think of people as less-than-people so they don’t distract me from my own goals.
No matter how well a behavior, relationship, or routine works for you, every now and then life forces you to change it in order to survive.
Superiority feels better than inferiority.
In the summer of 2012, these thoughts were all floating in my brain, but I wasn’t paying much attention to them. Instead I, and just about the rest of the country, was distracted by the London Olympics, and especially swimming.
Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Missy Franklin were everywhere in those weeks. Phelps alone was proving to be one of the greatest swimmers possibly ever, as he became the most decorated Olympian of all time, at the age of only 27. Watching him was stupendous, exciting, and inspiring, but as medal after medal kept coming—so many broken world records—all I could think was: The best thing that guy has to look forward to now is being in a Subway commercial.
I was horrified a couple years later when I actually saw him in one.
Days after the closing ceremonies, I was still thinking. Phelps had announced he was retiring, and I wondered what it would be like to have disciplined yourself so hard for something that was over so fast. He had tons of sponsorships, so I guessed he could do whatever he wanted next, but this was a young man who’d spent over three-quarters of his life in the pool. What was it going to be like, now that all the glory was over? Didn’t seem like it would be a very smooth adjustment.
The whole thing made me curious. And just as was the case when I started my novel Criminal, my Florida State University Creative Writing mentor’s words came to my head: “Write what you want to understand.”
Fortunately, I already had a character who was a swimmer, and who was having trouble with normal society. Her name was Brynn Polonowski, and she was the camp Bad Girl in my third novel, The Summer of Firsts and Lasts. As a secondary character, I hadn’t given Brynn a lot of backstory—her being a swimmer had been relatively arbitrary. She was, however, a great rabble-rouser and troublemaker. She also countered the Winthrop sisters’ pro-camp attitudes, and served as someone who longed for sisterly closeness, but remained an outsider. My cousin’s main comment when she finished the book was, “What’s up with this Brynn character? She is pretty interesting.”
(Terra's fave writing spot.)
So after the Olympics, I let myself think about Brynn more. What was up with her? Why was she such a rebel? Why did she so badly want to be included, but fail at being a real friend? Was she, for some reason, having to rethink her life as a swimmer? What would lead her to that decision? What was her story?
These questions about Brynn all dovetailed rather nicely into my Olympics musings, but they also brought more personal themes to the surface. Writing, just like swimming, is a solitary sport. It’s very easy to become achievement-focused. Anyone and everyone can be your competition—and not just other writers. On deadline, when time is precious, friends and family, social events and cultural experiences are all vying for your attention, too. Sometimes it’s easier to shut it all out. But in disciplining yourself to produce every day it’s equally easy to forget to live.
Writing Brynn’s struggle around the difference between being “the best” and being her best self helped me remember things I already know, but could always be reminded of: That the people who love you are vital, and even great success is temporary. That how you recover from setbacks is more important than not having them in the first place. That what you achieve is far from the sum total of who you are, and that your life is valuable not because of what you accomplish, but simply because you are.
Brynn is still struggling with these things, even at the end of In Deep, but I gained a lot of insight from writing it. I hope you will too as you read.
Terra Elan McVoy
Author of Pure, After the Kiss, The Summer of Firsts and Lasts, Being Friends with Boys, and 2014 Edgar Award finalist Criminal
Terra is generously giving away a free, signed and dedicated copy of IN DEEP to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US to win - enter below!
Excellent interview, Terra--just what I needed to read this morning. Even midway through a work-in-progress, I needed to be reminded to "write what you want to find out about."
Congratulations on the great success that you're finding with IN DEEP and the rest of the Terra Elan McVoy shelf of books!
What a great interview! So much depth and wisdom...as always.
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