I want to introduce someone who is probably unaware of her influence on me during my teen years. I met Teresa when she was really not much older than I. She was a young teacher who made English class a cool place to be. I'm extremely excited that she agreed to guest on the blog and talk about writing her debut novel. Please join me in welcoming her!
First Novel Revelations - Teresa Burns Murphy
When I told my roommate from college I was planning to quit my job teaching at a liberal arts college in Arkansas to move to a suburb of Washington, D.C. and become a writer, she yawned. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “When we were in college, you were always sitting at your desk scribbling.” So much for my ability to astonish her with my “news.” While I was fully aware that there were plenty of things I didn’t know about writing, my friend’s comment caused me to wonder what else people knew about me that I didn’t know about myself. I had no idea that during the course of writing my first novel, THE SECRET TO FLYING, I would find out a lot about myself as a writer and as a person.
THE SECRET TO FLYING is written in the first person point of view from the perspective of an adolescent girl named Donita Tosh. A funny thing happens when a writer writes in the first person. People who don’t know the writer personally sometimes assume the book is autobiographical. This happened to me when I began sharing drafts of the novel with other workshop participants in my MFA program. Flattered that they thought I would be resilient enough to have withstood all the things Donita endured, I was tempted say, “Yes, this is really a memoir disguised as fiction.” Instead, I told them I made it all up. Technically, this is true – nothing in the book actually happened to me or to anyone I know. But when I thought about it, I realized there was a lot of me in the book. Like Donita, I grew up in a small town in Arkansas; and, like Donita, I was often too quick to judge my town and the people who lived in it, including myself. While Donita has her share of negative encounters in her small town, she also has plenty of positive ones – as did I. Ultimately, like Donita, I learned to hold on to the positive experiences while letting go of the negative ones. This skill, according to Donita’s mother, is critical to flying – the central metaphor of the book.
Though it took me a while, I also learned what my strengths and weaknesses as a writer are. I now know I’m a character-driver writer who has a distinctive voice, and I finally figured out how that came about. I have always been fascinated by people – the way they look, their mannerisms, and especially the way they talk. An obsession with the sound of other people’s voices may be the by-product of growing up in the South where we tend to do a lot of talking and listening. As a child, I was an avid listener, and I learned early on that I could imitate other people fairly accurately. My older sister, Liz, used to bring her friends home from school with the promise that I could sing “just like the Chipmunks.” She’d put on a record of Alvin and the Chipmunks singing “Seventy-six Trombones,” and I’d sing along, thrilled to demonstrate my “talent” for these older girls. When I finished, Liz, with great authority, would say, “See, what’d I tell you? She sounds just like them.”
Unless a person becomes a comedic impersonator or a ventriloquist, there isn’t much call for mimicking other people’s voices outside of being a writer. While it helps to be able to capture characters’ voices, a writer also has to create a strong plot with lots of tension. For me, creating a plot did not come naturally. I had been working on the novel for about five years when I finally figured out what should happen to Donita. Meanwhile, I had written reams about her and various other characters, some of whom were left out of the final draft of the novel. I think my initial inability to create an exciting plot occurred out of a sense of protectiveness. I really didn’t want anything bad to happen to Donita. Finally, I realized that unless SOMETHING happens, there is no story.
In addition to learning how to create a stronger plot, I also realized that if I wanted to evoke strong feelings in the reader, I had to create memorable scenes. And, I had to do this repeatedly in the narrative. I’d written short stories before and understood the power of all types of imagery, but sustaining that in a novel proved to be a mammoth task. Writing has long been a way to explore the emotional origins of my own actions, but I wasn’t sure I could do this with a character as well as attach physicality to that character’s emotions. The words of the old maxim, Show, don’t tell, kept rumbling through my head. In ON BECOMING A NOVELIST, John Gardner asserts, “Good writers may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings.” Though I’m not certain I grounded the characters’ feelings in the physical world 100 percent of the time, learning to create memorable scenes was an important lesson for me, and it has been the most difficult to master.
Finally, I learned that dragging words across a page via pen scrawl or keystroke is soothing to me. Maybe that’s why I scribbled so much in college. In his “Letter to a Young Writer,” my former teacher, Richard Bausch, has this to say about why people write, “While there are, of course, thousands of reasons that people begin to write -- some of them rather shabby ones, too – there usually is only one reason they continue and that is that the work has become necessary.” For me, writing every day has become necessary even if it’s just to jot down a few words in a journal or dash off an email. Without a doubt, recognizing that I need to write was the most significant revelation.
Teresa Burns Murphy’s novel, THE SECRET TO FLYING, was published this past summer by TigerEye Publications. Her short fiction has been published in Gargoyle Magazine, Pulse Literary Journal, Southern Women’s Review, THEMA, and Westview. She won the 1996 WORDS (Arkansas Literary Society) Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize and the 2009 Janice Farrell Poetry Prize. Her short story, “Halloween Gift,” has been selected for an upcoming anthology of Washington, D.C.-area women’s writing edited by Richard Peabody. She lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C. with her husband and daughter. To read an excerpt from THE SECRET TO FLYING, visit her website at www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.