I can’t say I’ve been writing SC for ten years—more like I’ve been working on it for ten years. The draft I’m on feels more like a first draft than a tenth. (Not actually sure if it’s the tenth. There’ve been many: partial, full, and whatnot.) Still, ten years ago, give or take a few days, I sat down at my desk on a warm and sunny day in early November, 2009. I’d read all of my books at least twice each, and I was bored. All I had was some lined loose-leaf, one of the best black pens I’ve ever owned, and the urge to write. What about? I’d had no idea. But I wanted that feeling of making marks with a great pen onto a stack of perfect paper and ruining it all. So I just started.
And stopped. I got out a coil notebook, only 50 pages or so, and the first few pages had been used by someone for something irrelevant, and I started again. And stopped.
The other week, as part of Wordfest here in Calgary, I had the pleasure of getting to meet Stephen Chbosky and hear him talk about The Perks of Being a Wallflower and his new novel, Imaginary Friend. As it turns out, it took ten years for him to write Imaginary Friend, an adult horror about a mother and her son who disappears into the woods and comes back with a voice in his head. From the excerpt Chbosky read for us, it sounds like a really good book.
I read Stephen Chbosky’s first book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in my last year of high school. It was a few months before the film came out and several years before I started this blog, so I haven’t written about it on here, but I remember saying to people at the time, “I want to be like Stephen Chbosky.” Not only had he written a fantastic book, but he also wrote the screenplay adaptation and directed the film of said book, and he did amazing on all three fronts! I’d read all the interviews with him I could find in those months around the film’s release when everything “Perks” was popular. Somehow, I didn’t think I was allowed to write a book and make it into a movie myself. I figured I could either write the book and hand it off for the movie, or I could make other people’s books into movies (which Stephen Chbosky has also done, see: Wonder).
At this point in my life, I’d also been writing for three years. I was on the first draft of the third book of SC (my big bad book used to be a planned four books) and on the film side of things, I had made a spoof short of Bella from Twilight and Dracula meeting, along with a bunch of YouTube videos, scripted and unscripted. Now I feel far removed from those videos and novel drafts—some of them are so embarrassing to look back at—and yet I wouldn’t have made it this far without them.
Chbosky said something along the same lines.
“I’m twenty-one and I wrote seventy-two pages of a book, first-person narrative, angry protagonist, young man. Writing, writing, writing. Just writing, writing, writing. Page seventy-two, I write, ‘Well, I guess that’s one of the perks of being a wallflower.'”
Some in the audience gasped.
“And I went, ‘Wait.’ I wrote seventy-two pages for those six words, and I scrapped all of it. I said, ‘This is what I’ve been getting at. […] This is the truth.’
So tell me that that seventy-two pages was wasted. No it’s not.”
After high school I went to university to study a combined major on Creative Writing and Film Studies. Unfortunately, Film Studies did not end up being what I’d hoped and so after my first year I switched to full-time Creative Writing, focusing on fiction and taking every screenwriting class my course offered, watching my grades go from Cs, to Bs, and eventually, As. (Oh yes, I used to suck at screenwriting. In second year in my Short Film class, I got a D on my final script. My grade only came out to C because I’d gotten Bs in everything else that class.)
After graduating, I worked in retail until I quit an unfortunate boss, then, with some money saved and lots of time on my hands, I decided to go at the acting thing. And between the auditions and filming days (fun as they were, they took up only a fraction of my time), I wrote my big bad book. That summer, I took a short story I’d written in university, turned it into a script, and shot my first short film, SIV, which, despite some technical difficulties and my lack of experience, was finished and made it into two film festivals the next year.
And now? My newest short film is only a couple of months into its festival run and has already won an award at one festival and been long-listed in another. I’ve pitched a web series, and am now working on a documentary idea (but that’s still a secret). On that side of my life, it feels like I’ve come a long way.
My strides on the book front are a little more invisible. To friends and family, the biggest difference they’ll have noticed is that I’ve gone from writing longhand to working on a laptop. I’m the only person in the world who knows how far I’ve really come, and it’s so easy for me to forget sometimes, too. It’s the tenth anniversary of the day I started writing SC. It almost feels like I have nothing to show for it.
All the parties spent in a quiet corner writing instead of socializing, all the classes ignored while I worked on my book, all the trouble I’ve gotten in because of it. Not to mention the things that I’ve heard. My book is “an impossible sell” or “an overdone genre” or “gimmicky” or “irrelevant”. And you know? Maybe it is. I mean, a bored fourteen year old came up with the idea so how good can it really be? But the writing is better, the characters more developed, the plot more logical, the prose more palatable. At the very least, these ten years of writing my big bad book have changed me.
“I wrote this over the course of ten years, off and on,” Chbosky said of Imaginary Friend. “Whenever I had three months I’d do it, and then I’d go make Perks. Or then I get married or we’d have kids or I did Wonder or Beauty and the Beast or whatever. So all these other things kept taking me away so I always had to come back. But I began to change over the course of that decade.”
So from someone who had done it and lived to tell the tale, what did Stephen Chbosky have to say about writing a book over ten years?
“It was very difficult because it was difficult to remember where I was. Because I made a decision: ‘Don’t go back and rewrite it. Keep going forward.’ […] I felt like I have to keep walking, because if I don’t, if I go back, I’m dead. I just have to keep doing it. […] If you keep going forward, it doesn’t matter how long it takes.”
The current draft of my book, the one I said earlier feels more like a first draft? It surpassed 40 000 words the other day, which should be about halfway through. We’ll see where I’m at for the 11th anniversary, eh?
This was my second and last event with Wordfest this year, and if you haven’t read my post on Cherie Dimaline’s talk yet, you can check it out here.