It has been my experience that my best novels are rooted in the most painful real life experiences. Saying goodbye as you child heads off to college is tough, especially the first and the last child.
Since I was young the way I would deal with emotions, particularly sadness, was to write about it. I was a committed daily diary writer, and even once I was an adult, one of my first bosses, noticing my chagrin over a business associate, advised me to write down my feelings. I already had that planned. Throughout my life I’ve turned to pen and paper, and then my computer to work through things. It’s what I do.
So I guess it’s no surprise that when faced with my youngest son’s senior year in high school last year, I had no choice but to plow my emotional angst into my latest novel, The Goodbye Year. While he was at school all day – a place he commonly referred to as prison – I was in my office, crafting my story.
The Goodbye Year is about several families dealing with their youngest or only children’s senior year in high school, and the changes that impending departure means for the couples left behind. I used rotating POVs, adults and kids, and for the high school seniors, my son’s insights were critical. And that provided a great reason to connect. I mean, compared to the drama of college applications, my novel and the deadline it imposed gave us another thing to bond over.
“Dylan, would your guy friends say _____.?” I’d ask as he arrived home from school.
“No. Never. Don’t even.”
“What would they say? Come up to my office, talk to me. Please?” I wasn’t below begging.
“You just want to talk to me. Your motives are transparent. I’m tired. School sucks.” His hands would be on his hips, dramatic.
“This is our last year together, our goodbye year.” My eyes filled with tears. That wasn’t purposeful, it just happened a lot.
“Fine.” He’d stomp up the steps behind me, and provide a treasure trove of insight along the way. But only briefly, because as anyone hangs around with a teenager knows, they have the attention span of a fly.
So, I’d write some more, until it was time to make dinner or connect in whatever way . And while I wrote, I was working through my emotions about the goodbye year and beyond. I’m not finished, of course. The goodbye year is over – and the book is about to be out in the world – but personally, that was just the start of empty nesting, a stage in life that I’ve just begun reluctantly.
Don’t get the impression The Goodbye Year, the novel, is about me and Dylan. It’s about a mom named Melanie and Dane, her son, as well as four other families going through the same hard year. Is there a piece of me in Melanie? Absolutely, the most painful real life experiences make for the best novels. Is part of Dylan captured in Dane? I hope so, because that’s what makes being a novelist so much fun. A hint at real life, a flash of an experience changed and magnified, molded and mixed.
Hopefully, for a reader, it’s an entertaining look at an emotional time in a parent’s life, something everyone who’s gone through it can relate to, and many who are approaching it are dreading. Maybe this fictional romp will help ease the pain. If nothing else, it’s pure entertainment. Grown ups behaving badly. Seniors in high school trying to imagine their futures, trying to leave their last mark, trying to escape.
For me, writing The Goodbye Year during my goodbye year was a comfort, a way to express the emotions swirling around inside of me and to capture them, fictively, for all time. Now, in my too-quiet empty nest, I’m thankful to be on this path as a novelist. I published my first novel in 2011 after a long career in business, marketing and journalism, and an emotional life-change following selling our business and a move across the country. It’s been a blessing to be able to create, to do what I love, as the milestones of life roll by, especially perhaps now with the silence surrounding our home these days.
The good news is it’s almost summertime. With two of my four still in college, I expect chaos to descend at the end of the semester. And I really can’t wait.
*Originally posted in Women Writers, Women’s Books