This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Léna Roy honors the 50th Anniversary of her grandmother Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time by revealing how she came to call herself a “writer”…
I didn’t call myself a “writer” in 2004 when at the tender age of 35, I finally allowed myself to start working on a novel that had been marinating in my head for years. It is the story that developed into Edges.
I didn’t call myself a “writer” until after September 2007, when I really had to make a choice about who I was and what I was made of—when I embraced writing as a vocation.
Yes, I am a veritable late bloomer. What took me so darn long? In my early 20s I wasn’t a stranger to putting myself out there, singing and performing in nightclubs. But my Gran, Madeleine L’Engle—yes, the creator of one of the most beloved books, A Wrinkle in Time—was the writer. Me? As a kid, tween, teen, I always wrote. Then as an adult, I was the actress who wrote, the bartender who wrote, the therapist who wrote, the mom who wrote.
Just never the writer. I would listen to my Gran talk about craft and she would say: “You’re a writer if you write.” Somehow I thought that this dictum applied to everybody else except me. I wrote in secret.
My early 20s were arty and wild. I lived with my grandmother off and on, I did performance art, I wrote, and of course, I would talk about my dreams as if they were already a reality.
When I made up my mind to leave the arts to go to school to be a therapist at the age of 25, I felt I needed to be serious and useful—I had used up my quota of “castles in the air.”
I could never make a living at performing, or writing like Madeleine L’Engle—to attempt to do so past a certain age would be hubris. We all know writing takes discipline, talent, and luck: I wasn’t very disciplined, I was unsure about my own talents, and luck—well, that’s not something we can count on, can we?
I worked in a psychiatric hospital in the Bronx. I moved to Moab, Utah (where I met my husband), and started an out-patient program for teens who had substance abuse problems, I worked as a counselor in a Dual Diagnosis treatment facility in San Francisco. But by far my favorite job was as a high school counselor downtown in NYC: teenagers were my people.
Then in the beginning of 2000, I started having babies and my grandmother needed caring for. My life revolved around the babies and the grandmother. Watching her decline was very painful; she wasn’t herself anymore. It was as if all of her ailments had trapped her spirit.
It’s strange that the death of one of my best beloveds was my turning point.
Early September 2007, I was standing outside of her house in Northwestern Connecticut with my husband, looking at the stars in her honor. Who are you?
My husband asked me the hard-hitting questions: Do you want to be a writer? Are you a writer?
Yes I do, and yes I am.
I had been trying to write that novel for the past four years. I wrote the first draft in three months: a teen runs away from an alcoholic father in New York City and finds himself at a youth hostel in Moab, Utah.
I rewrote it and then sent it out to one agent who rejected it. It went back in the drawer.
It came out again.
More rejection. More time in the drawer.
What then, was my vocation? Should I get another Master’s degree? Become a nurse?
But looking up at the stars on that warm September night, I felt my grandmother speak to me for the first time in years. Yes, it’s hokey, but I’ll say it: it was as if her energy had been released into the atmosphere and she was telling me to accept my calling, that it was time to find my own voice.
That night both my husband and my grandmother were telling me to embrace my true self, to stop fooling around, to take my writing seriously. Stop dabbling! So what if most writers don’t make a living at it. It would be a leap of faith. I would have to live, breathe, eat the writing world. I would have to commit to it 150%. I would have to follow in the road map Madeleine L’Engle had already created for me: create community, be around other writers, open myself up . . . teach.
I did another rewrite and I was finally able to secure an agent, the wonderful Edward Necarsulmer, who opened my eyes to the world of young adult literature, for that is where I found my voice. He recommended that I read Ellen Hopkins, Chris Crutcher, and Laurie Halse Anderson. John Green. It was a joy and a revelation to discover a whole world of wonderful authors and story-telling that wasn’t preachy yet refused to be cynical.
I started teaching and leading writing workshops. First at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine and NYC bookstores, then with Writopia Lab in NYC and Westchester, with kids, tweens, and teens who inspire me every day.
Edges was finally published in December 2010.
Now I write no matter what. No matter the reviews, positive or negative, no matter if my work is rejected. I keep reminding myself that my job is to serve the story and to tell the story in the best possible way that I can.
And I learned that I need to own what I write. People will ask me what my book is about, and even after one year, I still have a hard time narrowing it down to a sexy sound byte. Because truthfully, it’s about spirituality and addiction, and that’s not very sexy, is it? There are no vampires (unless you see addiction as a metaphor), and there’s no bodice ripping, but there is grittiness mashed with sweetness and hope.
People say that an author’s first novel is the most autobiographical, and that is also true in my case. Ava, one of the protagonists, is certainly a version of my younger self. And like all of the characters, I have certainly struggled with the nature of truth and reality, and what to believe.
This week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of my grandmother’s Newbery Award–winning opus, A Wrinkle in Time, which is perhaps my favorite book of all time. Help me honor my grandmother with your promise of being true to yourself as well—if you are a writer, find your voice, because the world needs you. I may not be Madeleine L’Engle, but I am Léna Roy, and I have learned from her that art comes from serving the story: nothing more, and nothing less.
Léna Roy was raised in New York City, in the cloistered environs of a theological seminary, with extracurricular education provided by Manhattan’s club scene. She’s worked as a bartender, an actor, and with at-risk adolescents in Utah, California, and NYC. She now lives with her husband, two sons, daughter, cat, and four African water frogs in Katonah, New York, and is the Program Manager for Writopia Lab in Westchester. Edges is her first novel.
You can find her on her blog, www.lenaroy.com.
Follow @lenaroy on Twitter.
EDITED FEB. 19… GIVEAWAY WINNER ANNOUNCED!
Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:
Kristen Aigeldinger won a signed copy of Edges!
Congrats! I’ll email the winner for her mailing addresses. Thank you again to everyone who entered!
Want more in this blog series?
The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.
Here are the posts in the series so far:
- Intro to the Turning Points blog series
- Gayle Forman: on overcoming bitterness
- Sean Ferrell: on the Writer who never arrives
- Eileen Cook: on a “nasty” book and a teacher’s advice that inspired her
- Christopher Barzak: on how short stories changed his vision for his novel
- Saundra Mitchell: on deciding to quit and walk away
- Eric Luper: on not writing for trends
- Gretchen McNeil: on how “everything happens for a reason”
- Julia DeVillers on the fan letter she wrote when she was ten years old that changed her writing career years later
- Daisy Whitney on the book that opened her eyes to writing YA
- Brandy Colbert on the book that inspired her to find her voice (giveaway open through February 8!)
- Courtney Summers on redefining failure (TWO giveaways open through February 10)
- Sarah Darer Littman on turning off the noise (giveaway open through February 13!)
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.