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July 11, 2012

Jennifer Brown on Writing PERFECT ESCAPE

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Jennifer Brown writes and lives in the Kansas City, Missouri, area with her family. She is the author of BITTER END and HATE LIST, which was selected as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Her latest book is PERFECT ESCAPE. You can visit her online at www.jenniferbrownya.com.

There are some story ideas that come to you, and you race to get them on paper before they wisp away like smoke. But there are other story ideas that take a long time to fully form, that hound you for years, that you eventually can no longer ignore because they’ve stopped whispering and have started pounding on the inside of your skull, yelling for your attention.

Perfect Escape was one of the latter.

It was nearly a decade ago that I first had an idea to write a book about being a so-called “normal” sibling, growing up alongside a sibling who struggles with mental illness. I wanted to write it as non-fiction, call it The “Sane” Sib, and co-author it with my psychologist husband.

There are tons of books out there that discuss how to cope when a “family member” or a “loved one” suffers mental illness. But I envisioned a book that was more than that. Growing up with a suffering sibling is its own specific challenge, with its own personality-molding ramifications, and I wanted our book to reflect that.

In my mind, our book would tackle the subject from a very unique perspective, blending my husband’s clinical background with my personal experience of growing up submerged in a sibling’s frightening, confusing world of chaos. It seemed like a perfect combination—part self-help, part been-there-done-that.

So I had this book all planned out in my head. It was going to be wonderful! It was going to be insightful! It would help millions! Inspire! Educate! Validate!

Problem was my husband didn’t want to write it.

So, dejected, I shelved the idea of The “Sane” Sib, forever to be unwritten.

Or so I thought.

A few years later, out of the blue, I got an image stuck in my head (which is, oddly, how many of my stories begin). It was a little boy, sitting at the bottom of a massive pile of rocks, holding his knees to his chest and sobbing. Just counting and counting, his brain unable to let him leave, his illness unable to let him escape. Along with that image, I got a first line: “I was six the first time we found Grayson at the quarry.”

And suddenly The “Sane” Sib was back. Only it was better. It was fiction. It was Perfect Escape. A book that could really focus on the emotional turmoil that comes with living alongside a struggling sibling. A book that could touch on the scratching and clawing for attention, the frustration, the blame, the love, the protectiveness, the bitterness, and the guilt that accompanies hard feelings toward someone who honestly can’t help what’s going on in their minds or bodies. A book that could get into the heads and hearts of both siblings, and could explore the challenges from both sides, honestly and realistically.

And, most importantly, a book I could write on my own.

Even after I made the decision to write Perfect Escape, it took many more months to get the story on the page. I shelved it a couple more times in favor of other stories (including Bitter End), but every time I came back to it, I felt a little like I was coming back to myself. I felt a little like I was doing something important, in giving voice to so many of us out there who are afraid or are unable to express our experience of being…well, the “sane” sib.

The result is a story that is far closer to home and far more “me” than the self-help book I’d originally imagined.

And it was a great lesson for me in being patient with my writing. Sometimes when a story doesn’t work…it’s only not working…for now. Just wait. If the story is right, eventually it will stop whispering and will start pounding and yelling.

Don’t worry, you’ll hear it.