THE BIRTH OF A NOVEL (and how I didn't even realize I was pregnant)
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
One of my earliest childhood memories was the day I first became aware of dreaming. I was about four years old, give or take. I’d always been an early riser, but at that point I was too young to get up and make my own breakfast, or shuffle into the living room to watch TV. Instead I would stay in my bed, in the room I shared with my sister who was two years older, until either she or my parents woke up.
I’d been having a dream about these two kids who were not much older than I was. The particulars were pretty vague, but when I woke, fragments of the dream were carried into my consciousness, or more specifically, the feelings the dream generated.
I felt that I liked those kids, and I missed them. Because I wanted to get to know them better, I lay awake, expanding their images, thinking about things they would do and what their names might be. In fact, I started imagining them all the time, hoping that they would return to my dreams.
It was through that experience that I learned to fantasize, that I could guide my imagination. That it wasn’t something that simply happened.
What made this practice more regular was that I spent a lot of time alone while my sister was off at Kindergarten. We lived in an apartment in New York City so I couldn’t just go outside and find other kids to play with. My parents had a few friends with children close to our ages, but none of them were preschoolers, like me. My best chance to socialize was usually on weekends, at nearby Fort Tryon Park.
As a result, my storyline advanced and the characters evolved into people who were less androgynous and less interchangeable.
I layered on more details about their individual personalities, and would play scenes in my head whenever I was bored, or alone, or trying to sleep. I was endlessly entertained by the fact that these kids could do anything I wanted: run like a gazelle, or even fly like Superman.
As puberty approached, the fantasies became more sophisticated, and I started leaning toward realistic scenarios. I would observe my surroundings and sometimes incorporate the people and places I encountered into my story.
Johnny Álvarez emerged as the young main character with a group of good friends by his side. He was a homeless runaway, with incredible strength and tenacity, who was able to navigate the gritty 1970s NYC streets and public school system with way more prowess than I could ever hope to.
I was basically a fearful introvert who got picked on regularly, so when I’d watch the tough, cool kids marching up and down the block like they owned it, I wanted characters who were more like that.
I became so entrenched in my own story that it often overshadowed my real life.
I would go to bed early so I could lay in the dark for hours continuing the saga. I would avoid social events and sleepovers with friends. I would walk instead of taking public transportation. And I never minded being alone. I loved all of these characters, and the cast kept growing.
Some were recurring and others not, but each one came with their own personal backstory. They had problems that needed solving, with scenes that were action-packed and rich in dialogue, and I knew all of them intimately because they were always with me. They helped distract me when I was twelve and my parents got divorced.
A year later, when I got jumped and beaten up by a gang of ten teenagers from the neighborhood, my characters, who were becoming a formidable street gang of their own at that point, unleashed an all-out war on those kids, beating them mercilessly. My characters shared similar experiences as I became sexually active, when I was violated by sex, through my sister’s several suicide attempts, and during multiple heartbreaks.
Given my propensity for mentally checking out, it should come as no surprise that I started using drugs and alcohol at a very young age, eleven to be exact. By the time I was in my early twenties, I was thoroughly entrenched in the bar scene and doing various combinations of hard-core drugs.
My real life became great fodder for my mental storyline: hanging out in dangerous situations, copping heroin on the Lower East Side, hanging out with shady people.
But when I would stagger home in the wee hours of the morning to pass out, my mind was too muddy to conjure up any scenes. Eventually I began to miss my imaginary friends. Their lives were far more interesting than the one mine was becoming, so I stopped using.
It wasn’t easy, and I had to stop hanging around with a lot of longtime friends in order to do it, but my characters were there to distract me and to help me work through a lot of my feelings. I’m not going to say that the internal storytelling was the entire reason I was able to turn my life around—there were other factors, some of which I’ve written about—but it did play a big role.
As I continued to age, so did the characters in my head. These mental movies were a constant presence in my life—Johnny and his growing gang, the Dogs of War, battling for status in the NYC streets, making money however they could, and wrangling with police. It consumed an inordinate amount of time.
The funny thing is that through all of those years, I never told a single soul about any of it. I was ashamed.
I thought this practice was pathological, that if anyone knew about the other world in my head they’d think I was nuts. I never even told the several therapists I would see throughout my twenties, thirties, and forties. This was my own entertainment, for me and no one else.
What’s more ironic is that I always loved to write. I used to write short stories as a teenager, I was a great pen-pal to several of my friends, and writing assignments in college were an easy A. It’s so odd that I never put these two things together. I was so busy worrying that I was weird that it never even occurred to me that I might just be creative.
Maybe it was because my sister was always dubbed “the creative one.” While I was hammering out two page parodies on the typewriter, she was filling spiral notebook after spiral notebook with journals, an illustrated cartoon series about a rock and roll band, and pages of original song lyrics. She also played multiple instruments by ear, sketched, and painted with watercolors.
I, however, was “the practical one.” I was the good girl who always did my chores, had part-time jobs after school, and followed all the rules. Having a reputation like that, I could never think of confessing just how much violence and debauchery was running through my head as Johnny and his gang’s story unfolded.
One of the other things that kept me from connecting the dots about turning this story into a book was the fact that I was a terrible reader. While my sister read everything under the sun, I had very little patience for it. I read slowly, so it took a long time to get through a book, especially if it wasn’t fast-paced.
I was also terrible at remembering names, so it was difficult to keep track of who was who, and I would get lost easily—something I find particularly amusing because my own story has a hundred characters, all of whom I know like the back of my hand. The other thing that made me such a reluctant reader was: Why on earth would I waste time with someone else’s story when I had everything that interested me right in my own head?
It wasn’t until I was in my late forties that I started having ideas about writing books, but oddly enough they had nothing to do with my ongoing saga. I had ideas about picture books for kids, a coffee table book, and some outlines for an autobiography.
One day, I was discussing this with a coworker when I casually mentioned that I also had a fictional story that had been kicking around for a while. She looked at me and simply said, “Why don’t you write it?” . . . Hmm. What an interesting concept.
But, yeah, I thought, why don’t I write it?
It was less of an AHA moment and more of a DUH moment, so I started to put "Street" on paper in January of 2013. Two years later, I had a 300,000 word first draft. It was then that I started taking writing classes—because why would you do that before writing a book?
I also attended seminars on getting published, went to writing conferences, joined local writing groups, read dozens of books on writing, and, naively, started shopping my colossal manuscript to literary agents.
No surprise, but I didn’t get any responses.
When I eventually learned that the length of an average novel is more like 80,000 words, I went back to the computer and began to chop the original book up into a three-part series.
I found an agent, and we continue to seek a publishing house. As far as my characters go, I don’t think it will be a spoiler alert to say that they are still thriving in my head, (well, most of them, anyway) and that I’m no longer ashamed of my relationship with them.