A call to be vulnerable

Photo Sarah Whiting

I have written before about my calling to be a writer. That it occurred to me as a seven-year-old, five seconds after I closed the cover to “Heidi,” that “I want to do that.”

My first two books were nonfiction, but my true calling was to write fiction – although not about Swiss orphans. My call to action came when I was sixteen, in front of the typewriter at my desk.

Over the course of a few days, a surly but sensitive teenage character named Andy burst from my typewriter fully formed, as if he had been a part of my life forever. He led the action in a short story I submitted to my high school literary magazine. Not long after it appeared in print, one of the most popular students stopped me and said, “I really liked your story. I never would have guessed it, coming from a quiet girl like you.”

I was a quiet girl. I spoke as little as possible in class to avoid flushing purple from anxiety and embarrassment. High school felt unbearable. I tried to blend in with punks in Uptown, the students in Dinkytown, and the hipsters at First Avenue, but I never felt truly at home anywhere except at my typewriter.

After college I took a few MFA courses, but I never applied to a degree program. Two kids changed my life’s trajectory. Feminist activism and parenting inspired short personal essays, which evolved into my nonfiction books.

Still, Andy remained part of me. Four years ago I wrote an outline of a story I wanted to tell with him at its center. A story about an angry, frustrated teen confronting mental illness in his family – and in himself.

When Andy appeared, I wasn’t thinking that adopting a male voice could shield me; I wasn’t contemplating technique at all. My typewriter understood that this boy could say what I couldn’t – male anger, then as now, is palatable in a way that female anger is not. And I was an angry teenager. I also was a depressed and anxious teenager, which made my anger worse.

When I finished the novel, on a computer this time, my own son was Andy’s age. He and Andy are nothing alike; children, whether real or imagined, have their own agendas. Happily, I signed with a literary agent last fall. The novel is on submission with publishers who, less happily, have so far rejected it.

This is very disheartening for Andy and me. Writing is a vulnerable act; writing honestly about mental illness ups the ante a thousand-fold. I want to tell stories about kids, both quiet and not, who struggle. And yes, my calling is to write, but it’s also to be read.

Does my new manuscript, about a girl struggling with a compulsive disorder, require a plot twist in which her psychiatrist is revealed to be a vampire queen with evil powers?

While my agent might encourage this, fantasy is not my calling. I admire those who do it well, but I’m not in their number. My work is about kids grappling with mental health issues here in the real world, where solutions aren’t as obvious as a magical spell or, in Heidi’s case, a brisk walk in the Swiss Alps.

Andy’s path forward isn’t easy; neither is mine. Answering a call is more than just opening your heart to its message: it’s also about having the courage to keep going. Other quiet, angry kids are counting on it.

And for me, back to the keyboard.

Shannon Drury lives in Minneapolis and is the author of a political memoir, “The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century.”