Telling Your Secrets, by Holly Cupala

Five years ago, my writing career was just beginning to take flight—I had articles in Cricket and Spider and saw my first story published in a Chicken Soup anthology. I’d begun a middle grade novel, and everyone kept telling me how much they loved the voice.

But I knew I would never write another word.

In April, after months of hoping and planning, the unthinkable had happened. My husband and I lost our first daughter at birth.

Along with the grief, a sudden clarity enveloped me that what I was writing, what I had been writing, was a sham. It felt hollow and meaningless, devoid of emotional truths. I’d been writing to please other people, and I didn’t have the heart for it anymore. To write about Ezri? That would be nothing short of exploitation. My only option to quell the cry of my spirit was to quit writing altogether.

During that time, friends and especially the writing and illustrating community smothered us with love, support, and a lot of fresh meals. Even more, they encouraged me in ways I didn’t fully grasp until later—namely, they shared their insights on searching these deep and difficult personal experiences to put truth on the page.

That summer, I attended the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles on scholarship and surrounded by friends. One friend, Justina Chen, had just published her first novel, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies). She invited me out to lunch and asked, very kindly, “Are you thinking of writing about Ezri?”

Her question turned a key, opened a door, gave me permission to walk through.

Moments later, we headed into a session with Libba Bray, who had just come out with A Great and Terrible Beauty. Libba was sharing with incredible candor about “How to Shut Off Your Brain and Get to the Heart of Your Writing,” when…

WHOMP.

An entire novel dropped into my lap: concept, characters, and story arc. I started writing notes as fast as I could as I listened to Libba for clues on how to write it from the heart.

Then, months later, when my character, a pregnant teen, was passed out in a pool of blood and I couldn’t bring myself to write the next scene, my friend Janet Lee Carey, author of such stunning fantasies as Dragon’s Keep, gently suggested, “Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.”

And Tell Me a Secret was born.

Giving your story permission

If Justina hadn’t asked me that question, if she hadn’t opened that door, I’m not sure if Tell Me a Secret would have ever been written. For years, I’d penned clever fairy tales and rhymed allegories, all of them aimed at staying a safe distance from what really mattered to me. We, as humans, are wired to avoid pain. We seek approval. When we face difficult events in our lives, sometimes those things fall away. Sometimes we come away with the courage to dig deeper.


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