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The process of revision has consumed my thoughts this year. As I revise LARA’S GIFT for my editor, I’m constantly asking myself questions.

Where can I tighten? Does each scene organically arise from the one preceding it? Have I evoked all five senses through concrete details? Where can I amp up the tension? Do I have too many secondary characters? Will anyone besides me care enough about my main character to turn the page? Will my protagonist’s journey strike an emotional cord in my readers?

Although all of these questions are important, I’d like to focus on the craft of striking an emotional cord. Making readers cry or laugh through our characters and their struggles is true art.

But how do we writers accomplish this?

A good place to start is with our own experiences. Mining our childhood memories for material and translating them truthfully onto the page opens up the kind of vulnerability in our writing that pulls readers in. Because these moments might be painful to recall, how can we retrieve them from our vaulted memories?

During the July 2012 VCFA/AMR residency, Matt de la Peña gave a lecture called “In Defense of Sadness” where he discussed the importance of darkness in middle grade and young adult literature. Click here to read the full NY Times discussion that inspired this lecture. He also challenged us to view our characters as fellow travelers instead of literary pawns in our novels. To help us on that journey of sadness, he instructed us—the faculty, students, and alumni—to think of two words to sum up something sad from our childhood.

When he asked for volunteers, I didn’t dare raise my hand.

The first two words that had come to me were:

Happy Childhood.

Lame, I know. I went in the completely opposite direction of the assignment. Was I afraid to dredge something up?

I felt especially trumped after Matt shared the two words some high school student had come up with during one of his past school visits:

Locked Doors.

When Matt asked the high school student what these two words meant to her, a story unfolded. She used to wake up and leave her bed in the middle of the night to sleep at the foot of her parents’ bed where she felt safe. When her mother passed away, she kept up the tradition until her father remarried and his new wife started to lock the bedroom door.

If a high school student could find that vulnerable spot in her life, surely I could dig more deeply?

With some digging, the next thing that came to me was: Butcher Shop.

When I was in 6th grade, I got a lamb to raise as a 4-H project. I called him, yes him, Penelope, in honor of my Greek grandfather who had always wanted to give this name to one of his daughters, but got shot down by my grandmother. Like the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Penelope followed me everywhere I went and quickly became a pet. Six months later, when the 4-H project ended, my father and I made the dreaded trip to the butcher shop. Tears streamed down his face which surprised me. I had never seen my father cry. The only thing he said to me was, “You don’t have to do this. We can turn around and go home.”

In that moment, I had thought my father was going to miss Penelope. It wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out it was me that he worried about when he offered to save Penelope.

Go ahead.

I challenge you to think of two words.

And don’t forget to share them with us!

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