The second thing they tell you when you’ve won the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award is that you’ll have to give a speech.
They should tell you that first, and they should phrase it like so: “So, we’re gonna have you give a speech in front of a bunch of people and a video camera, and then the speech will be published. Also, you’ve won an award — are you in?”
Know, as I stand before you, that I am terrified.
But hopefully that will help me make my case. I plan to talk this evening about fear.
About chasing fear. About how maybe the only things worth doing are the things you’re really, really afraid of, but still can’t stop thinking about.
I’m also going to talk about Eleanor & Park.
When I started writing Eleanor & Park, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d had some success with my first novel, Attachments, and I owed a publisher in the UK a second book…
But I still wasn’t sure that “writing a book” was something I could pull off twice. It had taken me five years to write Attachments — and I’d thought about writing it for three years before that. Now that I had to do it again, I was scared to reach back into my hat; I thought it was entirely possible that I’d already pulled out the only rabbit.
Also, I only had one idea for a second book — and it didn’t feel like a complete idea, never mind a good one.
This is how I pitched Eleanor & Park to my agent: It’s two kids in a truck, driving away from everything that hurts them. Maybe to Minnesota.
Later, when I showed him the finished manuscript, he said, “I thought this was going to be a road story.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I was only telling you the end.”
That’s all I had when I started — the end. And a knot of tar-like feelings that clumped up in my stomach every time I thought about the two main characters: Park, a boy who has realized that the best way to get through high school is to be invisible. And Eleanor, a girl who couldn’t be invisible if she tried. They’d be like Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo and Juliet had really been in love. And if they’d seen their end coming.
I’d plotted and planned Attachments for years before I started writing it. But I only had one year to write Eleanor & Park. There wasn’t time to run a plan past my conscious mind. There wasn’t time to be careful.
I sat down to write, and without asking myself why — or asking myself for permission — I started writing a story set in 1986.
In my 1986.
In my old neighborhood. On my old school bus. With a villain cut from the same cloth as my own villainous stepfather, lurking in the background.
Eleanor and Park were new — their struggles their own. But I’d placed them in the middle of my very worst memories.
It made the act of sitting down to write unusually and acutely painful.
“I think this book is making me sick,” I confessed to someone in my family. I was sick. Actually sick. For the entire three months I worked on my first draft.
“Maybe you should stop,” she said. “If this book is making you sick, you should stop writing it.”
“Or maybe,” I said, “I need to keep going. Maybe I need to get this out of me.”
I think sometimes we think of bravery as being the opposite of fear. But, really, you have to be afraid of something before bravery enters the picture. If you’re not afraid of demons, it doesn’t take much bravery to face them.
I was afraid to face the book that was coming out of me.
And I was afraid it was a book that no one wanted. It was nothing like Attachments, and “like Attachments” was pretty much the only thing I’d promised my publisher.
Also, it was about teenagers. Did that make it young adult? I didn’t know anything about young adult literature. But I didn’t know anything about anything, so maybe that didn’t matter.
I was so afraid, and so insecure, and so clueless about what I was supposed to be doing—that my fear almost became irrelevant. I was so far outside my comfort zone that there wasn’t a safe, known path for me, forward or backward.
I remember writing the telephone call between Eleanor and Park, their first private conversation, and feeling like the scene was out of control. Too drawn out, too dramatic. Just way too much. And then I thought, “God, at this point, there’s no use reining myself in. If this book is a big sloppy mistake, I may as well make it as sloppy as my heart desires. I may as well take every risk. Write everything that scares or embarrasses me.”
I felt like I was stuffing my own Pandora’s Box.
I wrote for three months in freefall.
Now, I’d like to pause, for just a moment, to acknowledge how melodramatic and much this speech is. I know how over-the-top I sound. And I promise, if you ever invite me to give a speech about any of my other books (they’ll have to have an award attached, I only write speeches for big awards now)—I promise I won’t be this hyperbolic. Eleanor & Park came from such an extreme place, I can only talk about it extremely. In superlatives.
Eleanor & Park is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.
The most frightening.
And it’s the thing I’m most proud of.
I think that would be the case even if no one else liked the book.
This award means so much to me because it feels like proof, like validation, that we are meant to take risks in this life. That fear is as much a beacon as a warning. That the most profound progress can be made when you step directly into the chasm.
I’ll never write another book like Eleanor & Park.
(Even if I write a sequel.)
Writing this book, from the darkest place in my heart…made my heart less dark. That pain isn’t there for me to go back to. Even if I wanted to.
But I know that writing it changed everything I will write and have written since.
Now, I don’t want to write books that I know how to write. I don’t want to feel safe inside a manuscript.
If I’m not afraid, if I don’t feel lost when I start a book…
What can I hope to find there?
Thank you for honoring Eleanor & Park. For supporting artists and authors. And for caring so much about children and children’s literature. A thousand over-the-top speeches could never express how much this means to me.
This speech was originally delivered on October 4, 2013, at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Ceremony at Simmons College. For more on Rainbow Rowell and Eleanor & Park, see “Five questions for Rainbow Rowell.”