This past weekend I traveled from my warm Texas nest to the colder clime of Ft. Collins, Colorado to celebrate the release of my friend Donna Cooner’s debut novel, Skinny.
I’m a fan of book release parties. I attend them regularly. A book, after all, is cause for celebration.
But this one was especially important. Donna and I go way back. Over twenty years ago, she and another friend, Debbie Leland, and I started a critique trio. Once a week or so, we’d gather at The Chicken Oil Company, and share our stories with each other. All three of us were working on picture books at the time. One by one, we’d read our stories out loud. Then we’d offer up super helpful remarks like “Oh, I like that” and “You should send that to Scholastic right away” or “If you just change that comma to a period, I think you can sell that . . . probably to Random House.”
Of course, we had no idea what we were doing. We gave passing grades to stories about turtles crossing the road, raccoons jumping on trampolines, and second graders tossing their rosy applesauce. Those were heady days, I confess.
But ignorance doesn’t always translate to bliss. We figured out quickly that there was a lot we didn’t know. Over the years, the three of us attended conferences, enrolled in workshops, and most importantly, we studied novel writing at Rice University through its Continuing Education program. Two or three times a month for four years, we made the two hour trek to Houston and back to study with a master teacher, Venkatesh Kulkarni. At the time, Debbie was teaching elementary school, and Donna was an assistant principal at that same elementary school. I worked part-time for a local bookstore. Both Debbie and I had small children.
It took a lot of juggling of babysitters, meals eaten in the car, schedule rearranging, burning the proverbial midnight oil, to get our assignments done on time and to make it to class I’d love to say that all three of us learned enough in those four years to write and finish a novel. Despite the best efforts of our teacher, we all three struggled.
I’m happy to say that all of us wrote and published picture books, and the information we gleaned in those classes held us in good stead in that category. I’m also happy to report that all of the stories in Kissing Tennessee (Harcourt, 2000), came from assignments that our good professor gave us. And we learned a whole new language about critiquing.
But the novel? Has there ever been a more elusive creature?
Years passed. Life became more complicated. Small children became teenagers became college students became adults. For me, the road took up an increasing amount of time, along with teaching. Debbie went back to school for her masters in library science. Donna moved to Colorado where she works full time at Colorado State University. She’s an important person there, a very important person.
And while many wonderful things happened across those years, hard things also happened. Divorces. Deaths in our families. Financial difficulties. No small shortage of crazinesses.
Still, all three of us kept working on that thing called a novel. Mine came first with the publication of The Underneath.
And now, four years later, Donna’s has arrived. Skinny. It’s the wondrous story of Ever, an extremely overweight teenager who makes the difficult decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery. The novel is based upon Donna’s own experience of having this surgery and her recovery, a recovery that meant not only healing from the surgery and learning to live with its consequences, but also about recovering her sense of who she was. Skinny isn’t just a body image or a way of being, Skinny is that voice that all of us carry around, the one that whispers into our ears about how inadequate we are, how incapable and incompetent. She reminds us of all of our nagging doubts and fears. She’s every existential worry we ever cooked up, housed in an invisible entity that sits on our shoulders. She’s a harpy. Even when Ever finally raises her voice and sings, Skinny sings louder.
What Ever realizes by the end is that surviving surgery is secondary to surviving Skinny. And the hard truth is that Skinny will never completely disappear, not for Ever or for any of us.
In a quiet moment this weekend, Donna and I had the chance to talk about all those years of attempting to write one novel after another, all the failed attempts, all the false starts, all the pages and pages of work that went through the shredder. All the times that our personal Skinny’s wreaked havoc with our work. And in that moment Donna said the truest words ever, “I finally wrote from my heart, and that made all the difference.”
I personally think that Donna has always written from her heart, even in her early stories with the rosy applesauce. But I agree that this book is different, that it came from a deeper, more sacred place, a place that knew she had something important to share.
A novel like Skinny takes more than heart. It takes courage. An issue like gastric bypass surgery, especially for teenagers, evokes strong feelings. Many will read this book and only see the issue and not the story. That will be their loss. I’m sure that Donna will be attacked for it no matter how beautiful the story itself. But I suspect that more will read this story and be moved by it, like the teenager who recently wrote to Donna and told her that Skinny was her story too. The truth is, it’s a story for all of us, for anyone who has been besieged by our own doubts. Everyone.
After twenty-two years, Donna wrote her first novel, emphasis on first. She’s not done.
And the story of Kathi/Donna/Debbie is not done either. We’ve been traveling this road for over twenty years, and with luck, we still have more years in front of us. Debbie’s turn is next, and we have full confidence that her novel is on the horizon.
So, what’s the point of all this? Well, I think there are many points, most of which have to do with study, perseverance, hard work, faith, friendship. All of those. But above all, we can learn this from Donna: write your story as well as you can, as true as you can, with your whole entire heart. And sing too. Sing so that Skinny is drowned out.
At the end of the day, that’s what matters.