Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why I Can't Give Up On This One: Selective Mutism

I usually aim to be either funny, snarky, or informative on this blog. Very rarely am I super serious, so here’s your fair warning. This post is about SURIOUS stuff. See, there. I can’t even get through one paragraph. Sarcasm or bad humor is my go-to when I’m nervous, and let me tell you, writing this has my stomach in knots.
Okay, so… here we go.
In 2009, I wrote a book. This was not my first book. Not even my second. And if you count all the half written books, it would’ve been like, my sixth or something. The little spark (plot bunny) that started the fire (completed novel) went something like this:
I wanna write a book about two kids who are completely screwed up but in different ways and they are both very lonely and they become friends first and for some reason, the girl won’t talk. Not like, she can’t talk, but she won’t talk. And there are so many obstacles in their way but they jump every hurdle and they do it together and in the end they may not have a happily ever after but they have a happy for now. And there’s a swan tattoo.
If you’re a writer, you are probably familiar with plot vomit. If you’re a reader, now you know this is how your favorite novel started. An idea tree with a ton of branches, but no leaves at all. The leaves come later.
Now, as I wrote and the story began to solidify, all those fine details were filled in:
The dude, his mom is white and his dad is black, and they die in an accident when he’s fifteen. He does a brief stint in foster care before he’s emancipated and has to learn to survive on his own. His “friends”… they don’t want to hang with him anymore. He’s no fun. All he ever wants to do is work on computers. They fail to comprehend that it’s because he has to, to earn a living. But there’s this chick at school. Nobody likes her. She has black hair and fingernail polish and too much eye-liner. She wears a hoodie all the time. She’s lonely, like him. And he wonders… he wonders if they could be friends.
He asks her name. She stares at him. He’s crushed.
And this is where I get emotional.
She doesn’t talk. It sounds so silly because she physically can. She just won’t. No matter who teases, yells, threatens. No matter if there are consequences. None of it will make her talk. Sometimes she wants to, but not even that matters. She won’t.
When I wrote this book, I didn’t have a name for what my main character struggled with. I knew it was real though. I knew, because I had dealt with it.
But wait, let’s back up a little. Give me some time to tame my feels before I get into the heavy stuff.
When I finished and polished the manuscript, I queried agents. Many of them. This hunk of 72,000 words obviously meant a lot to me, but as you probably surmised, since I am currently sans agent… it was rejected. I’m talking, it rained rejections. Like, flash flood warning, y’all. I was crushed, and not nearly as objective as I am nowadays. I get it now, I do. So many aspects go into an agent’s decision to represent you or not. Their rejection doesn’t mean you suck as a writer. Honestly, it doesn’t. And the bright spot was, I actually got one teeny tiny request to see the full manuscript.
You should’ve seen me soaring on cloud nine. It was hilarious. I think we had a celebratory dinner and everything.
Anyway, that resulted in, you guessed it, another rejection. So, I did what we writers like to call “shelving it”. This is where we move on, write another story, grow our writerly skillz. I personally like to call it “shoving that sucker so far in a hole I forget about it for four years”, but that’s just me.
Fast forward to 2013 and two books later (5 books later, if you’re counting those half written ones. Which, I think you should.) I discovered the wonderful writing community on Twitter… and pitch contests. I still needed an agent but at the time, I had nothing to pitch. FATAL and sequels were contracted and everything else was incomplete. My former manuscripts were all junk except… The Swan.
So, I pitched it, on a whim.
AND I GOT REQUESTS.
Annnnnd those requests resulted in rejections.
By this time, Swan had been through like, three major revisions in an attempt to gussy it up for those requests. But something about it still wasn’t catching the attention of agents. Here’s a fact: every time I read back through this story, I love it. I cry. I feel. I GET IT. But also, I’m NEVER quite happy with the writing. I always think it needs more work, like it could be better. Am I right? Or am I hypercritical because the story hits home and I have this need to get it just perfect? I don’t know.
Right now, I’m querying again. Thankfully, I’ve had a few bites. And while I wait to hear from them, I’m pouring back through the story, picking apart anything that doesn’t sit right.
But here’s what I wanted to share with you: Selective Mutism. That’s the clinical name for my main character’s condition. It’s a form of social anxiety, and it is real. I struggled with it for years (though not as severely as my MC) and never had a name for it. Even to this day, I don’t talk much unless it’s with my fingers and a keyboard. The only exception is my immediate family. I’ve been called rude, snobby, b**chy, shy, inward, backward… and those are actually the more milder names. Coming from an uber religious background, I’ve even had people claim my issue was spiritual oppression. Like, okay, no. That’s not it. Social anxiety is a real and crippling thing and I’ve worked at combating it my whole life, for as far back as I can remember.
Most recently: I could NOT, under any amount of pressure, walk into an Alanta Bread Company because there were people seated near the doorway and I knew as soon as I opened the door, they would turn and look at me and I just couldn’t do it. My husband (who is a total sweetheart when it comes to my cray cray) found a side entrance where there were no people. Once inside, I ran to the nearest seat and begged him to go place my order for me so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Oh. My. Gawd.
It affects all aspects of your life. At times, you are helpless. And if, like me, you are independent at heart, it can be soul-crushing.
I don’t know how it is for others but for me, there are seasons. For example, after college, my anxiety was minimal. After I had my first baby, it was toxic levels. After my second baby, it was somewhere between minimal and toxic. Right now… well, there are bad days (like Atlanta Bread Company) but mostly, I’m feeling pretty solid.
Writing has helped. Writing, in general. But especially this particular story about a guy who lost his parents and a girl whose anxiety it so toxic she won’t speak.
My dreadlocks have helped. Yes, I know. Weird. There’s a story there, but I’ll tell it some other time.
The sense of community I’ve found on Twitter has helped. It might sound counterproductive because I’m online instead of in public, but for some reason, it helps. Maybe it’s knowing that there are others like me, that I’m not alone, that I’m not the only weirdo (I use that term with love. I embrace my weirdness).
Wrapping things up…
I cannot shelf this book. I can’t. It’s too important. Maybe only to myself, who knows. But it IS important. It’s important because someone out there struggles with Selective Mutism and they think they’re alone or weird or crazy. 
They need to know that they’re not.


10 comments:

  1. I sure hope this book gets picked up. I think that this happens to alot of people in various degrees. I think this would be a great book for YA..

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  2. I love this post! Good for you. I TOTALLY get what you're saying as I struggle with the same issue. I can go long periods without leaving my house because the anxiety of having to talk overwhelms me. I won't even go to the store or hang out with friends (I'm currently on day 6 of a shut in). Sometimes I can be a total chatter box and others I'm a complete mute. I try to embrace however I am feeling at the time and not force it. I just am what I am when I am what I am...if that makes sense. :) -Tammy

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  3. This is such a wonderful and important post, thank you for your courage in sharing it. I've dealt with a degree of social anxiety and have had similar responses from people thinking I'm cold, or just a jerk. Or that I'm leaving because I'm bored/rude - when really, I'm two seconds from hyperventilating. And then there's the added worry of being forgotten altogether! I don't want to be the center of attention, but do I want to be completely overlooked? It's rough. It's gotten better, as I get older, but it's a true struggle. So yeah. I'd have loved to have this book around as a teen (not sure if this is YA but I'd have read it in any case), and I'd love to have it around now. Rooting for you!!

    -Kate

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  4. I want to read that book just from what little you said about it. I hope you get it published.
    I hear you on the anxiety. For me, it can be phones. I have such a hard time calling someone I've never talked to on the phone that I'd rather speak face to face. And I have trouble with that as well. There are other things that make it hard to talk and the best way I found around it was my blog. i figure because I'm speaking to nothing at the time I'm writing, but knowing others will read and respond back. That just makes it easier than trying to talk face to face (and sometimes Twitter to Twitter.)

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  5. Brilliant post! I applaud your bravery. It's hard to speak about stuff like that (I know, I've struggled with depression/anxiety all my life), but I've found that when you do, you can be surprised by the support and love you find. I don't have that exact breed of anxiety, but I have a different one, and it can be so debilitating that I completely understand what you're talking about. I've felt that way too, avoiding parties, restaurants, concerts, whatever, solely because I didn't want to deal with the people.

    As for the manuscript, definitely don't give up on it. In fact, things may be looking up for it sooner than you think. ;)

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  6. I was lucky enough to read the first 3 chapters of this ms and it is seriously intriguing. I love your characters. Write it, girl! Tell the world of your weirdness! You rock. Thank goodness for Twitter for all us weirdos out here who don't wanna go where the people are. <3 *high five*

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  7. It is so beyond awesome that you've shared this. I have pretty bad social anxiety too. I go to the grocery store at night. I don't talk to strangers unless I absolutely have to. I hate leaving the house. I don't even like visiting family or talking on the phone. But my point is, I LOVE the idea if this book! I don't know if you know how much. I think it sounds so sweet and heartbreaking and healing and moving and emotional and beautiful and I want to read it! It deserves to be out there! So I'm sending all kinds of hope into the universe for this. Some stories just cannot be shelved. ^_^

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  8. Sooo, I think the overwhelming response here is that you should definitely keep things up with this book. Especially if you allow the readers to hear your story through this. As you can see, so many people can relate to this. I count myself as one, because I've also dealt with a lot of social anxiety/depression. So, I feel ya, girl. I also agree that social media has been a crazy boon. On one hand I feel bad for not "face to face" interacting with people, but the support and love of everyone has been enormous. I'm glad I met you and I can't wait to read this book and all of your others! :)

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  10. I struggled with some kind of social anxiety as a teenager and college age. I never had it as severely as you describe, but it was similar. I would meet a new person and honestly expect them to start mocking me. I worked through it--I'm well past that reflex--but uncomfortableness never really goes away. I'm an introvert at heart and have trouble talking to people I don't know.

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