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Original Essays

Control Freak

by Sarah Dessen
  1. Lock and Key
    $5.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Lock and Key

    Sarah Dessen
    "A must for Dessen fans, this will win her new readers, too." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "The characters are real and relatable. This new book...will captivate all readers." VOYA

    "Thoughtful readers who like slowly unfolding family sagas will want to read this latest work by Dessen." KLIATT

  2. Just Listen
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Just Listen

    Sarah Dessen
    "[Y]oung adult fiction at its best." School Library Journal

    "Dessen weaves a sometimes funny, mostly emotional, and very satisfying story." VOYA

  3. This Lullaby
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    This Lullaby

    Sarah Dessen
    "This is young adult fiction at its best, delving into the minds of complex, believable teens, bringing them to life, and making readers want to know more about them with each turn of the page." School Library Journal

    "Dessen weaves a sometimes funny, mostly emotional, and very satisfying story." VOYA

I have always been a little obsessive about writing. Wait: let me rephrase that. I've always been a little obsessive about everything. But when it comes to writing, I'm at my overthinking, to-do list writing, schedule-following-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness worst.

Simply put, I'm a control freak. And writing, at least in my experience, is something I cannot control. I can follow the exact same schedule, sitting in the exact same chair at the exact same time with the exact same chocolates two days running, and have two completely different results. One day the words just flow, clicking along at a fast, reliable pace…and the next, I'm staring at a blinking cursor for an hour and a half and trying to brainstorm other career options over the screaming in my head. The worst part is that there's no variable I can track down, one little thing that changed the outcomes so completely. And that makes me nuts.

When I first started writing novels, I was just out of college. I had one job as an assistant to a local writer, and a second waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant in the evenings. Every afternoon I tried to carve out whatever time I could — usually about an hour and a half — to write. I was always so rushed, hitting the SAVE button with one hand while grabbing my purse to blow out the door with the other, that all I could think about was that someday, maybe, I'd be able to Just Write. Then things would be better. I'd be able to be leisurely, more contemplative, make writing the center, not something I crammed around the edges. If it was a priority, surely it would get easier. Right?

It took a while, but a few years back, I was able to give up my then-job, teaching writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, to focus exclusively on my books. No longer was I was writer-slash-waitress, or a writer-slash-teacher. I was a Writer, no slash required, with the luxury of spending all day, every day, focused on my writing.

I hated it.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. But it was not the idyllic existence that I'd imagined all those years that I was filling salsa dishes and grading papers. First, being a full time writer can be kind of lonely. Sure, you can hang out at the water cooler or coffeemaker in your kitchen and discuss the latest episode of The Office or Project Runway, but it's not the same when only your dogs are there to listen. (If you've ever wondered why I talk about TV so much on my blog…well, now you know.) And while it is a great thing to have all day long to think about writing, you also have…all day to think about writing. How it went yesterday (good, bad, terrible) how it might go once you start today (better, worse, abysmal beyond all belief). From the moment I woke up I was constantly at work at my book in my head, trying to come up with ideas, throwing everything I could at the wall in the hopes that something would stick. What about that last chapter? Maybe I should cut it entirely? Or make it longer? Since I write in the afternoons, I had all day to think like this, which meant that by the time I sat down I was usually either exhausted or completely terrified. Or both.

This is not to say that I can't work while exhausted for terrified, as I did write a book during this period. Then again, writing is never particularly easy for me. But for some reason, I'd always thought this was because it was always competing for time with everything else. It was kind of depressing to have to admit that no, it was just me.

I had just resigned myself when I got pregnant with my daughter. By the time she was born, I had just finished final edits on my book, which was a good thing, as for the first few months of her life I was so sleep deprived I couldn't even write my own name, much less a paragraph. Writing seemed as distant and impossible as walking on the moon. But for once, I didn't panic when this feeling hit. I couldn't. I just didn't have the time.

And then, one day while I was driving back from the grocery store, the strangest thing happened. One minute I was thinking about how I'd forgotten to buy mustard, and the next, I had this idea. It was small at first, almost like a snapshot: a girl gets an email from her annoying stepmother. I kept driving. It kept coming. A little bigger here, a little brighter there. By the time I pulled into the driveway, I knew I had the beginning to something. And it had come all on its own.

It took another two months, and a very good babysitter, before I was finally to write down the idea from the car that day. By then, I had other snapshots, fragments, little bits and pieces that had popped into my head during two a.m. feedings, or while changing a diaper or pushing the stroller through my neighborhood. I didn't spend all day thinking about them. I couldn't. But even without the constant obsessing, the story kept developing. It didn't need me fretting over it, sticking my fingers all inside, trying to move it along at my pace. As I gave it a little breathing room, it began to breathe life back into me.

I'm writing again now, but things are really different from the last book. Forget the days of having to be at my desk, in the proper chair, at the proper time. Now, I write whenever the babysitter's here, usually in my daughter's room, the white noise machine on, tapping away at my laptop with her safari mobile swinging nearby. (I still need chocolate, though. Some things never change.) Occasionally I find myself stewing over my story while I'm driving or walking the produce aisle, but more often than not I just sit down, open the file, and pick up where I left off the day before. It's like jumping into a cold pool, that startling and often, refreshing.

I have good days, and bad days. That hasn't changed either. But even on the worst ones, once the file is closed and saved, I have to leave it behind, as there are baths to give and books to read and games to play. It's not the fancy, Writer life I imagined all those years ago. Not even close. But it doesn't matter. It's working, and so am I.

÷ ÷ ÷

Sarah Dessen is the author of seven previous novels for young adults, including the New York Times bestseller Just Listen. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. spacer

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