[Although today celebrates Nichole Bernier becoming a novelist with the debut of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., the truth is she’s always been a writer. In fact one need only look at her professional success as a contributing editor and journalist for proof.
However, in today’s guest post, Nichole shares the personal aspect — the real reason — for why she writes.]
The day I started keeping a journal I was twelve, an awkward twelve—as if there’s ever anything else—and brand new to town. It was the first day of seventh grade. My English teacher gave the class an assignment to write about something on our minds, anything interesting or troubling. We were to do this for ten minutes daily. No one would see it but her.
Moments before, the girl at the desk next to mine had turned to me and said, “I like your skirt.” My family had just moved to Connecticut from the midwest, and as the oldest child of four whose mother still picked out her clothes, I had no concept of cool. So I had no idea I was about to experience my first social catastrophe of junior high.
“It’s not a skirt,” I said, stretching out my legs to show the glorious plaid extending all the way to my lace-up Buster Brown shoes. I can still see the expression on the girl’s face, a combination of disbelief and good fortune, because she had something so rich for the person beside her.
I know these details not just because I remember them – because really, who ever forgets? – but because I wrote them in my journal, and then continued to document my year’s highs and lows. I don’t recall my teacher ever saying anything to me face-to-face about my personal writing, and I’m not sure I would have been comfortable if she had. I remember her as a cool artsy presence, a pen pal, an aloof fairy godmother. But the fact that she didn’t say anything made it possible for me to keep up the illusion that I was writing only for myself.
I continued the journaling habit the following year even though it was no longer an assignment, exorcised each hopeful and painful detail, like when a boy announced to homeroom on the first day of eighth grade that over the summer that Nichole Bernier’s mosquito bites had turned to maraschino cherries. As the years passed, the journal became the place I processed the big decisions: what kind of person I might become if I went to this college instead of that one. Whether I should let go of a relationship that was not healthy, and later, whether I should gamble everything — job, rent control, beloved city—for one that was. It was where I played with poetry and experimented with long and flowery tortured sentences.
In spite of those sentences, the journal writing probably led to my career in magazines because investigating ideas through writing was second nature to me. I loved that work: the travel, the struggle for just the right word and sentence to describe a place. I loved interviewing people and reading between the lines of their quotes and body language to develop character. Literary journalism was the name my graduate school had for this form of writing, and I loved it — fact through fictional style. It never occurred to me to actually write fiction even though I loved reading it.
But after I lost a friend in the September 11th attacks, my magazine writing wasn’t the appropriate place to express some of the more haunting thoughts, and my journal was no longer enough. I began doing free-form scene writing, though if you told me at the time that it was the beginning of a novel I wouldn’t have believed it. Once I accepted that it was, my relationship to writing changed. Words were a way to report on details and observations, but also a creative vehicle to deeper truths, the why behind the beautiful and ugly things people think and do and have done to them. Fiction writers can take a germ of an idea spool it out into the what-ifs: What if someone felt this way about trying to protect her family in post-September 11th world that suddenly felt dangerously arbitrary, but it became an obsession? What if a mother felt passionately about her career, but left it behind because that’s what she thought good mothers did?
Once I started seeing the what-ifs behind the whats, I couldn’t unsee them. In our old town there was a family — mother, father, and teen son — that sat a few pews in front of us in church. The boy was sadly obese and always had an unwashed look. The mother always had her arm around him protectively. One day they were sitting directly in front of me, and I noticed blanched patches on the boy’s skin around the back of his neck and ears, signs that suggested the beginning of vitiligo disease. I imagined what it would be like for a parent, worrying about a teen who had these strikes against him in a world where appearances matter. What would he grow to be because of, or in spite of, this disease? Was he teased? Would some good person still love him someday?
Writing for me makes beautiful things more beautiful, and distills an ugly thing—prejudice, cruelty—to its ugly core. It clarifies the nauseous prickle of witnessing something you cannot make sense of until you begin to get it down on paper. The sentences will be reduced and discarded, reduced and discarded, until the essence of a thought becomes an of course. It’s an understanding I can’t reach until I write it out.
Previously selected as one of BookPage’s Most Anticipated Debuts of 2012, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, has now been chosen by VOGUE for its Hit List: Six Summer Novels. And here’s a glimpse of why:
Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.
Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth’s journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew.
The complicated portrait of Elizabeth—her troubled upbringing, and her route to marriage and motherhood—makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a period of uncertainty in her own marriage.
The more Kate reads, the more she learns the complicated truth of who Elizabeth really was, and rethinks her own choices as a wife, mother, and professional, and the legacy she herself would want to leave behind. When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in the pages, Kate realizes the extent of what she didn’t know about her friend, including where she was really going on the day she died.
Set in the anxious summer after the September 11th attacks, this story of two women—their friendship, their marriages, private ambitions and fears—considers the aspects of ourselves we show and those we conceal, and the repercussions of our choices.
TRUST: A novel based on loss, introspection and ultimate self-discovery, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is hauntingly bittersweet, often asking more questions than can ever be answered. How well do we know others is an obvious example but how well do we know ourselves may be more thought-provoking. Intriguingly honest, this is a story told within a story about a life of quiet desperation until its end(?).
Now please, explore the book on your own….enjoy!
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier — in a random drawing — to anyone who leaves a comment on this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT tonight! The winner will be notified by email tomorrow.