Award winning novelist and LARB YA section editor Cecil Castelluci resumes her blog series “Class Notes.” Her new book The Year of the Beasts, which alternates chapters of prose and comics, was published last month by Roaring Brook Press.
Free period, also known as Study Hall. A space in time during a school day without defined subject, curriculum or agenda; an opportunity for kids to study, rest, or transition from one headspace to another. A much needed break in the complicated saga that is a school day. Much like a period at the end of a sentence, it’s a pause.
Before I went to middle school or high school, I didn’t know what a free period was. I thought that it was something that you did when you tried to write a sentence and had nothing to say: an orphan point on a page.
There. That’s a free period. It doesn’t look very serious. Yet a space as small as that can change everything. As I learned when I got to middle school, the brief liberation of free period was huge. It was a chance to rest, but it was also a moment to think about other things. A free period — whether a space of time in the routine of daily life, or a point on a page — can be a turning point. In the study hall scene from 16 Candles, Sam (Molly Ringwald) fills out the sex test quiz, and suddenly finds herself admitting that she would do it with Jake Ryan (Mike Schoeffling). It’s a tiny moment in Sam’s already bad day (her birthday has been forgotten by her family due to her sister’s wedding). But it is during that free period that her story begins to change. She is brave on that page; she admits everything. And then, unbeknownst to her, her sex test note gets picked up by Jake, changing the course of her day. Of course for Sam, the story ends with a birthday cake, the cutest guy in school, and a Thompson Twins soundtrack. But it could just as easily have gone another way.
Not so long ago, something terrible happened in my life that left me fighting and alone. Emotionally, I was wounded way beyond a scratch or a cut or a puncture. In fact, this trauma cut me right to the bone; to the core of the person I thought I was. Worse still, I discovered that some people, even kind ones, turn away from trauma out of fear or grief. They don’t want their worldview to change. They don’t want their boat rocked. As I began to share what had happened to me, certain people in my life walled me out and never spoke to me again, hoping my trauma and its consequences would just go away. Some even called me a liar.
It was a terrible place to be. It was dark and lonely, full of sadness, betrayal and shock. Worst of all, I lost my words. The doctors who cared for me kept telling me to write it all down. To try to process. But I couldn’t. How could I express how I felt? During that time, I thought I might never write again.
Words were too clumsy.
But time marched on and when I got a bit stronger, I found stories again. Or rather, I should say, stories found me.
Perfect Pie, by Judith Thompson.
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Buried Child, by Sam Shepard
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
The Secret Life of Prince Charming, by Deb Caletti
The Outcast, by Sadie Jones
I am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier
Wild Things, by Clay Carmichael
Possession, by AS Byatt
Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte
And after a while some stories of my own wanted to be told. A simple idea came to me — a story of a boy who believes he’s been abducted by aliens. This premise, in a lot of ways, was autobiographical; I felt as though I had somehow been abducted. Trauma had taken me away. I was unrecognizable to myself and to those friends who had stuck by my side. The actual act of writing exhausted me, and sometimes I had nothing more to say in a chapter than one sentence. I had always been a lean writer, but with First Day on Earth I took that to its limit. At first I thought, “Oh, surely this one sentence chapter is just a place holder.”
But then after a while it dawned on me that sometimes one sentence is all you need to say everything. Somehow, fewer words became more precise when talking about pain. This idea interested me. I remembered that when I was in an indie rock band we would end a song when it was done. Sometimes that meant no bridge, no extra chorus, no intro or extro. The song was just done even if that meant the song was no longer than two minutes.
And then one day in the shower: liberation. I remembered that I also wrote comic books. That when words fail, pictures shout.
So, while writing First Day on Earth, I conceived of my new hybrid book with two alternating stories. One is in prose, two sisters and a summer together filled with all the things a summer should contain, and the other is in comic book form, the story of a girl who has become a Medusa and just wants to be a girl again.
This would become Year of the Beasts, and it’s here that I threw out the notion of what I thought a draft should look like. Instead of a full script I wrote more of a scene setting with dialogue and emotional tone to guide the artist (at the time I did not know who it would be), to let them break it down the way that they saw it. I trusted that they would follow the sadness of Medusa and be able to pace her journey across the page as she struggled with her snakes and monstrous form and interacted with her friends who were now a Minotaur, a Mermaid, and a Centaur. When I had written my first comic book, The Plain Janes, I did a full script, meaning that I indicated to the artist, Jim Rugg, what each panel image on the page would feature. But I had no desire to do that any more. I did not want to instruct anyone. I was so delighted when one of my favorite illustrators, Nate Powell, agreed to draw the book. He really did an amazing job breaking down the script.
So it was there, in that personal darkness, that I encountered the biggest Free Period of my life. This teeny tiny point became a huge pause, allowing for new ways of thinking about narrative, which is maybe the reason for having a Free Period in the first place. We are crammed all day with lessons and information and things that happen to us. Allowing for time to process. To zig instead of zag, either joyfully on purpose or traumatic and accidentally, which, if we allow it, becomes essential to growth. Old ideas of how to do something or how to write something were thrown out. Trusting a sentence or the idea of an image to sum up volumes of words were welcomed in. But that point is always turning. Which, in art, is as it should be.
I’m looking forward to next period. Foreign Language.