Heart & Spirit: Carol Coven Grannick on Depth of Emotion in Writing Character

By Carol Coven Grannick

During the time I’ve been a Cynsations Reporter for “Heart and Spirit,” my now-debut middle grade novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn (Regal House, 2020), popped up in numerous Cynsations columns as a work-in-progress.

It’s been quite a journey for Reeni and me, with plenty of obstacles, some major disappointments, and an immense amount of joy and positive meaning to me as a writer.

After more revisions than I can count, I found a way to create the story I dreamed it could be, the emotionally authentic journey of a shy, fearful girl determined to come out of the shadows, but struggling with self-consciousness, acceptance of her newly-changing body, and a strong voice that seems to stay inside.

The story unfolds in the context of the underrepresented issue of dieting among younger children and the diet culture’s impact on their physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being.

Possibly the most significant thing I discovered during the early years of writing was that thinking I had embedded emotion into my work didn’t mean I actually had. This aspect of the journey unveiled surprises.

The first was the result of a deliberate effort at discovery.

Somewhere in the middle of massive revisions, I felt stuck. And since for me “stuck” is a name for a deeper process going on, I soon realized I wasn’t feeling anything about Reeni’s experiences as she struggled through.

I was skimming over the surface, keeping myself from something I hadn’t discovered yet or more likely, was avoiding re-discovering. Not really a surprise, because I’d noticed this in other work.

The surprise came when I examined my work. Although Reeni’s story is not my own, there had been numerous memories I’d “infiltrated” (thank you, Beth Kephart, for that language) into the fiction. Profound joy, deep and self-hating pain, the wrenching love/hate sibling relationship, and more had found their way into my story.

Well, the events were there, at least. But the depth of emotion was not. I did a few things:

I wrote a letter from Reeni to me. She charged me head-on and her shy little voice shouted out, “What are you doing? I’m not you! You might be afraid of this stuff, but I’m not! I can handle it and I need you to let me have these feelings!”

After “Reeni’s” letter, I noticed in how many verses I’d inserted qualifying phrases into the snapshots of experience or emotion: “I feel like,” “I think,” “I imagine,” “I remember,” “I try,” and more. I read the verses aloud. Nothing. No feeling.

She was right. I was dancing on the periphery of Reeni’s authentic emotions.

I removed the unnecessary phrases and could feel the difference even before I read the verses aloud. Listen, listen, lean and dream…I’m onstage alone as the spotlight glows: rushing blood, beating heart, choked up throat, and tears. That was more like it.

I spent quality time with each verse to make certain the emotion felt authentic to Reeni, and even more time with the verses in which my own memories played a part. Word changes, different line breaks, experimentation with stanzas and space, called up intense joy and pain, longing, confusion, attempts at problem-solving, and more.

I was pleasantly surprised that all the effort resulted in a more authentic, deeply emotional story.

But there was an even bigger surprise in store.

In July of 2019 I received an Illinois Arts Council grant to attend Esther Hershenhorn‘s Vermont Manuscript Workshop, where I worked on final revisions and a marketing plan for Reeni’s Turn.

As I pondered about what topics I might use for presentations and the multiple guest blog posts planned, Esther asked me to do an assignment during my work time before our next meeting.

“Write your process writing Reeni’s Turn on one side of the paper, and write Reeni’s process on the other. Focus on the turning points.”

This is the kind of homework I love. Being asked to look inside, remember, capture external and internal turning points—even more significant because of the multiple meanings of “turn” in my story’s title? Exploring process? I was a former group therapist. This would be right up my favorite alley!

I sat on a bench near the pond and began.

The surprise I found was extraordinary. As I traced my own journey, and then Reeni’s, giving names to the turning points, my body’s reaction told me that in twenty-years of commitment to writing for children (which began with a story that led to Reeni’s Turn), I’d experienced similar emotional/psychological/spiritual turning points to my main character’s three-month struggle to find courage, self-acceptance, and her own strong voice.

  • A beginning in safety with the longing to take a risk
  • Separation issues
  • Discovery of a longing that takes shape
  • Creating
  • Working at the journey with supportive and undermining voices
  • Misdirected “short cuts”
  • Paying the price for the misdirected short cuts
  • Torment and yet relief in potential failure
  • Most painful moments when the dream seems dead
  • But true “quitting” never feels right
  • Taking the “doing” and risk-taking into her own hands to make the dream come true.

It was as if my own two-decade process had wrapped itself around my story like a ribbon, holding the heart of it close. Just the way I’d dreamed it could.

Esther, always noticing, always thinking, always looking for the best, said, “This is your workshop: Heart to Heart…to Heart. You put your heart into Reeni’s, and now Reeni’s heart will touch your readers’ hearts.”

Every writer hopes that is true. And Esther reminded me of a favorite quote from one of our favorite authors, my first inspiration to write for children, and the reason I stayed with Reeni’s Turn for all these years, from seed to publication:

“We are trying to communicate that which lies in our deepest heart, which has no words, which can only be hinted at through the means of a story.”—Katherine Paterson, “Heart in Hiding” 

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick’s debut MG novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, is available through Indiebound and other stores via her website, where she’d love you to visit and say hello! Her children’s fiction and poetry appear and are forthcoming in Cricket, Highlights, Ladybug, Babybug, Hello, and Hunger Mountain, and her poetry for adults appears in numerous online and print journals.

In addition to being a reporter for Cynsations, she is a columnist for the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind, a member of the GROG Blog, and guest blogger for children’s lit blogs.