Guest Post: Jessica Vitalis on Telling the Truth: Sometimes You Have to Make It Up

By Jessica Vitalis

There is more than one way to tell the truth. But I didn’t know that when I set out to write a memoir more than twenty years ago. I attempted to capture every bizarre twist and turn of my transient childhood (think The Glass Castle [by Jeannette Walls, Scribner, 2005] meets Educated [by Tara Westover, Random House, 2018), sure that the string of traumatic events more colorful than anything I’d ever read in fiction would land me a book deal and catapult me to the top of the lists.

That didn’t happen, and it took me years to figure out that it wasn’t because my story didn’t have value. My book didn’t take off partly because I didn’t understand at the time how to tell a compelling story; I didn’t grow up in a family or culture of storytelling or storytellers, and I didn’t understand that stories have a particular shape that at its finest appears entirely organic but actually requires extraordinary skill—the kind that for some people comes naturally and for other (like myself) must be learned.

The art of a story is not only in shaping a narrative but also in understanding the building blocks of story: how to craft a compelling scene, paragraph, and even sentences. Like storytelling in general, these aren’t skills that we’re born with—they are skills that must be cultivated with intention and care.

But my lack of craft expertise wasn’t the only reason my memoir didn’t resonate. When I shared the manuscript with a close friend and asked for feedback, she told me that reading my story didn’t cause her to feel anything. I was stunned. How could anyone read about a child who had lost her father before she was born, who had lived in a camper, a school bus, and a cabin with no electricity or running water, a kid who had moved nearly twenty-four times before fourth grade, not inspire emotion?

Jessica’s early memoir attempt.

I didn’t understand that stories are about so much more than telling the reader about an experience. They are about are about inviting the reader into a world so vivid that it comes alive in a way that makes them feel as if they are actually experiencing it for themselves. I was so focused on sharing my trauma, of finally being heard and seen, that I neglected to create a compelling emotional journey.

When it became obvious that my memoir wasn’t going anywhere, I set out to write fiction, thinking perhaps that would be easier. In some respects, I was right. After all, real lives rarely unfold in exactly the shape we need to create a narrative arc. I wrote several fictional stories, but the idea of writing from my lived experience wouldn’t let go. So years later, I cherry-picked some of the more salient memories from my childhood and attempted to fashion them into a fictional story with a narrative arc.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was still too close to the material to view it with any kind of objectivity. Again, I found myself setting the story aside. I wrote a sixth manuscript and finally (thirteen years after I started writing) landed a two-book deal with Greenwillow [ an imprint of HarperCollins].

After writing my seventh manuscript, I found myself drawn back, yet again, to this idea of writing a story based on my childhood. This time, I knew that I had to let go of telling “my” story. Instead, I focused on creating fictional characters and experiences that would share the truth of my childhood without putting most of the actual events on the page.

It was only in letting go of my lived experiences, and adding a pinch of magic, that I was able to find the heart of the story I wanted to tell: a story where kids who don’t feel seen or heard are finally given a voice––and hope. That story, Coyote Queen, comes out in the fall of 2023 with an additional story inspired by my childhood coming in 2024.

It turns out that we all have stories worth telling, but sometimes, the best way to tell these stories really is to make them up.

Cynsations Notes

Jessica Vitalis, a Columbia MBA-wielding writer, authored The Wolf’s Curse and The Rabbit’s Gift (which received starred reviews from the School Library Journal and CCBC and was named a Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Books for Kids and Teens 2023). Her next book, Coyote Queen, arrives on Oct. 10, 2023 (and has already received a Kirkus Reviews starred review), and a novel in verse comes out in 2024.

Her work has been translated into three languages, and she was named a 2021 Canada Council of the Arts Grant Recipient and featured on CBCs Here and Now and CTVs Your Morning. An American expat, Jessica lives in Ontario with her husband and two daughters but speaks at conferences, festivals, and schools all over North America.