hand_me_downI didn’t dream of being a writer.

Before I could read or write on my own, music was how I accessed and expressed emotions; it was my first love. My mom says the only way she could get me to stop crying as a baby was to put me in the car and play Joni Mitchell. She also sang to me a lot, and some of my safest memories are filled with lullabies in her voice, soothing me after a fall or before bed. Later, I would sing those same lullabies to my little sister.

For most of my youth, I wanted to be a rock star or an actress; thought performing was my destiny. My dad was a drummer in a band and his best friend had a recording studio in his garage, so my sister and I recorded our first original song at the ages of six and four called, “I Got the Baby Blues, Baby.” I sang in choirs, acted in school plays, performed in musicals, and in sixth grade snagged the lead in a church play in which I was onstage for the entire show and had a six minute solo that I performed at a conference in LA for hundreds of people. It was exhilarating, the live performance, feeling the audience react, and I loved every minute of it.

Even with my focus on singing and theater, it’s not like I didn’t write. I wrote new lyrics to songs tunes I knew and sang them to myself in the shower. I kept a detailed journal. In junior high I started writing poetry, bad rhymes at first that morphed into prose poems that got published in my high school’s literary magazine. In college I took a few workshops in poetry and fiction, and I even wrote for a school paper for about five minutes, but I saw no way to make a career as a writer. An actress who sang seemed to have so much potential as a way to be creative and still make money, so I remained a theater major.

A few years into acting classes at UCSC, performing began to lose its luster. I became less interested in being the subject of the story and more interested in creating the story. More and more I took on the role of producer or writer in theater class projects—I penned one spoof of Waiting for Godot set in ancient Greece with the people waiting for the Gods that I’m particularly proud of—and I couldn’t stop taking creative writing classes or writing poems in the margins of my notebooks. Finally, it was my mom, after reading one of the stories I’d written for class who said, “Forget acting. This is what you should do.” She was right. Soon after, I changed my major to English.

Now, writing is primarily how I access and express my emotions, how I deal with the world, but music remains a close second. And luckily for me, I’ve been able to make a career out of being a writer.


hand_me_downOne of the most common questions I’ve received this year from readers is: “How much of Hand Me Down is true?” As a short answer, I say about 80%. But the truer answer is much more complicated.

The basic storyline of a mother choosing her convict husband over her daughters is actually true and did indeed happen to me and my sister. Most of the characters are based on real people, the places Liz and Jaime live are where my sister and I lived, so as I began writing, I started with my memories. I conjured up scenes and conversations from my past, from a time in my life I will never forget, and made tons of notes. I did research by reading old journals from when I was fourteen, reliving all the pain of those years, finding partial scenes written out in my messy cursive, snippets of dialogue that I’d actually formatted in quotes so I would know exactly what was said. At the time, I wanted a witness to the things the adults around me were saying, a record of the lines they used. Some of those lines made it into the published book.

At first, scenes very closely resembled my recollections. But as I revised, the story shifted in small ways. I added lines of dialogue and removed others; I exaggerated mannerisms, inserted character traits to supplement the ones the real people had; I changed timelines of events, when certain conversations took place, or who was involved. I studied with Pam Houston, who has made a career out of using personal experience as the basis for her fiction, so I learned to walk the line between fiction and non from a master. I’ve discovered that I love having a foot in both worlds, so I allowed myself to make the necessary adjustments for the good of the story. The details, the inconsequential daily minutia, were altered, but the emotional journey Liz makes is 100% true.

Over the years my continued work on the book organically created something that, while based on real events, is also indeed a work of fiction. Fiction that rings true, that reveals truths—what it means to be family, the power of forgiveness, the incredible bonds of sisterhood—is my favorite kind of writing. I hope that’s what I’ve accomplished with Hand Me Down.

hand_me_downI’ll admit I was nervous when my semi-autobiographical novel Hand Me Down was released last year. Until I started writing this book in graduate school, I had told very few people the real reason I was forced to move out of my mother’s house when I was fourteen. The embarrassing details of your dysfunctional family are not what you want to lead with when trying to make friends in a new school. The fact that my mother, when legally forced to choose, had picked her convict second husband over her daughters was not only painful, but another implicit family secret in a long line of secrets I’d grown up keeping. I knew speaking up was against the rules.

But eventually it became too hard to keep quiet; the truth kept bubbling up in my mind. My teenage self screamed at me to let her have a voice, my childhood self asked me to stand up for her, finally, so I did. About a decade after my step-father was released from prison and my sister and I left home, I started writing the story that I’d been too scared to share with anyone other than close friends. I hoped that any potential backlash would be worth the potential gains.

Fast forward six years and now I can’t believe that I ever considered not sharing my story. Writing it helped me move through some of the hurt and anger from that defining period of my life and allowed me to find forgiveness and forge deeper relationships with my family.

But the greater gift Hand Me Down has provided is in the responses from readers who have sent me their own stories of abuse, of triumph over it, of family dysfunction and betrayal, of love and sacrifice and perseverance and healing. I had hoped opening up about my personal experience might encourage others to do the same, but I did not expect to be able to witness that relief and growth. Many of the messages have made me cry because we humans are so strong, so resilient, so determined to survive, that sometimes we forget how vulnerable we still are, how much we all just want to be loved and safe.

All the old tapes in my head cautioned me against revealing so much of myself in the pages of Hand Me Down, but readers have shown me I am not alone. I’d been worried that I would have to explain that the kind of trauma Liz and her family experience really does happen behind closed doors every day even if we can’t always see it, or don’t want to. But instead, I found an outpouring of community and understanding, along with appreciation for my courage to disclose the unpleasant reality, and gratitude for my ability to remain hopeful, for illustrating that hardship doesn’t have to mean destruction.

Healing takes time—and maybe writing—but it is possible if we stop keeping the harmful secrets, if we open up about the hard truths. So many readers have connected to this, to Liz’s and my story, and for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.