|photo: Andrea Cipriani Mecchi |
About 25 years ago, on a cold January day not too different from today, I handed my completed Tragedy Paper to my high school senior English teacher Mr. Arthur Naething. It was the longest, hardest research paper I had ever completed—we had all been dreading and fretting over it since September. And now it was done—twenty-nine typed pages, plus a seven-page bibliography.
As the paper moved from my young, inexperienced hand to his sturdy, slightly wrinkled one, I wondered, had I defined a literary tragedy properly? Did I use enough examples of Aristotle and Shakespeare? Was my use of secondary sources strong enough? Had I made my point, and backed it up, when I declared that I did not believe tragedy could still be written in our time?
Then the paper was gone, whisked away with the rest of them, and I had to wait weeks to learn my fate.
I knew even then that this paper was slightly different from others I had written. After all, how often was I actually excited to turn in a big school assignment? When, before, had I not minded sitting down with books and notes and ideas, trying to make sense of it all? With all my other assignments, it had been a relief to turn them in and be rid of them. With this one, though, I found myself thinking about it, and wondering what Mr. Naething might think of this or that choice I made. Still, did I even begin to know how much—dare I use the word? —magnitude the paper was going to hold for me?
I definitely did not.
There was a lot going on for me that year. It was my second year at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. I traveled by bus every morning to get there, across Westchester County from my home in Mamaroneck. Nothing terrible had happened to force my parents to make the change away from the school closer to my house, but it did seem like the last chance for something—the last chance to enjoy high school, the last chance to move from being a mediocre student to a better one, the last chance to figure out that learning could be more than just something I had to do. In the same way that Tim Macbeth, one of the main characters in my new young adult novel, THE TRAGEDY PAPER, finds himself at the Irving School grasping for that last opportunity to squeeze the joy out of high school, I found myself on that quad and in those classrooms in a similar situation.
By the time my senior year and my Tragedy Paper rolled around, I was in the groove. I had friends I loved, I was doing better than ever in school, and, for the first time, I felt like I belonged someplace that I could already see was special. Like the characters in my book, I walked under a stone sign that read, “Enter Here To Be and Find A Friend,” and I was dismissed from my English class each day with the words, “Go forth and spread beauty and light.”
I remember the day the papers were returned to us. They were spread out on a wooden table in the school’s main office. We ran to find our masterpieces. I had to thumb through the pages along with everyone else looking for my grade. And there, written in pencil, was a capital A with the sentence, “Your argument is valid and convincing.”
I had done it, and the strangest part to me at the time was how much I cared! I had completed the assignment and done the best job I could do. I had a huge sense of accomplishment, but no idea that it was really just the beginning of how often that paper would creep back into my thoughts.
Because of it, I was never afraid of a research paper in college; when I studied tragedy in a playwriting class, I was more prepared than anyone else. With some distance, I credit the paper for leading me to my first career as a journalist. That excited feeling I had for the first time when I sat on my yellow-carpeted bedroom floor as a teenager surrounded by books analyzing tragedy, I continued to have every time I returned to the newsroom with a full reporter’s notebook and a blank computer screen. And even now, as I sit down to write fiction.
When my agent suggested I try to write a young adult novel, I loved the idea. As the story formed in my head, the world of the Irving School unfolded and Mr. Naething’s words came back to me. And then there is was—that amazing Tragedy Paper that was going to take Tim and Duncan through their senior years, the Tragedy Paper that had gotten me through mine and so far beyond. It was like a magic gift that surfaced so many years later after having burrowed into my subconscious.
The words came tumbling out—magnitude first, of course, and then hubris, order and chaos, reversal of fortune—all the things that make a story great. It took more than a quarter of a century to finally see the full value of that assignment.
I recently wrote another blog post
in which I talked about trying to worry less as an adult, something I was able to do as a teen. But my husband joked last night that I should have warned my teen self to take great care with my Tragedy Paper, knowing now how important it was, and continues to be, to my life. Echoing Tim’s words to Duncan at the beginning of my book, that paper would become the “meat” of my future novel. Elizabeth LaBan worked at NBC News, taught at a community college, and has written for several magazines and newspapers. THE TRAGEDY PAPER is her first young adult novel. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.
© 2013 Elizabeth LaBan. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Putting Yourself in Your Character’s Shoes (Sneakers, Ballet Flats or Boots!) In Other Words: On a Writer's Journey, Finding a Fellow Traveler