Jennifer Niven: Bleeding onto the Page

Jennifer Niven: Bleeding onto the Page

That summer of 2013, I thought again about this boy and that experience, and I knew in my heart it was the story I wanted to write. Issues like teen mental health aren’t always talked about openly, even though we need to talk about them. I’d never felt as if I was allowed to grieve for this boy I loved because of how he died. If I was made to feel that way after losing him, imagine how hard it was for him to find help and understanding when he was alive.

After I decided to work on the story, I thought of a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t. All these years later, it was still too painful. And there was another doubt in the back of my mind. When I was a screenwriting student at the American Film Institute, the main criticism I got from my fellow writers was that I didn’t put enough of myself in the stories I wrote. They wondered if I would ever be able to truly open up on paper. Novelist Paul Gallico once said, “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” But it’s not always easy to bleed so publically.

When I sat down to write the first chapter of All the Bright Places, I told myself I would just see what happened. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to write anything at all. And then I heard Finch’s first line: Is today a good day to die? And I saw him up on the ledge of his high school bell tower, his classmates down below, the same ones who called him “Theodore Freak.” And then suddenly, Violet was there too, on the other side of the ledge, the popular girl, frozen and needing help.

For the next few weeks, I barely left my desk. The story of this boy and this girl who went from that bell tower ledge to wandering their state—seeing every out-of-the-ordinary site, making it lovely, leaving something behind—flooded right out.

In just six weeks, the book was born. I like to say it’s the book I was writing in my head for the past several years without knowing I was writing it.

My mother, Penelope Niven, was an author as well. She used to say, “You have to be able to write in spite of everything. You have to be able to write because of everything.” In other words, you need to be willing to bleed onto the page, knowing that you will have something on paper which is real and honest. More so than any of my previous books, All the Bright Places proved to me I could do that.

One more thing. That boy I loved? He left me a song, which he wrote following a single perfect day we shared. This is where Finch’s song for Violet came from:

“You Make Me Happy”

You make me happy,
Whenever you’re around I’m safe inside your sunshine smile,
You make me handsome,
Whenever I feel like my nose just seems a bit too round,
You make me special, and God knows that I’ve longed to be that kind of guy
      to have around,
You make me lovely, and it’s so lovely to be lovely to the one I love.

Remember how we joked and laughed and danced across the grass,
so hungry but too hooked to eat?
And suddenly a symphony right on the lake inspired me,
with you and William Clark to blame.
I tried to share my favorite word, but obelisk was all you heard,
I swear I told the straight up truth.
And certainly it may sound quaint but it’s so much to let me say:

You make me happy,
When all the radios are tuned to my least favorite song,
You make me thankful,
That I could get the chance to be the pit inside your peach or plum.
You make me feel good, and God knows that a minute without that can feel
      a thousand years.
You make me love you, and that could be the greatest thing my heart was
      ever fit to do.

Remember how the flowers seemed to glow inside our hands as we washed off
the feet of Christ, and Valentino’s cozy corner felt like heaven for a moment,
while the psychic blessed our minds, and Hollywood forever stayed
inside the scrapbook that we made and ended with a dinner date. And though
it’s simple it still means the best day that I’ve lately seen……

You make me happy, when we sit and contemplate the rough times that we’ve
      had to win,
You make me gentle, a peaceful breeze upon my storm to let me know I’ll be ok,
You’re like an angel, I do believe you’ve come to be the guide inside my
      searching light,
You make me love you,
and that could be the greatest thing my heart was ever fit to do.

If Clifton Webb could haunt a word he’d say “just fix my swinging door” it’s bad
enough you’ve wrecked my home, and little rascals there we stood and gave a moment
for your good, and is that Petey or your dog? And don’t forget the funny bird, and
pinwheel that seemed so absurd, but must have meant a lot to them, and in
two weeks we’ll fly again, perhaps a Chinese dinner then.

You make me happy, you make me smile.

You can find more about All the Bright Places here and don’t forget to check out the other Zoella Book Club books here.

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