The Story Behind The Story

Photo by Janane Nguyen Photography

Yesterday I got the news that my books have been printed. Soon they’ll be shipped to me, and then I’ll start packaging up and sending out the pre-orders. Yay!!!

Today, I thought I’d share the story behind the story. How did I come to write this book?

According to my Google Docs archives, I started it on March 8, 2019. At 1:01 pm EST, I opened a new document and typed:

“I’ll drive if you’ll give me this coffee,” I said.

There were about two inches left in my sister Amy’s paper cup of gas station coffee. It was cold. But I wasn’t drinking it for the coffee, I was drinking it for the caffeine. 

“Okay,” said Amy.

From The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea

But in my memory, I started the book six days before that, on a cold dark evening, as I was driving north on that long road that stretches between Lancaster City and Myerstown. I was thinking about death, and life, and love. I’d spent the last four days with some of my dearest friends as they grieved the loss of their cousin Ian, and I’d seen grief so up close, so raw.

And then, a song came on the radio. “Love Alone is Worth the Fight,” by Switchfoot.

I listened, and in my mind a movie played, of all the pain and heartache I’d witnessed in the past four days. They were hurt so deeply only because they’d loved Ian so much, and yet, it was all worth it to them. They never regretted loving him so much.

Because love alone is worth the fight.

I’d been traveling for six months at this point, and the whole time I’d had a vague idea that I would probably write a book about this experience. But up until now, the trip seemed like a random assortment of haphazard events, the most interesting of which I could never write about. (Yes, I did have some romantic drama. No, I didn’t write about any of it.)

But now, I had something. A vague ghost of a theme. Something that went a little deeper than “I did this crazy thing, and then I did that thing, and then I locked my keys in my car again.”

I’m going to start this book, I decided. And six days later, I did just that. Those exact words are in my book now, only on page 5 instead of page 1. (Also, with a couple of light edits. “My sister” was deleted, and the last “said” was changed to “agreed.”)

Despite the fact that my first words made it into the final draft relatively unscathed, most of that first draft wasn’t so lucky. I began it with only a vague idea that I had something deeper to say about my trip, but I didn’t have a firm grasp on the themes.

Partly just because I wasn’t even finished with the trip yet.

It’s kind-of funny, actually. When I returned to Oregon on June 8, 2019, I thought the trip was over. It hadn’t been a calendar year, but it had been a school year. By August I was starting on my second draft.

But then at the end of August, Grandpa had a stroke, and I flew to Minnesota to help care for him in his last days.

By this point I’d found the real opening line of my book: “When Justin shoveled dirt onto his son’s grave, it rattled like thunder.” (It was actually a line from my diary, originally.)

Because that’s how my story really began: not with asking my sister for her coffee, but with me, at a funeral, on the day I’d planned to leave Oregon. My cousin Justin’s son, little Asher Kai, was stillborn a week before his due date. He passed away on September 11, 2018, and his funeral was on September 15. I left for my trip on September 16.

A year later, on September 11, 2019, my 102-year-old grandpa passed away. His funeral was on September 15, and I left Minnesota and came back to Oregon on September 16.

This, I decided, was the real end of my trip, and I added two chapters accordingly.

Still, figuring out the themes didn’t come naturally to me. For that, I have to deeply thank my friend/editor Janessa Miller. I know that there can be all sorts of issues with hiring your friends, but I so needed my editor to also be my friend. Someone I could honestly and openly talk about my feelings with.

It was she who forced me to really look deeper into my story, not just as a series of disconnected events, but as events that I had feelings about. Events that shaped me, and changed me. (I’m an enneagram 5 and feelings are hard. Not because I don’t have them, but because it feels weird to talk about them. And also, I don’t always know I’m having feelings while I’m having them. I have to think about it for a while first.)

(Example: during my whole trip, I never realized that I was lonely. I didn’t discover it until I started writing about it, and sending drafts to Janessa, and hearing her say, “but how did that make you feel?”)

By the third draft, with the help of Janessa, I’d finally ironed out the themes.

The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea is a story of adventure, exploration, identity, heritage, community, faith, and loss. Follow Emily’s story as she embarks on the road trip of a lifetime, haphazardly finding her way through community after community in an attempt to figure out where she truly belongs.

From The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea

In total, I wrote five drafts of the book, although I’m not sure if the last two “count” as drafts.

The first draft was just a brain dump of events. It was also incomplete, since I “finished” it before my trip had technically “ended.” It took me five months to write, but I took it pretty slow.

The second draft was the hardest. It took me six months, and then I sent it to Janessa for her first round of edits.

The third draft took 2 1/2 months, and then I sent it to Janessa for a second round of edits.

The fourth draft took 22 days. It was just polishing up a lot of little things. Then I sent it to the proofreader, and I also sent bits of the book to all the people I’d written about, just in case they were uncomfortable with anything I’d said about them.

The fifth draft, which was just correcting all the little things the proofreader had found and adjusting a few things people had asked me to change, took 15 days.

And then, on August 8, 2020, it was done!

That is the story behind the story of my book, The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea. Sometime soon I’d like to tell the story behind the cover. And also, I’d like to tell my self-publishing story. So there are two future blog posts you can look forward to.

***

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Twitter: @emilysmucker

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YouTube: youtube.com/emilysmucker

Patreon: patreon.com/emilysmucker (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month. My latest two posts were titled Thank You, and Chapter 1 of The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea. I think I’ll write about the election next, if I’m brave enough!)

One response to “The Story Behind The Story

  1. I am so glad to be your friend and get to watch you write this book and bring it to the world

    Like

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