At seventeen, I graduated high school. At twenty-one, I graduated college. Before my twenty-second birthday, I had moved to Northern California and enrolled in a Master’s degree creative writing program.
That program—like my character Will’s ability in SACRED—was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it was two years given to me to write. A grant and a teaching assistantship covered tuition, rent, and groceries (as long as I didn’t shop at the co-op, all fancy and organic), and my needs beyond that were pretty simple. Hot tea, lots of it. Whatever wool sweaters I could find at the thrift store, to layer with my secondhand jeans and the boots I used to ride in.
The curse, of course, was all that time to write.
Each quarter, a different professor led our creative writing workshop. Workshop was also a blessing and a curse.
One quarter, I had the privilege of working with Max Byrd, a writer of historical fiction. Somewhere during the middle of the term (during which I suffered about three different kinds of breakdowns—vehicular, emotional, familial)—he said something that resonated with me.
“If you have access to a world,” he told us, “a world that the rest of us don’t know about, write about that world.”
I didn’t know any hidden worlds. I didn’t have a special wardrobe that took me places, or a knife that could catch the fabric of the universe and create an opening to a parallel dimension. Hell, I didn’t even know this world—this real world—very well at all, it seemed to me.
My classmates were almost all older than I was—some much older. They were, many of them, categorically better writers. They were experienced. They’d traveled the world, some of them, or been married, and divorced. They had done things I didn’t think I even knew the words for, had the imagination to conceive. And they wrote about these things—Papa Doc in Haiti, crumbling marriages, intense affairs. What did I know? I had been in school, in school, in school. I had been with the same boy, who was now a man, since right after high school graduation. He had moved with me up the long skinny center of California, leaving behind waves and surfing because he loved me more.
Sure, I was in the process of slowly breaking both of our hearts, and wondering if we could mend them, if we should mend them, but I couldn’t write about that. Even today, years and years later, I can’t quite write about that.
But I liked that idea—the idea of inviting readers into secret worlds. I must have liked it a lot, because it stayed with me—through the rest of graduate school, through marriage and a job as a junior high English teacher, through the birth of my two children, through the purchase of our first house, our second house—and through the un-great stuff, too, our worry over our son’s health when he suffered infant seizures no one had an explanation for, through the stalled economy that led to my husband’s lay-off, through the sale of our dream home and our excursion onto the road with our kids and our pets.
And when I was finally ready to write—thirteen years after Max Byrd’s workshop—his advice was still there, it turned out, a stubborn little burr.
I did have access to a world, to many worlds, and as I wrote, those worlds permeated my story. The first, most obvious world that appeared was that of horses, and horsemanship. My character Scarlett wound her way up the trail to her island’s heart, tall astride her mare, as I had during my teen years, finding in my horse both a refuge and an outlet, a place I could be free.
I had more to say—more worlds to share, though they weren’t as obvious as the stable scenes. Still, though more subtle, they were worlds I owned, and if not doors, I opened at least windows into them—a shattered family, a disconnected body, a core-deep yearning for touch.
Max Byrd’s advice to share secret worlds shapes so much of what I write today, but if I were to lead a workshop like the one in which I was his student, I’d add something to his advice. I would tell my students—as I tell you now—You are the owner of secret worlds. You may not know just yet how to access them, or even that they exist. But they do, and you will.
And I would add one thing more, something I say to my own inside voices—Be gentle with yourself. There is time.
About the Author
ELANA K. ARNOLD completed her M.A. in Creative Writing/Fiction at the University of California, Davis. She grew up in Southern California, where she was lucky enough to have her own horse--a gorgeous mare named Rainbow--and a family who let her read as many books as she wanted. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. She is represented by Rubin Pfeffer of the East/West Literary Agency. Sacred is her debut novel.
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About the Book
Growing up on Catalina Island, off the California coast, Scarlett Wenderoth has led a fairly isolated life. After her brother dies, her isolation deepens as she withdraws into herself, shutting out her friends and boyfriend. Her parents, shattered by their own sorrow, fail to notice Scarlett's pain and sudden alarming thinness. Scarlett finds pleasure only on her horse, escaping to the heart of the island on long, solitary rides. One day, as she races around a bend, Scarlett is startled by a boy who raises his hand in warning and says one word: "Stop."
The boy—intense, beautiful—is Will Cohen, a newcomer to the island. For reasons he can't or won't explain, he's drawn to Scarlett and feels compelled to keep her safe. To keep her from wasting away. His meddling irritates Scarlett, though she can't deny her attraction to him. As their relationship blossoms into love, Scarlett's body slowly awakens at Will's touch. But just when her grief begins to ebb, she makes a startling discovery about Will, a discovery he's been grappling with himself. A discovery that threatens to force them apart. And if it does, Scarlett fears she will unravel all over again.
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