The Big Idea: Wendelin Van Draanen
One of the things I personally enjoy about the Big Idea series is that often I get to learn about the origins of the books here — the seed that take root and grow into stories, sometimes against our will. For The Running Dream, author Wendelin Van Draanen found her inspiration on the road, quite literally, as she ran past. It was a good place to find it, for a book about a teenager runner. Here she is to fill in the details.
WENDELIN VAN DRAANEN:
For me, the Big Idea for a book often starts with a Little Idea that grows and expands until it becomes part of a larger, broader concept. That was certainly the case with The Running Dream. It didn’t start with the theme See the person, not the disability.
It started with a rope.
A rope that was obstructing my way at about Mile 12 of the New York City marathon.
Let me back up and tell you that marathon running is not something I do for fun. I’ve run five marathons with my husband in the last five years for Exercise the Right to Read—a literacy and fitness campaign for kids—and each time I cross the finish line I swear it’s my last marathon.
The NYC marathon was particularly tough because, being from a small town on the West Coast, I didn’t realize what pre-dawn cold in November in New York actually felt like, or how crowded a field of 40,000 runners would be. Even huddled like cattle, I shivered away all my “reserves” in the holding area well before the race started at 10:00 AM.
So perhaps coming upon The Rope at Mile 12 wouldn’t have been a big deal if I hadn’t been pre-exhausted, or if the field hadn’t still been so crowded. But I was and it was, so The Rope seemed like a mammoth barrier instead of something strung between two people in front of us. And in my head I’m going, Who are these idiots with this rope?
Then we went around them and I realized that we’d just passed a blind runner and his guide, and that not only was I the idiot, I was a complete wimp. I thought running 26.2 miles was tough? How would I like to do it blind?
So that was the seed for the Little Idea. I didn’t know I was growing a book at this time. It was just a thought. One that I subconsciously watered with experiences from other events. Like the half marathon I spent behind a gimpy old guy wearing red socks. Mile after mile I was stuck about thirty yards behind him watching those red socks go up and down. His mechanics were awful. His stride was a hobble. Yet my long, well-trained legs couldn’t close the gap. He was, like, Super Gimp.
Then there was the race with the woman with the atrophied calf. Her right leg was a club of muscles, the left pencil thin. What had happened to her? How was she even able to run?
Little pictures, stored in my mind.
Running has always been a part of my life. Not in the competitive sense, but in the mental-health sense. If I go too long without a run, you don’t want to be around me. So when I was younger and into backpacking and we had nothing to do one night around the campfire but talk nonsense, and the Question of the Night somehow became, If you had to lose one limb, which one would you choose? my answer was unequivocally Not a leg. If I couldn’t run I’d go nuts. I couldn’t imagine losing any limb, but that night, pressured to choose one, I settled on my left arm.
Now that I play guitar, that answer would be different.
Actually, now I just wouldn’t answer, but at the time I was being needled by brothers, so…you know.
Anyway, yes, this is how I grow an idea. I don’t even know I’m doing it. It finds roots in the past and water from the present, and then suddenly it pops through the murk and starts stretching toward the light.
What popped through was the idea of a track star tragically losing her leg, but what quickly shot up and out from that was the complex issue of the effects of peer reaction, and the even more complex emotions of retrospective self-assessment. Why is it that we empathize best when we’ve experienced a tragedy ourselves? Why does it seem to take one to open our eyes to others around us? And how do you go on when the thing you love most in the world is suddenly gone?
In all my years running, I had never been at an event where I’d seen a runner with a prosthetic leg. As a matter of fact, until I began writing The Running Dream I knew next to nothing about amputation, rehabilitation, or prosthetic limbs. And although the idea of The Running Dream was quickly blossoming into a Big Idea, the research alone seemed daunting. So I tried to bury it. After all, I had other books under contract. I had a timeline to maintain. Starting a project like this would be crazy!
But the trouble with letting Little Ideas grow into Big Ideas is that they become rooted in your brain so firmly that there’s no yanking them out. You’d rip out half your brain trying.
So I decided to do a little research. Just to see. And then I dared to meet my character, Jessica, on the first page where she’s certain life is no longer worth living.
I was done for after that. I became obsessed with the story, with bringing Jessica back into life, and with doing my chosen themes justice. And yeah, my timeline for contracted work got all messed up, but I’ve had the same editor since she plucked me out of the slush pile twenty-something books ago, so I think she’s forgiven me.
Aside from the feeling of awe that sweeps over you when you finally hold a finished book in your hands, the wonderful bonus that comes from allowing a Big Idea to take root is that you grown along with it. I’ve learned so much from writing The Running Dream and have met and worked with wonderful, compassionate, inspiring people. To me, that may actually be the best thing about writing.
I just hope another idiot strings a rope across my path sometime soon.