The Big Idea: Jarrett Lerner
In A Work in Progress, author Jarrett Lerner’s character is wrestling with a monster of a problem. It’s the same problem that Lerner himself had to wrestle with in his time — a monster of a problem that is, alas, all too common.
I’ve always loved monster stories.
I can’t remember a specific moment that my love for them began, but I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I officially broke off my long-term relationship with Cookie Monster and leapt into a lifetime romance with his slimier, scarier cousins. I sought them out wherever I could: in my older brother’s comic book collection, which I borrowed from as if it were my own personal library (though only, of course, when he was out of the house); in movies I knew I was way too young to be watching, but watched anyway; and in the fright-filled worlds of authors like R.L. Stine and Stephen King. I became utterly addicted to the ultimately safe but terror-tinged excitement of vicariously meeting, then defeating, one fearful creature after another.
And then, toward the end of my time in middle school, I met a completely different kind of monster – one that I couldn’t put on pause or close within the covers of a book. This monster was, in fact, inescapable. This monster was me.
Let me explain . . .
I was a big kid. Always tall for my age – and then, eventually, both tall and wide. One day – a day I remember with hyper-clarity – I was publicly body-shamed, ridiculed for my size and shape in front of a large group of onlookers. And that one moment marked a turning point in my life. Looking back, there is a clear line: Before . . . and After. And the days and weeks and then the months and years of the After were not very good. I grew deeply ashamed of my body. I did my best to hide it away in baggy pants and big sweatshirts – but that only helped so much. So I went to war with my body, doing everything I could think to do to force it into a more pleasing, acceptable shape. I adopted all kinds of behaviors that I now understand to be disordered eating, and also developed body dysmorphia. When I looked in the mirror, I no longer saw myself – I saw a monster.
It took me years, but finally, I learned that this particular monster – the monster that was me – couldn’t be slayed. I had to, instead, sit down with it. Listen to it. Learn from it. I had to figure out how to offer it both understanding and love, even on days when that seemed way past impossible. I had to do this, and had to keep doing it, until I could look in the mirror and, instead of seeing a monster, see me again.
Studies have shown that the majority of human beings are insecure, in some way or another, about their bodies. We also know that these insecurities often first crop up when those human beings are young. And now, with the advent of social media, kids’ relationships with their bodies have only become more fraught and complex.
My new book, A Work in Progress, seeks to give kids and teens a safe space to explore all this, to ask themselves tough questions and, hopefully, come out the other side more equipped to form a healthy, positive relationship with their bodies. But actually making that space – it proved to be the biggest creative challenge of my life.
A Work in Progress – the actual, final book that you can now hold in your hands – represents probably my tenth or eleventh earnest attempt to tell this story. Over the course of more than a decade, I tried everything to get the story out of my head and down onto paper in a way that felt authentic and complete. It wasn’t until I had exhausted every other formal possibility I could think of that I landed on the idea of sharing the story as if it were being written in real time in my protagonist’s private notebook – and it was only then that things began to feel “right.”
What followed was three years of painstakingly putting together approximately 18,000 words and 150 drawings that coherently and responsibly told this story, and all in a manner that appeared to be loose and haphazard, just as a kid would put it down in a notebook that they never expected anyone else to see. (By the way: if books were crafted linearly – and anyone who’s stayed with one long enough to begin the revision process certainly knows they are not – that would mean I averaged a mere 16 words a day, plus one drawing a week.)
On top of all these “professional” challenges, of course, there were the personal ones. Because I spent those three years diving in and out of the most painful period of my life. And that dredged up all the old feelings I thought I’d worked through, that brought back all the unhealthy tendencies I thought I’d put behind me. There were moments while working on the book when I not only worried that I’d never actually finish the damn thing, but worried that I’d find myself right back where I was all those years ago: looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a monster. I frequently asked myself why I was putting myself through it all.
But recently, I’ve begun sharing the book when I visit schools. I read passages aloud, and talk to kids about my own troubled relationship with my body. And every time I do, both kids and adults come up to me afterwards or contact me privately on social media or through my website. They tell me that they recognize themselves in my story, and in the fictionalized version of it that is A Work in Progress. They thank me, and tell me that I’ve helped them. And that has made the whole thing feel worth it. And I doubt they realize it, but they’re all helping me right back. Because if you’re out in the world helping others, it’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and see a monster.