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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Finding a Voice

Author Gayle Forman emerges from creative paralysis with I Have Lost My Way.

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Author Gayle Forman - DENNIS KLEIMAN
  • Dennis Kleiman
  • Author Gayle Forman

For most creative people, the dream is always to reach a point where the cliché of the starving artist transforms into the ability to make a living doing what you love. But achieving that kind of success brought with it an unexpected challenge for author Gayle Forman: suddenly wondering if you could do that thing any more.

The New York-based writer found success with the 2009 young-adult novel If I Stay, which was subsequently adapted as a 2014 film starring Chloë Grace Moretz. Those intervening years saw Forman publish several more books, but the film adaptation brought with it a new kind of creative pressure. "My breakout book broke out many years later," Forman says. "I was able to get a little cocky: 'Look at me, there's no sophomore slump for me.'"

Instead, the added pressure of becoming a "name" contributed to something that Forman describes as different from the commonly understood idea of writer's block.

"It didn't feel like writer's block," Forman says. "I think of that as sitting down and not knowing what to write, which is usually your story's way of telling you it's not working. This was different; this was four years since I'd written my last young-adult novel, and trying out seven different novels in that time, and thinking everything I wrote was garbage. I started to get panicky. As somebody who has always used stories to make sense of my world—and now it's what I support my family with—that was an awful feeling."

The terror of losing your creative voice became part of the inspiration for Forman's new novel, I Have Lost My Way. It follows three principal characters, all of them teenagers, and one of them a young singer named Freya whose YouTube celebrity is on the verge of becoming full-fledged recording stardom when she abruptly finds herself unable to sing. Her path ultimately crosses in New York City with Harun, a closeted gay Muslim, and Nathaniel, a young man visiting the city for the first time.

While Freya's condition—and the recurring sentence that became the book's title—came first to Forman, she says that Harun's character was the one she understood best from the outset. The strangeness of a straight Jewish woman feeling most connected to a gay Muslim man isn't lost on Forman, who enlisted many readers—including a Pakistani friend, and imams to look at her portrayal of Islam—to be sure she was on the right track as she wrote about characters culturally or religiously different from herself. "They're all me emotionally," she says, "but in a lot of ways quite different. It starts with understanding the emotional truth. I connected to [Harun's] feelings of shame, of feeling that if people knew the real him, they wouldn't love him."

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That theme of wanting love and approval from people who might not be able to give it runs throughout the relationships in I Have Lost My Way, including the way the character of Freya compulsively checks the reactions of her fans on social media. For an author like Forman, part of achieving some degree of fame is finding yourself with 92,000 Twitter followers, and trying to navigate the mine field of an online world that can become an affirmation-generating drug. "I wish I could say, because I'm 47 years old, that I'm immune to it," Forman says. "There's periods when I'm online, and periods when I completely have to not go there. Those relationships have to transfer to the real world. There's something limiting about what you can get from a click or a comment."

The real-world connection between Freya, Harun and Nathaniel forms the backbone of I Have Lost My Way, as the three young people seek a sense of acceptance from one another they're unable to find elsewhere. Forman connects with that idea that "there's a family that you're born into, and the family you create. There are all kinds of communities you create to fill the gaps." For writers, one of those communities comes in the form of other writers; for writers of young-adult fiction—like local authors Allie Condie (Matched) and Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl), who are part of this week's conversation with Forman at The King's English—that mutual support might be particularly significant.

"When I first started," Forman recalls, "I had someone read If I Stay who said, 'That's really good, you should write for adults.' Like it was the [minor leagues], waiting to get called up to the majors. [This community of writers understands] the lack of respect, or literary bona fides, like you sat at the kids' table at Thanksgiving."

Like all artists, they understand having to find your own distinctive voice. Or, in Forman's case, re-finding it.