Each month, we ask distinguished authors or illustrators to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
On Choices, Loss, and Self-Discovery
By Sarah Lynn Scheerger
How to Live on the Edge (Lerner 2020) was inspired by a combination of questions that materialized in my mind six years ago, after I discovered that I had a BRCA gene mutation. (This mutation increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.) Based on this gene and my family history, I was encouraged to consider preventative surgeries to remove my breasts and ovaries. The following questions spun in my mind: What if a cisgender teenager had to grapple with these same complex choices? Would it change her view of her body? Would it alter a young woman’s time-line related to marriage and child-bearing? Would choices feel empowering or overwhelming? And even more so. . . What makes us women? Is it breasts and ovaries? The ability to bear children? Or is it something completely different? These questions begged more exploration.
Society, media and social media all create so much body focus for youth. Our teenage girls especially are bombarded with images and pressure to “be” and “look” a certain way. This phenomenon is not new, of course, but perhaps amplified by the current social environment. We experience the most intense pressure surrounding our bodies during our pre-teen, teen, and young adult years. This is arguably when we are most vulnerable to these pressures and have the least amount of “perspective” with which to manage them.
This novel was partly inspired by my thoughts of what I’d say to my younger version of myself if I could talk to her now. Here I am now, with the wisdom and perspective of many years on this earth. I’d comfort myself with these words of wisdom—Life gets better. Stop valuing/criticizing your body for how it looks and start appreciating what it does. Stop viewing food in fat grams and calories, start viewing it as fuel to nourish our body. You’ll be okay. The journey will be difficult, but you are stronger than you know. Stop worrying about the things that don’t really matter. I’m not sure if my teenage self would “hear” this, or if I’d just shrug my words off.
I view the world through the lens of a teenager much of the time, because I work with teens in a school setting. I can imagine what they might think and do in similar situations. Honestly, I am inspired by these kids. They have often experienced tough situations and not only do they survive, but they thrive. They are wise, strong and resilient. In counseling, my teen clients let down their guard and open up, sharing their innermost thoughts, feelings, and worries. All of my characters are fictional, of course, but I am often inspired by the youth I see in my clinical work.
I’ve seen teenagers interpret the idea of YOLO (You Only Live Once) in totally different ways. Some use it as a way to justify risk-taking without regard to consequences. Some use it as motivation to go for their dreams, but continue to have an overlay of caution (avoiding unnecessary risks).
In How to Live on the Edge, I incorporated two very different sisters, who lost their mother to breast cancer at a young age. Cayenne is a risk-taker. She’s hardened herself over time for self-protection. Saffron is sweeter, more cautious, and more outwardly vulnerable. But inside, she’s strong and wise. I decided to craft my characters as opposites in many ways. They have a shared loss, but this loss has propelled them in entirely different emotional directions. They are both living in the shadow of their loss as well as with the awareness that breast cancer has claimed the lives of women in their family for generations. At the beginning of this story, their different reactions to their loss and fear have driven them apart. However, their relationship with each other and themselves change as the story progresses, and as they experience the journal entries and video messages their mother left for them before she passed away.
As a clinical social worker, I’ve seen how “shared loss” can either bring people together or drive them further apart. The reality is that everyone grieves differently. There is no right or wrong way to experience grief. I understand loss on a deeply personal level as well. I lost a newborn son shortly after birth due to unexpected complications. My own reaction to this loss has been coupled with what I call my “loss of healthy denial.” I feel acutely aware of the vulnerability of the people I love and fearful of experiencing additional loss. This reaction is more like Saffron’s. When I wrote from Cayenne’s perspective, I embraced the other end of the spectrum. She wants to “live on the edge” and take risks, since she assumes her life will be short anyway.
The book includes an overlay of genetic testing. We are lucky enough to live in a time when we can gather information about our genetic history and take steps to reduce risk. But this information can greatly impact our view of the world and our personal choices. It is BOTH a blessing and a challenge to know our genetic history. It certainly informs our choices, but this knowledge affects people in a multitude of ways. For me, my personal health decisions were clear. I found out when I was thirty-eight. At that point, I’d been married for fourteen years, and I was pregnant with my youngest child. I didn’t feel conflicted about this choice. I felt lucky to even have a choice. But if I’d learned about my gene mutation twenty years earlier, I might have had a much different reaction.
Listen to the Meet-the-Author Recording for How to Live on the Edge.
Hear Sarah Lynn Scheerger’s Audio Name Pronunciation.
Read Sarah Scheerger’s guest post for Are You Still There?
Text and images are courtesy of Sarah Scheerger and may not be used without her expressed written consent.