The Art of Breaking Things
About the Author
After a career in undergraduate counseling, Laura Sibson pursued an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing in a local coffee shop, you can find her running the neighborhood streets or hiking with her dog. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their two sons. Laura is available for school visits, book clubs, workshops and conferences. She can speak on the process of writing and publishing to audiences from middle school into adulthood. With her background in one-on-one counseling, giving presentations and facilitating both panels and writing groups, Laura brings both warmth and professionalism to all of her endeavors.
Excerpt from The Art of Breaking Things
This is How I Deal
With my sketchbook and charcoal, I’d capture Ben lying on the couch as Figure Reclining in Smoky Haze. I could disappear into that sketch, consumed by getting his curls just right and the way his hands rest on his stomach like they’re just hands, not like they can pull magic from a guitar. I’d change the setting to be a little more exotic, a little less wood-paneled basement. But I don’t have my sketchbook or my charcoal. All I have is this half-empty bottle of tequila and some weed.
Dan was at my house. The truth that I’ve been avoiding all night weasels into my mind. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table with Dan. After all these years. I’d like to think that he needed legal advice. But . . . Mom is only a paralegal. Or maybe she was asking for information on writing essays. Truth is, I knew that neither of those possibilities made sense. I just didn’t want to believe the other possibility: they might be thinking about reuniting.
“Want a shot?” I say. I knock one back and grit my teeth as the fire snakes into my belly.
Ben shakes his head and holds a joint out to me. “How about a hit?” His voice is tight from holding in the smoke.
I lean way out of my recliner to take the joint from Ben’s fingers. My lungs pull the smoke in deep, and I hold it there as long as I can. Ben never teases when I cough, but I try not to anyway.
“Is Luisa going to be pissed that you left?” Ben asks.
Luisa. Shit. I’d been so focused on trying not to obsess about Mom and Dan talking again that I’d forgotten about Luisa. I pull my phone from my jeans pocket and text her. I pause in my typing to ask, “How long have we been here?”
Ben purses his lips and stares at the ceiling. “Forty-five minutes?” he says. “Or maybe a couple of hours.”
“You are exactly no help.”
“I whisked you away from that lame-ass party,” he says.
“Whisked? Really?” I type a bunch of I’m sorries with a string of emojis that I hope will make Luisa forgive me.
“Did I just say whisked? Who says that?” Ben says. “Whisk. Whisk. Whisk.” Ben takes a hit, sits the joint in an ashtray on the card table, turns off the music, and grabs his acoustic guitar, one of several instruments in the room. He strums experimentally and then settles on a folksy chord while singing whisk over and over.
The giggles explode out of me. Ben starts laughing too and we know it isn’t that funny, but we can’t stop. I snatch some paper and markers from the card table—left over from Ben working on a song or a new art project, probably—and start sketching.
“Play this,” I say, holding up a piece of paper on which two girls hold hands and skip down a sidewalk.
“That? Child’s play,” Ben declares, strumming a playful sunshiny rhythm. I giggle. We haven’t played this game in a while and I’d forgotten how much fun it is. Ben and I have been in the same schools forever, growing up in a small town and all, but I didn’t know him know him until sophomore year, when we landed in the same art class at the same table. While Mr. Mozowski spent the first day boring us about the obligatory course goals and planned assessments, Ben opened his sketchbook and began drawing. I watched the way his hand moved without hesitation across the page as an elephant appeared.
After a few moments, he turned the sketchbook to me and offered his felt-tip marker. His bold confidence inspired me, and though I was usually slow and careful with my drawings, I accepted his challenge. I created a dance floor around the elephant and drew a glass for her to hold in her upraised trunk. We traded the drawing back and forth until our disco elephant became so ridiculous that we both busted out laughing. Mr. M gave us The Look, and even though he’s my favorite teacher of all time, his disapproval only served to seal our bond. I still have trouble diving into my drawing without thinking too hard about it, except when I play this game with Ben. He is the only guy I hang with who seems to actually see me, not just a pair of boobs or whatever else guys see when they look at me.
But sometimes, like tonight, I sort of would like to know if he thinks of me the way that he thinks of the girls he flirts with at his shows.
I sketch like mad. “Okay, this.” The paper shows cars on a road at night. He nails it, playing in a way that absolutely pushes your mind to road trips and highways, dimly lit dashboards, and falling asleep with your head against the window. While he plays, I sketch again. My hand pauses as I see the scene unfolding beneath the marker. Two people kissing. I crumple the paper.
“Come on. No tossaways. Let me see.”
“Nah,” I say, not looking up. “That one was too easy.” I draw something safer. A butterfly on a flower beside a pond. A bright sun. Some grass. “This?”
Ben raises his eyebrows and slows the tempo of his playing to something easy and quiet. “That was a gimme,” he says. “I thought you were going to draw something hard.”
I smile and fall back on the recliner. “Guess I don’t have the touch tonight.” I think of the two figures kissing in my balled-up drawing; the guy has just the same curly hair as Ben. Luisa texts back asking who I’m hooking up with. I respond that the only hooking up I’m doing is with this bottle of tequila, as if typing will hold me to my word.
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Q & A
What first sparked your interest in writing—and in writing specifically for teens?
In my junior year of high school, we wrote short stories. Working on a story about an obedient rule-follower who shoplifts was the moment that I realized that I could craft stories myself. I’d been a certified bookworm since I was a young child, but it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe I could write. Fast forward to 2008 and I’d been working on a story that my critique partner observed had flashbacks upon flashbacks. I read Twilight (because let’s be honest, who didn’t read Twilight in 2008?) and it hit me: I could make my main character a teen?! From then, I’ve never looked back. I love writing for teens and exploring that particular adolescent tension of beginning to understand yourself as separate from your family, but not yet possessing the real power of an adult in the world.
Where did the inspiration for writing this book come from?
I started writing this book to make sense of something that happened to me when I was young, but as I wrote, Skye quickly turned into her own character. I became interested in exploring the ways that a teen girl might respond to her abuser resurfacing in her life. I’d read books in which the party girl or the girl who hooked up with guys was the sideline character. I wanted to place her in the spotlight. I wanted the reader to see this girl make bad choices, but root for her anyway. And I wanted to show a girl who – despite questionable choices and poor coping mechanisms – would find her way toward healing. I also knew that it would be a sister story in which Skye, the older sister, would be trying – and in many ways failing – to protect her younger sister.
What are your must-haves when you sit down to write?
I’ve conditioned myself to require a hot cup of coffee – or a latte -- when I sit down to write. For reasons I cannot explain, earbuds help me focus. So, when I’m drafting a new project, I’ll get my coffee, put my earbuds in (even if there’s great music playing at the coffee shop) and sink into the writing. I’ve found that it can also help me to set a timer. (A tip I learned from Sarah Aronson). I can get a lot of scenes written in back-to-back 25-minute increments! But when I’m revising, all I need is time, my laptop and a big space lay out the plot points and emotional beats of my novel.
Can you share a good piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Neil Gaiman once said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” What I like about this quote is the reminder that readers are invaluable in helping us understand how our writing is landing, but that we are the best source of solutions for issues that come up. Of course, it’s helpful to brainstorm with trusted people and consider different angles for your story. But when it’s time to dive in deep with revision, it’s you, the writer, who needs to figure out the best way to implement changes to your novel.
What would you say to someone who is considering an MFA to further their writing career?
If you are considering whether or not to pursue an MFA, I would tell you what Lauren Myracle said to me when I asked her about attending Vermont College of Fine Arts: The MFA will not guarantee that you will get an agent and a book deal, but it is the most efficient way to improve your writing. And you’ll build a writing community along the way.
VCFA changed my life. I met people there who are still my first readers today and they are also good friends. I learned how accept criticism and how to revise. I learned how to produce a lot of words in a short period of time. But you don’t need the MFA to further your writing career. If you want to complete a novel, you need to write on as regular a basis as your life allows. The muse shows up because you show up. The more you write, the easier it is to keep the font open. Also, read widely and a lot. Build a writing community that includes beta readers who will be kind, but honest. And do not give up.