By Meredith Davis
Before writing Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk, I never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer. I had spent many years reading and writing fiction, attending lectures on world-building, amassing shelves of fiction titles, and studying plots and characters of books like Wonder and Skellig.
When my agent suggested I write a middle grade nonfiction based on a personal experience I had, I pushed back. Why was I so reluctant? After years of seeking publication, my agent was telling me this was a good idea for a story. I should give it a try, I was capable of writing it, I should go for it . . . but I was afraid. And if there’s one thing I’d learned as a writer, I couldn’t write from a place of fear.
There were some key things I had to do if I was going enter this new territory. I needed to Pin down my fears, Read the genre, Identify my connection to the topic, Detour when needed, and Experience everything. Take all the first letters and they spell PRIDE, another word for confidence, which is exactly what I needed. But where to start, and how?
-Pin down my fears. Yoda says, “Named your fear must be, before banish it you can.” I realized I had at least two fears I was dealing with. One, I was afraid of getting something wrong. This was faulty thinking. I already knew there was the potential to get plenty wrong in fiction, like misrepresenting a real culture or place, even if it was in a fictional setting. Once I acknowledged what I’d already done to get things right in my fiction, I took courage. I could do this. Fear number two, my identity was wrapped up in being a fiction writer. That’s how editors knew me, how my instructors at VCFA knew me, how my writer friends knew me, and how I knew myself. I hadn’t been part of the conversation of nonfiction, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t start. I needed to engage with the nonfiction community, and I’ve discovered they are quite a friendly crowd. The way to start was to listen.
-Read the genre. This is a great way to “listen” to the conversation out there. When I began writing nonfiction, I began reading a lot more nonfiction, looking for books that felt like what I was trying to produce. I also started following websites like Nonfiction Ninjas and signed up for newsletters from great nonfiction writers like Kate Messner and Candace Fleming. All of these voices helped inform my emerging nonfiction work.
-Identify my connection to the topic. Why did I care about this story? Because it’s about my coauthor and myself, my connection to this book was obvious. Early on I knew I wanted to cowrite Her Own Two Feet with my Rwandan coauthor, Rebeka Uwitonze. It was both our stories. Being so closely connected was a huge confidence boost to me when I began to doubt myself, but nonfiction writers aren’t always so closely connected to their subject matter. It’s an important question to ask yourself no matter what the project because once you find your connection, you’ve found your emotional path into the story.
-Detour when needed and don’t be afraid of the work. Her Own Two Feet started as a picture book because that’s all the material we had. When my agent suggested it felt like a bigger story, maybe middle grade, I resisted. That meant major commitment, buying a plane ticket to Rwanda, and interviewing people who could provide knowledge and stories beyond Rebeka’s and my experiences and memories. It meant going public with our nonfiction project. I took a chance, took a deep breath, and leapt, and flew, and here we are with a beautiful book and starred reviews and letters from children who are inspired by Rebeka’s story. It was worth it, but there were lots of changes, edits, and detours along the way.
-Experience everything. We had Rebeka’s old cast, the brush she used to rub her scars, the lotion she used on her dry skin. In Rwanda we put our hands in the red dirt of the countryside, smelled the goats in the pen behind Rebeka’s house, heard the motorbikes pass by outside, tasted rice and beans in her school’s cafeteria, and saw the garden where she taught herself how to walk on the tops of her feet. These were physical details we used as we wrote scenes that gradually, step by step, became Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk. The more you can experience, the more you can engage the senses and engage the reader. I wish you all the best and am quite sure you can join the friendly ranks of a Confident Nonfictionist. We’ll be waiting for you.
ABOUT THE ACTIVITY
If you’re a Reluctant Nonfictionist, or maybe just tackling a tough new project, I challenge you to target an element of PRIDE in your process.
ABOUT THE AUTHORMeredith Davis is the co-author of HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK (Scholastic, 2019) which has won numerous awards and honors including a PW starred review, JLG Winter 2020 selection, NAACP Image Award nominee, and 2020 Winner SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for TX/OK. She once worked at an independent children’s bookstore, started the Austin Chapter of SCBWI, and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA. She is married with three children and lives in a home full of books in Austin, Texas.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Meredith Davis will be awarding a signed copy of Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk.