The Trajectory of Dreams

NicoleWolvertonNicole Wolverton joined us recently at DiversifYA to talk about her experiences being an atheist, and we promised she’d be back to talk about her experiences as a nonprofit fundraiser and how that affected her writing. And today is that day! I loved Nicole’s insights, and hopefully you will too!

Nicole’s debut novel, THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS, is an adult thriller published in 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Penduline, and The Molotov Cocktail, among others. Nicole is represented by Michelle Witte of Mansion Street Literary Management. Find her on her website here, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook!

No one dreams of being a fundraiser as a child. I dreamt of growing up to be a teacher, a ballerina, Dr. Ruth, a journalist . . . but never once did I think working for a non-profit organization would be the coolest thing ever. Now, having been a non-profit fundraising professional for almost fifteen years, well, it’s the best thing I could have done for myself as a writer.

Writing well-crafted, diverse characters often requires a depth of experience many of us just don’t have. I’m a white girl from rural Pennsylvania who moved to Philadelphia as a college freshman. Maybe I can write believable rural and urban settings because I’ve experienced them both, but had I ended up working in a typical corporate setting, my exposure to people who are different than me in a lot of ways would be limited.

Very limited.

In the decade and a half I’ve been in the non-profit world, I’ve worked with and volunteered with cancer patients, survivors, and researchers; adults and children who live way, way below poverty level; people who have been homeless; adults with congenital heart disorders; pro-choice adults, medical students, and physicians; proponents of local farming and the “buy local” movement; autistic children; and adults with mental illness and substance use disorders. All races and ethnic backgrounds. All religions. All ages.

You’ll never hear me say that by working side-by-side with people of vastly different life circumstances I magically know what it is to be African-American and poor, or second generation Vietnamese and autistic, or white and schizophrenic. I can never know the anger and humiliation of being followed around a store or accused of terrorism because of the color of my skin. It doesn’t work like that. At the same time, working all the different types of people I have has taught me something important, and that’s how we’re a lot alike, too.

But as a writer, I collect other people’s experiences and characteristics and speech patterns and squirrel them away for later. I might not be able to crawl inside someone’s skin just because I worked with them or became friends with them, but my experiences with others help flavor the characters I write. My first novel, The Trajectory of Dreams, was told from the point of view of a severely mentally ill woman named Lela White who has amazing coping mechanisms, so good that you probably wouldn’t be able to tell she’s highly delusional unless you know her really well. I did a huge amount of research on Lela’s mental illness, but she’s far from a caricature. Maybe if I’d never worked with people who suffer from mental disorders, I would have thought of Lela in a one-dimensional way. But she’s a person first, as all people with mental illness are. Their disorders are secondary. A major part of how they live their lives, for sure . . . but no mentally ill person is solely defined by their disorder. Lela has things in common with me and probably with you.

I wrote a novel last year, unpublished for the moment, with a very diverse cast of characters—an Asian-American girl with a heart condition; white teens with AIDS, cancer, and a brain tumor, respectively; a Latino guy with cystic fibrosis; an African-American boy with a genius IQ. Again, not one of them was defined by their disease or their race (or, in the last case, his extreme intelligence). They were so much more than that. Some of the details for those with diseases came from people I got to know through my non-profit work, but so, too, did their personalities. And, like with The Trajectory of Dreams, the characters have things in common with me as well.

And that’s why non-profit work has been good for me as a writer. I doubt I’d have been able to write believable characters from all those backgrounds without the diverse and wonderful group of people who have inspired my work as a fundraiser. And it’s a given that I wouldn’t understand how much in common I have with those same people. It’s made me a better writer.

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