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Writing Your Experiences: Guest Post from VIRTUOSITY Author Jessica Martinez

In My Experience… 

When people find out I’m a violinist, they often ask how much of Carmen’s story is my own. It’s a hard question to answer. She’s not me, and yet everything that happens to Carmen is pulled from the Classical music world I lived in when I was a teenager. I knew many stage moms like Carmen’s mother, I had friends who took beta blockers to quell nerves, and I had teachers every bit as eccentric as Carmen’s teacher. Some were much meaner. I learned at a young age to tilt my head back when I cried so I could keep on playing without tears dropping on the wood. And when I was older I learned not to cry at all. After all, there are worse things than getting yelled at.

In writing VIRTUOSITY I wanted to reveal those layers of grit beneath the music, but writing from personal experience turned out to be tricky. What you gain in insight, you lose in objectivity. I knew what it felt like to play with a symphony behind me, but it was hard to tell which details belonged—whether they advanced the plot, or were even interesting to non-musicians. My writing process involved the following daily ego check: Am I writing this scene/detail/plot twist because it feels good to tell my own story, or because it’s actually good for this story? Needless to say there were a lot of rewrites, a lot of deleted scenes.

I have a friend who is an orthopedic surgeon, and she once explained how watching Grey’s Anatomy is so annoying it’s physically painful. Apparently, the medical stuff is semi-accurate-ish, but Meredith and McDreamy say things real doctors would never say because real doctors aren’t trying to explain things to an audience. This is exactly how I feel when I read most books about music. I’m either ticked that someone’s obviously trying to educate me, or ticked that they got it wrong.

 So writing VIRTUOSITY was a balancing act. I knew I didn’t want it to feel like a textbook, but it was important to me that it to be just as enjoyable to non-musicians. I spent a lot of time asking my husband, “Before you knew me, did you know about…?” and occasionally my agent would tell me, “I don’t know what you’re talking about here, and I don’t think any other non-musician will either.” Okay, she may have sweetened it a little, but that was the gist of it.

And like anyone who has written from personal experiences understands, I worried about the assumptions people would make about me. If my protagonist was a vampire I think fewer people would conclude it’s an autobiography, but since I’ve written about a violinist that mental jump to memoir is a quick one. I worried that my mom would feel like I was slandering her, even though she is nothing like Carmen’s mother (it’s amazing how far a book dedication will go, though, so I think I’m back in the will). I worried people would think I used beta blockers (also untrue—I faced my performance demons the old-fashioned way). I was also concerned that my musician friends who take beta blockers would be insulted. Carmen’s level of addiction does happen, but it is far from the norm. Many musicians use them (one article I read suggested 40% in professional symphonies have at least tried them), and many of those people only use them a few times a year for big performances. So far none of my friends have called me up to chew me out either, but the book is only a couple of weeks old so maybe any day now…

In the end, though, all those concerns took a backseat to Carmen’s story. At some point during the rewrites she became a real person to me—a separate person from me—with her own story to be told.

VIRTUOSITY was released October 18, 2011. You can learn more about the book and Jessica at her website.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. I just wanted to say I adored VIRTUOSITY. It was easily one of my favorite reads all year. :)

  2. I just gave VIRTUOSITY away on my blog. One of the things I wrote in my Goodreads review was that it's really easy for niche books to just be niche books, but I feel like VIRTUOSITY managed to have a wide appeal. I guess that's because you worked so hard with what was your story and waht was Carmen's.

    I live in Japan, and I really want to write abotu the March quake, but it's difficult. I don't want ot write a memoir. Also I'm from Babrados and those books are hard for me as well, for the same reason you cited with your doctor friend. There's a lot people not from the Caribbean wouldn't know, but I don't want ppl from the Caribbean to hate it.

    Thanks for these thoughts!

  3. I love this post. And I know how difficult it is to be objective about something if your character goes through something similar to what you've probably gone through. Happens to me a lot.

    I read an excerpt of VIRTUOSITY and it's so gorgeous, I have to get the post asap.

    Thanks for getting Jessica to share her thoughts.

  4. Jessica, I love what you had to say here about writing out of your experience and yet not writing out of it (if this makes sense). Because you know this world, you want it to be accessible and not preachy. The balancing act of honestly, holding yourself separate, and accessibility is incredibly interesting. Thanks for this post!


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Item Reviewed: Writing Your Experiences: Guest Post from VIRTUOSITY Author Jessica Martinez Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook