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Tori Sharp On Writing Her Graphic Memoir: Just Pretend

I drew exactly one comic page before becoming perfectly obsessed. I was about thirteen, and it was a silly comic strip about my dog having misadventures with my friends’ dogs. I drew it in a creative fervor in my dad’s basement, like I was in a trance, and then I drew three more. I adored every wobbly, uncertain line.

Drawing that first comic was like digging a hole in your garden to plant something, and instead your trowel hits a treasure chest.

Now that my graphic memoir, Just Pretend, is about to hit shelves, I’m amazed to remember that I started making comics by drawing inspiration from real life. In my dog’s cartoon adventures, there were many fictional elements. The dogs could talk, they dined at restaurants, and they were fully autonomous in a world without humans. It was a pretend story, but I was borrowing the personalities of living, barking dogs for my comics. I was mining my life for stories without fully realizing what that meant.

Kids mine their own lives for stories all the time.

Stories are safe places to say how you actually feel, just for yourself. You never have to share them with others unless you want to. Sometimes stories can also help us to figure out what other people are feeling; they are exercises in empathy. They are a training ground for hope, to build resilience against life’s obstacles because we have seen so many villains be vanquished in permanent, confident ink.

Even if you don’t find your own “buried treasure,” writing stories can be the perfect way to indulge in every nerdy, silly, or spooky personal interest that’s special to you—you can write about dragons, zombies, hockey, robots, or baking. You can ramble about cool rocks or knitting or anything you find fascinating, and you can share those topics you love with characters, who can explore them even further. In that way, stories help us build skills of self-affirmation and confidence. They help us look within ourselves for validation and fulfillment, so we can practice sharing our most authentic selves with others.

Stories show us who we are.

Just Pretend is a story about stories. Stories that help us, shape us, and comfort us. It’s about the big, important, life-changing stories we find and read serendipitously, as well as the stories we wring out of our own hands.

When I decided to write about growing up in multiple homes, my first instinct was to tell the story through made-up characters. I invented characters with divorced parents and tried to imagine lives for them that were like mine, but different, just for the sake of writing fiction. However, with a topic this personal to me, it felt like to fictionalize these events would be a dilution of my own experience. I wanted readers to know that this was my story. I want kids going through their parents’ messy divorces to know that I once did, too, and that as much as we’d like to pretend it’s okay, sometimes it’s not, and that’s okay!

Real life doesn’t always fit into a tidy, perfect story structure, and it doesn’t always make sense, but we should always have hope. There’s not always a way to fix what’s happening to us, but we get through it and meanwhile we do our best to love fiercely and to find joy where we can.

Even though some problems are totally out of our hands, especially when we’re kids, writing a story is all about problem-solving. We give our characters a big, world-ending, unfixable problem, and then we watch them figure it out and grow from it. We feel like we share in their successes, and we don’t want them to give up. That translates to a sense that we shouldn’t give up, either.

Hope is a resource that increases as you spend it, and kindness begets kindness. Writing, at its heart, is about love—both for the reader, and for ourselves.

In Just Pretend, Tori is writing an epic, heartfelt fantasy adventure about best friends who are trying to find their way back to each other. Today, it’s clear to me that this story was about dealing with feelings of separation, processing unexpected change, and figuring out how to nurture parts of your personality that seem opposed to each other—the brave warrior and the soft, fragile artist. How do you become tough enough to handle anything, while staying soft enough to find love and joy?

In middle school, I wrote that story just for me. I titled it Relying on Hope.

The things kids write about can carry a complexity that even they don’t understand, at least not at the time. Kids hold whole worlds inside of them, and grown-ups sometimes underestimate that. But stories see us exactly as we are.