Retreat: An Essay by Eric Smith
It all started on a long drive through the mountains of Virginia, in the back of an old Subaru, with two dudes I’d only just met a few weeks prior.
Bill Blume (look up his novel Gidion's Hunt) and Phil Hilliker, an author and illustrator who had taken me under their wing after I moved to their home state. The duo practically shook with their boundless excitement, the car vibrating with it. Though it might have been the rough and tumble dirt roads we were precariously driving on, leaving highways behind for woods and steep mountain drop offs a little too close to the car.
I think… I think I’m supposed to mostly write about books here. But it’s impossible for me to write about books, or to dig into anything related to my writing, without talking about friendship.
Don’t Read the Comments is, in a big way, about friendship and relationships. About people from far away, beginning to feel closer. About people who start to feel a bit more like home than the place you think of as your actual home. Most of my favorite Young Adult novels are the ones that are heavily about friendship. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Autofocus by Lauren Gibaldi, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler… for me, that home was Philadelphia. And I had been missing it for months.
I talked to them about the book idea on the way to the writing retreat they had invited me, a total stranger, on, at a place called The Porches, a large estate sprawling with woods and wildflowers. It was an idea about two teens who bond in a video game, and as cyber harassment goes from virtual to in-person, the friends who lift them up. Throughout the week of the retreat, as the draft of the book took shape, we geeked out over our favorite games, movies, and of course, authors and books.
And the book that I was afraid to write, a book that dug into sexism, bullying, harassment… issues very non-friendship in a time when I was longing for happier connections, started to pour out of me. For the first time in what felt like a long time, with these relative strangers quickly becoming good friends, it felt good to write again. And that maybe, this was a new book found in a new home.
That writing retreat taught me not to retreat.
But that it was okay to move on.
In Don’t Read the Comments, Aaron and Divya are faced with whether or not they are going to push ahead. Press forward when they feel so wildly alone, chasing a dream of making it in the world of video games, and chasing the promise of one another outside of them.
It can be scary. But I want you to chase that dream, that story you’ve got rattling around. And find the people who will help push you there.