Writing the Woods
I grew up in a house that backed to the woods. We moved there when I was nine, from a house that sat beside a cornfield. Part of me wonders, if we had never left that first house, whether I would’ve gravitated toward stories set on the edge of a cornfield instead. As it is, I’m drawn to the woods. The sound of the wind funneling through the trees, the shadows shifting under the moonlight — this is what speaks to me, in stories.
A place that can be home to both stories of childhood magic and the disappeared.
Around the time we first moved, I read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I was a new kid in a new school, and the woods held the potential of an adventure. When my best friend came to visit, we dragged a log across the creek behind my house and stuck longer sticks down through the water, into the mud, as walking posts. On the other side of the creek, we swung on one of two vines, which were stiffer than the stuff I’d imagined, as if they might snap at any moment. But they held us, and we flew.
Through the trees there was a clearing with large mounds of dirt that had been pushed up into hills with steep edges, some nearly concave in sections. In the winter, we brought our snow tubes there and dared each other, do it, do it, and we did — flying down and through the trees, deciding whether to cover our faces or hold on. The logic that nothing would truly harm us, because nothing truly had to that point. It was the logic of childhood magic, and it sustained us.
Later, I read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and took my dad’s Swiss Army knife into the woods with me. I collected twigs and leaned sticks against trunks in a makeshift shelter, and thought I could survive.
Sometime that year, I went for a walk with my parents through the woods, which cut behind homes until they connected with a state park. I remember my parents were ahead on the trail. I remember slipping, the ground suddenly at my waist as the trail of leaves gave way underneath me. I remember scrambling to pull myself out, my heart racing. But when I looked back to where I fell, there was nothing but the trail, covered in leaves. I ran to catch up with my parents and never said a word. It must’ve been an animal burrow, filling back in with leaves. It must’ve been smaller than I recall in my memory.
But there was this feeling, then, that you could be swallowed up out here. That you could disappear without anyone noticing.
Middle school and high school came, and we changed, the woods changed, the things we read changed. I’m not sure which came first, only that there was a shift: the woods on one side; me on the other.
At the bus stop, the girl from down the street said the best way to skip school was to walk toward our stop and then step back into the tree line, and keep going. That you could be right out on the street, but you wouldn’t see her, even though she could still see you. Like magic.
A Nor’easter tore through the region and the trees bent too far, the branches scratching my bedroom window. The creek rose behind the house, and my mom watched it out the window, hoping it wouldn’t flood.
The woods, now, were a thing we watched. In the fall, when the trees were bare, you’d see the deer peering back at you.
I left home for college. The summer I turned eighteen was the last time I lived there.
Now, the woods are in the books I read: Tana French’s In the Woods, Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, Tim Johnston’s Descent. Stories of people disappearing in the woods, hiding or hidden; unrecoverable memories, haunting even in their absence; secrets only the woods know.
I was staying in the mountains at the edge of a forest when I wrote the first lines of what would one day become All the Missing Girls. The characters speak of a monster out there — not a thing they could see, but a thing they could feel.
I keep coming back to this place, in stories. That line between magic and danger that shifts over time.
But memory, over time, has shifted, too. I returned to my childhood home as an adult, before my parents moved. The clearing through the trees had been flattened into a new development, accessible by road through the other side. The woods still exist, a sliver of them, at least, stretching back toward the state park. I can’t remember if it was as large as I imagined, as deep, or as secret. It seems, now, to exist only in my imagination. And that seems fitting, too. After all, the woods are a place where it’s possible to believe in magic. In the myths. In monsters. Even if, all along, there was only you.