There was Cathy Cicerelli at the end of my driveway looking like she had just sucked on a lemon.
So begins Sheila Solomon Shotwell’s “Gone Before Spring.” The novel follows the adventures of Ruth Ann Bloomfield, a 14-year-old girl with a sharp wit and an eye for detail. She’s growing up in the city in the late 1960s, heading into eighth grade and an exciting world of cool friends, concerts and cute boys.
But Ruth Ann is dealing with something her friends are not: psoriasis.
Ruth Ann feels like an outcast. Her parents are divorced. Her older sister is mean to her. And she’s self-conscious about her psoriasis, hiding it behind patterned tights.
Why me? Why not Renee? She had the same parents as me. Why didn’t she get it? Why not Mary Lou? She had the picket fence, the perfect hair, a dad at home every night, and a scarf collection. Why did everything work out for other people just the way it was supposed to?
“I’ve never been a writer by trade, but I’ve always written,” says Shotwell, 62. “I’ve written short stories, poetry and essays. I was well-known in the creative writing department at Grand Rapids Junior College, because the professor used one of my published stories for years as an example of a great story with a bad ending.”
Shotwell, who’s had psoriasis since she was 14 (like Ruth Ann), detoured from writing into improv acting in the 1990s. “Improv was so fulfilling for me that writing mostly faded into the background,” she said.
Setting her keyboard on fire
When Shotwell saw Fred Finkelstein’s “I'm Just Like You,” the movie that told the world what it’s like to be a kid living with psoriatic disease (and the sequel to his first film, "My Skin's on Fire"), she cried. Afterwards she declared, “That does it. I’m writing a novel!”
“Gone Before Spring” took Shotwell two years to write. As the book poured out of her, she found it was “loosely” autobiographical and aimed at young adults.
“The idea of writing for teens began to strike me as something I should try,” she said, “and I was especially inspired to write about my experience of having a terrible case of psoriasis as a teen.”
Shotwell read excerpts from her book at the 2013 National Volunteer Conference in Chicago, where she also taught improv.
“It was one of the most satisfying endeavors of my life,” she said, "reading those pages to the kids that summer. Not just any kids, but kids with psoriasis.”
Shotwell’s psoriasis has been under control for years. Her writing doesn’t help her cope with the emotional fallout of psoriasis. Instead, it’s become “my primary means of expressing myself.” But by writing a novel about a child caught in the grip of psoriatic disease, she’s found a way to help many other people – and to earn her cape as a Psoriatic Psuperhero.
Top photo: Gregg and Sheila Shotwell
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