Nevada County teacher, author draws inspiration for latest book from students
The idea popped into Kim Culbertson’s head after an interaction with one of her high school students. Culbertson, who teaches creative writing at Forest Charter School, had a teenager in one of her classes who was “impossibly brilliant.” He had top grades and test scores, but he still often felt like whatever he accomplished wasn’t good enough.
That pressure to succeed is something Culbertson, who has 18 years of teaching experience, had started seeing more among teenagers — and it was a pressure she wanted to explore.
She began to think about a fictional character who was struggling with some of the same challenges as her students.
“What if you had this girl, a perfectionist, with a plan, she knew she was all about the future,” said Culbertson, 41. “And then she cracks.”
That’s the premise Culbertson used to create Mara James, the protagonist in “The Possibility of Now,” Culbertson’s fourth young adult novel. The book, published by Scholastic, was released Tuesday. It tells the story of James, a over-achieving student at an elite San Diego high school who is working hard to be named class valedictorian and get into a top-tier college. Her plans are on track — until she suffers a meltdown during a calculus exam and the incident, captured on video, goes viral.
After the meltdown, James makes the sudden decision to spend a couple of months living with her estranged father in Lake Tahoe, where she hopes to figure out just what it is she wants out of life, and how to balance looking toward the future with living in the present.
Culbertson will celebrate the release of “The Possibility of Now” at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Mountain Recreation, located at 491 East Main St. in Grass Valley. During the event, which is hosted by The Bookseller, she’ll do a short reading of the novel, answer audience questions and sign copies of the book.
As a published author, Culbertson is realizing a dream she’s had since she was a young girl growing up in Nevada County; she was always drawn to writing because she loved telling stories. After graduating from Nevada Union High School, she attended Dominican University of California in San Rafael, where she obtained her teaching credential. Though she worked on novels and other writing projects throughout college, once she began teaching, her time in the classroom took precedence.
“I kept putting the writing on the back burner, because I loved my students so much,” Culbertson said.
Eventually, Culbertson moved back to Nevada County, and started teaching at Nevada Union. She was working on what would become “Songs for a Teenage Nomad,” her first young adult novel.
The book was published in 2007 by Hip Pocket Press, a small, independent publishing company. It garnered praise from the indie publishing community, which gave Culbertson a boost of confidence.
“I started to be like, ‘Hmm, maybe I could do this in a bigger way,’” Culbertson said.
And she did. After securing an agent, Culbertson’s second book, “Instructions for a Broken Heart,” was purchased by Source Books and published in 2011. Next up was “Catch a Falling Star.” A few days after submitting a draft of the book, Culbertson was at home folding laundry when her agent called.
“She said, ‘I had an offer. It’s from Scholastic. You may have heard of them,’” Culbertson remembered.
The company published the book in 2014 — and wanted to hear more ideas from Culbertson. She pitched what would become “The Possibility of Now.” Scholastic bought that book — and asked her to write an additional novel as well.
“Honestly, it’s cliche, but it was magical,” Culbertson said of selling two novels to the company.
As she continues to develop as an author, it’s still her students, and their experiences in and out of the classroom, that heavily influence her writing.
“Their voices are loud in my ears,” Culbertson said.
That’s evident in “The Possibility of Now,” where the main character questions why she’s spent time working toward the goals she set for herself. That reflects the culture of expectation and reward that many teenagers face, Culbertson said. Often, students are told if they work hard, they can achieve anything; but sometimes, she notes, even when they work hard, they fall short of their goals.
And one thing that’s not always apparent to teenagers is that not reaching those goals isn’t failing, Culbertson said; being the best at something isn’t the only way to find value in life, and adjusting priorities is OK.
“What I hope for with my novels is that young adults realize they have choices,” Culbertson said. “This track someone has put them on is one option, but it’s not the only option.”
Culbertson is currently on a leave of absence form Forest Charter that began in January to focus on her writing. In addition to promoting “The Possibility of Now,” she recently submitted a draft of her next book for Scholastic, which is tentatively scheduled for release in summer 2017.
Even though she’ll be spending some time away from the classroom in the coming months, her experiences as a teacher and her relationships with her students will continue to infuse her writing — and through her stories, she’ll be able to reach those teens in a different way.
That realization was reinforced recently when she received a note from a Forest Charter colleague as she prepared to take her leave.
“He told me, ‘You’re not quitting teaching, you’re just widening your lens,’” Culbertson said. “And that’s how I feel.”
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
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