30 May 2009

Fictional Real Life

Facing demons, uncovering long buried secrets, battling shadowy monsters that haunt childhood. No, I’m not talking about my latest novel. I’m actually talking about the emotional results of writing a novel.

It isn’t something writers talk about much, but it happens all the time. Writing fiction is a deeply personal experience that somehow draws on memories, experiences, feelings the writer may not even know are there.

When I wrote my first novel (cough, cough) years ago, I knew very little about repression. But I’m here to tell you: repressed memories are real. And not everybody recovers those memories with the help of a hypnotist with an agenda. For me, all it took was writing a novel. And those flashback-inducing events from my early childhood sure as heck aren't fiction.

You’d think, after that I’d have found something less stressful to do, like brain surgery or air traffic control. Turns out, writing fiction is an addiction. Before long I was at it again.

Over the years I wrote characters that I felt were less like me. When I wrote Shadows of Evil, I thought Kia Wolfe was the least like me of any heroine I’d ever written. I was actually quite proud of that. Then one day my husband made a comment, “You know Kia is you.” My first reaction was to laugh. “That’s ridiculous,” I told him. “There is not enough money in the world to make me move into a haunted house by myself.” But then he listed the similarities: stubbornly independent, struggling to find her place in the world, difficulty with allowing help from friends, in love with a handsome man (okay, I threw that in, but it’s true). So, I had to accept the situation.

Then there’s the manuscript I’m currently working on. The plot is unlike anything I’ve personally experienced, but I’m beginning to understand how a fictional situation can be a metaphor for the writer’s life. I eventually gave in to the inevitable and began to consciously use my experiences to bring the characters to life.

Is this a bad thing? Obviously pulling up old wounds has the potential to be harmful. Writers and other creative people are famously prone to depression, substance abuse, and even psychosis. But those are the instances we hear about, that make the news or that become part of the lore surrounding the lives of famous people.

There is the other side, though, the optimistic side. Most writers handle the emotions and memories that writing brings to the surface without benefit of alcohol, drugs, or psychiatric crisis. In fact, for a lot of writers, lessons learned from their characters are beneficial to them. For me, for instance, learning that I wasn’t showing emotion in my characters led me to the knowledge that I hid my own emotions a lot of the time. Being more open with my feelings has benefited my relationships with my friends and family.

There’s a benefit for the reader too, fiction that is grounded in real-life events and emotions is stronger and more realistic — even if the fictional events and real-life events are worlds apart.

I would like to say one more — very important — thing. If you're having a hard time emotionally, whether provoked by writing or not, please don’t be afraid to get help. I’ll be seeing a therapist next week. I want to be able to play in my fictional worlds for a long time, and if that means admitting I have problems I can’t handle alone, so be it. I go to my doctor for my high blood pressure without shame, I’ll go to my therapist the same way.
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