When Writing Fiction Scares the Hell out of You
“I loved it, but…your main character really needs a therapist.”
These were the words of one of the first beta readers of my first draft of my first novel. These words were some of the first feedback I ever received on any work of writing I intended to publish, and it scared the hell out of me.
Why? I mean, she’d loved it! Those had been her first words. But she’d said Maddie needed a therapist. Maddie, my main character, who told the story in first person. Maddie, who was essentially — me.
I couldn’t believe I’d been so blind as to have so much of myself come out in Maddie, I ruminated later. The time during which I was writing Going over Home was a tumultuous one for me. It had taken me about three years from conception of the idea to publication of the final novel, and midway through writing it, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And looking back, I realized how much of that time was spent in severe depression, with the exception of the dramatic manic episode in the midst of it all. It made complete sense that my main character would exhibit much of same mindsets as I did during that time — it truly was all I could write, as it was all I could think.
Inside My Writer’s Life
I’ve heard it said that writing for others to read is essentially like standing on the street corner naked and asking for people to look you up and down. You bare your entire soul for the world.
Today, I find myself closing in on completion of the first draft of my third novel, Wayfaring. Each book in my seven book series follows a different woman in the same family. Going over Home was told by the eldest sister Maddie, Going over Jordan by her sister Ellie, and now Wayfaring by the third sister, Carrie.
By the time I started writing Wayfaring, I had decided to embrace this whole “my character needs a therapist” thing. Today, it’s been five years since I published my first book, and seven years into my life with bipolar disorder and anxiety. I have been through several years of individual therapy, and I recently graduated from intensive outpatient therapy. (Damn, that feels good to say.)
It’s taken me nearly three years to write Wayfaring, and I’m not even done yet. I’ve put it off for months at a time, I’ve opened up the Word document and stared at it only to close it down several minutes later, I’ve stalled in my ideas for the story, and I’ve also missed several deadlines with my editor (thank goodness she is so incredibly understanding and patient). But why has it been so hard?
My character, Carrie? She has bipolar disorder, too. And sometimes the thoughts that run through her head are a frightening mirror image of those that run through mine, and that scares the hell out of me.
Writing a Character Just Like Me
I follow Carrie from a tragic loss at the beginning of the book, through her depressive and manic episodes, before she knows what’s going on in her mind.
She’s lost. She’s confused. She’s terrified.
I recently decided to live a less public life. Sometimes, easy access to social media is no good for someone who is in the throes of a psychiatric episode, especially when they have friends who misunderstand and are unsympathetic. I’ll leave it at that. I have withdrawn from much of social media among other things to live a more private, contemplative life.
But now I have to finish this book. And publishing a book that displays much of my own mind’s journey through the story of my main character flies in the face of my decision.
My Story and My Character’s Story
Of course, Carrie’s story is very different from my own in many ways. I am not her. But I can write her so well because I have experienced much of what her mind is like. And yes, she does eventually go to see a therapist. She does the hard work. She heals. Yes, spoiler alert, she heals.
But I am not going to end this book with her miraculously cured of all that ails her. That is not how it goes. Mental illness never completely goes away. Honestly, I got up early this morning so I could write an outline of the ending to send to my editor, who is going to help me finally end this book. Carrie’s story is so agonizing for me in many ways, and I needed my editor’s help to make it through the rest of the draft. But as I’ve healed, through grief and trauma work of my own, through both individual and group therapy, I’ve been able to help Carrie heal too. Yes, the struggle continues, the journey goes on, but both Carrie and I are able to face it with new skills and new courage.
Writing, Reading, Healing
So does writing fiction still scare the hell out of me? Yeah… I’m still gonna say that it really does. I can only write what I think, and I think with the mind of someone who experiences mental illnesses. And by publishing my fiction, my mind is on display for all to see. That’s how writing goes, for each and every writer. We put our hearts and souls out on the line every day. But maybe through this, as writing has helped me heal, I can help someone else heal, too. We’re all struggling through something, and what connects us with our favorite fictional characters but our similarities? Every time we see ourselves in a character, a part of us changes with them. We are touched by their lives. They’re not entirely fictional then. The author wrote them into existence, and the reader finishes their creation.
We change, we grow, and we heal when we read and write ourselves. Yes, I guess there will always be people who misunderstand, but ultimately, we didn’t write for them.
We wrote for those whom we can touch, and we wrote for ourselves. We wrote to change, and we wrote to heal. And that makes sharing our writing worth it.