As a writer I have written on food, lifestyle, travel, family, work, and love. I have written nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that one day my life as I knew it would be over and I would write a book about caring for a loved one, suddenly suffering a life-threatening illness in a coma, in the intensive care unit.
The process of writing a book like this, as you who have written such deeply personal work know, was simply painful. The first draft, writing about facts of the incident, was in some ways healing, as I could put the pain on paper. Then came the edits. It was hard to read the manuscript again. The talented editor asked me to “show, not tell,” and to add details and go more into depth about certain feelings, times, and places.
I did not want to, and fought her tooth and nail. If I dove deep, I relived the nightmare again and again and had to recall every single moment of pain. I resisted. I was afraid and, honestly, I was exhausted.
And yet: what do you do when the book chooses you?
I edited, I cried, I cursed, I wrote, I wept, I worried. Sharing such a personal event was hard. I spoke to other people who have written about gut-wrenching topics. It was like looking in a mirror: You have to do what you have to do.
I tried to compare myself to people suffering from worse trauma, worse pain, and who have written about it. Instead of helping, it frightened me even more and made me feel that I should be stronger than I was being.
I keep preaching, when I teach, that as a writer I have often found that my calling guides my path. Well, here I am now—the calling is pulling me down a path I did not want to go on.
I feel like I have let everyone down. I feel this need to be stronger. Writing this book requires me to show my vulnerability…and yet, what I want to feel and show is that I am strong: I can do this. If I can get through this, you can, too. But did I really get through this? A wise writer, Haruki Murakami, said, “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.”
I struggle to find my identity and my balance as a writer, my peace as a spouse, and my vulnerability as a human being.
Then I get an email from a reader. She is in the hospital with her loved one who is really sick. She is terrified. She feels alone. I mail her the book.
As I tackle my fiction now, after this experience, I ask myself what I have learned about human behavior and how we all react in different situations. As a result, my approach towards my characters has changed radically. Instead of writing up character profiles (what is their star sign and what color is their hair), I do something I had never done before (and may sound slightly insane but…): I take my character out to coffee. I make a date with a character and then go sit in a coffee shop or a bookstore or wherever I feel this character would go.
Then I open my notebook and ask them all the difficult questions:
- What would you do in times of tragedy?
- What is the worst thing that has happened to you?
- How did you react?
- Were you scared?
- What choices did you make?
- What would you do differently?
- What is your identity? Are you a painter? A poet? A doctor? Who are you underneath that? A caring mother? And underneath that? A scared human being? A stoic philosopher? An anxiety-ridden soul? Deeper and deeper, I go with them, until they bare their soul in course of the “chat.”
It has helped get to the depth of a character and the motivation – what makes us tick in hard times? What makes one person go on and another one give up? What guides us to be strong and resilient.
I don’t edit when I take notes during these imagined chats. I can tell you that I learn a lot – and somewhere in there, I feel there is guidance that not only helps me develop stronger characters but more realistic ones.
What I have learned for myself is this: the calling truly does guide the path.. just not in the ways we imagine sometimes.
Do you have thoughts to share? We’d love to hear from you in comments.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!