At the Keyboard and On the Couch

When I was going through the revision process on my first novel with my editor, we had a telling conversation. She was concerned that I wasn’t getting deep enough into the relationship between my protagonist and one of the other characters. “I just don’t understand why he hates this character so much,” she said. The statement gave me pause. I’d modeled the character in question on someone I knew very well. I thought the relationship between this character and my protagonist reflected in several ways my relationship with this person. But hate? I didn’t hate this person. I might have been a little peeved at the way things had devolved between us. But hate?

I clarified the relationship in the novel based on my editor’s advice. At the same time, though, I thought for a long time about why I’d characterized this relationship as I had. This was when I first realized that writing fiction was a unique form of therapy. Most of us have had the experience of writing an angry letter or email message (or even a comment on a blog) and then never sending it because the venting was all that was necessary. I’d been familiar with this form of writing-as-therapy for a long time, though I admit to having hit the “send” button far too often.

This was something different from that. If a writer takes creating characters seriously – and I am very serious about my characters – he or she of course builds the characters and the relationships between these characters on people and relationships he or she knows. Unless one has a Ph.D. in psychology, this is really the only way to go. I’m not suggesting that good characters are always reproductions of real-life characters, but rather that if they are going to feel real, they need to reflect what the writer knows of people. Doing this, then, requires the sort of in-depth analysis of one’s feelings and connections to others that one might get working with a top-notch therapist. If you present these characters and relationships honestly, you learn much about yourself and the people in your life.

Then you get a bonus treatment. Your editor reads the work and challenges you on certain components of it. Of course, one can take those challenges as work to do to make another reader (hopefully someone you respect) happy. But if you really want the full-on, head-back-on-the-couch experience, you can attempt to parse the reasons why the criticism was necessary in the first place. This can be quite revelatory. When I sent my agent the first draft of my second novel, he told me that he thought the writing was perfectly fine but that the novel lacked passion. My first response was astonishment (yes, I realize a pattern is emerging). How could he feel that way, I thought. This novel is overflowing with passion. I didn’t express this to my agent but instead let his comments simmer for a few days. When I went back to the manuscript, I noticed that I’d been a bit distant here, an easy fix. And maybe I could dig a little deeper here. Okay, I should have picked that up on my own. Fifty pages in, I realized that my agent was absolutely right. I’d written the entire novel from a sense of remove, even though the topic was something that meant a great deal to me. Was I afraid to address this? Was I reluctant to put my true feelings on the page? What did this say about me?

Eventually I did a substantial rewrite on the novel, discovering at the same time how to plumb my emotions to allow the honesty to come through. My novel Blue provided my most intense therapy session yet. This time, I was writing about things that mattered to me at a primal level. I can truly say that I learned more about myself writing this novel than I’d ever learned before.

Who knew? When I decided to be a writer, I thought I was just getting into it to tell some stories. I had no idea that a side benefit would be years of personal analysis without paying a penny to a shrink.

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