In October 2016, I began working up the idea for a new story. It involved a dangerous race that started with the contestants entering into drug-induced amnesia. As you can imagine, memory loss was a big part of the story.
Fast-forward to January 2017. My parents moved back to Pennsylvania from South Carolina because my father needed extra help caring for his wife. Although I knew my stepmom was having issues, it wasn’t until I began seeing them every day that I realized she had Alzheimer’s disease. For the next two years, I helped my parents cope with the disease that stole my stepmom’s memory, then her personality, and then her life. She passed away just last month.
I’m almost certain the idea for that work-in-progress came to me independent of my stepmother’s memory issues, but it wasn’t long before I realized I was writing a fictional story about memory loss while also dealing with real-life memory loss. My life was imitating my art. It was a weird coincidence. For a time, I tried to hold my fictional world as far away from my real life world as possible. After all, helping someone cope with Alzheimer’s disease is stressful and heartbreaking. Fiction writing, I believed, should be my escape from that reality. So I wrote about my character’s memory loss without letting my real-life experiences influence it. You can imagine how that writing came out: flat, lifeless, and relatively pain-free. It was only after my editor expressed a desire to know more about my character’s frustration and sense of loss brought about by her amnesia that I began to dig deeper into the experiences my family was having with my stepmother’s disease. It was a painful thing to do, to put myself in the shoes of someone I cared about and really think about the losses she was experiencing. But whatever it cost me, the benefit to the book was well worth it.
I think it goes without saying that as fiction writers, we have to immerse ourselves in painful situations, difficult emotions, and heartbreak. That comes with the territory if we want to write stories about authentic characters living through authentic experiences. I also think it goes without saying that we should write about the things we care about, the things that matter to us most. A reader once told me that it’s always apparent if an author doesn’t care about the story they’re telling, and I think that’s true. An author can’t expect a reader to care about a story that they didn’t care about first. So maybe I’m giving you obvious advice when I say that, as writers, we need to put real emotion on the page.
For me, though, this obvious advice becomes harder to take when the emotions come close to home. I was very reluctant to think about my stepmom’s Alzheimer’s disease when I was at my writing desk. To be honest, the pain of her disease was something I was always anxious to shake off, whenever I could. But that self-protective behavior was robbing my book of emotional weight. I’m not saying I put a lot of that pain on the page. It wasn’t about the quantity of emotion, but the quality. Once my character experienced her memory loss authentically, a little went a long way.
That work-in-progress eventually became my next book, Crown of Oblivion, which comes out from HarperTeen in November. Every book I write teaches me a lot about writing, and this one taught me about allowing my truth to live in my fiction. After all, fiction writing should be fun, but it probably should hurt some, too, if it’s going to be worthwhile. In that way, it’s a lot like the experience of reading a really good book.