There seems to be a romantic notion among people who aren’t novelists that writing fiction is somehow therapeutic. In my experience, this isn’t the case at all; in fact, it’s the opposite of that. In therapy, a patient talks to a trained professional who helps her grapple with subjective truths she’s buried all her life and is healthier for facing head-on. In writing stories about made-up characters for an unknown reader, the novelist ideally disappears, transforms her messy, personal experience into something universally human.
When I was in my twenties, I hated myself with a blind intensity that bordered on narcissistic obsession. My sense of my own terribleness was monstrous and all consuming. I guzzled alcohol to blot myself out. I occasionally contemplated suicide with a voluptuous vindictiveness that was tempered by the certainty that I would never do it, if only because I had books to write, and my creative ego burned brighter than my urge to self-annihilate. Through all my drinking and depression and paralysis, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I had faith that there would come a time when I’d actually write something worthwhile, I just had to keep going. During those years when I was lonely and angry and floundering, the absolute need to write was all I had. It was my life raft, and I held onto it.
Finally, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, with an internal cry of Eureka!, I awoke to the deep, ancient cause of my anger. It turned out that all my self-hatred, self-destructiveness, and general mental troubles over the years stemmed from something so trite and universal, so cliché, I was almost embarrassed when I realized, with the help of my then-therapist, what its source was. After decades of doing everything I could to transform my antipathy into pure love, to rise above my real feelings and be a perfect daughter, to deny my own needs to try to meet my mother’s, thus winning her conditional love, I experienced the abrupt detonation of a flash of light in my head. When I said, “I hate my mother,” my therapist appeared to be delighted with us both. It took many sessions to get there, and many sessions went by after I said it, but that was the pivotal moment, the breakthrough: I hated my mother.
Suddenly, for the first time, all of the mess of my life made sense. It was as if I had followed the tangled threads of my psyche through a dense forest back to one essential, irrefutable tree. Amazingly to me, this realization freed me to write in my own authentic voice, to harness my rage and use it as fuel, to jettison my years of anxious, imitative homage to all the great writers I desperately wanted to be. That was the year I started writing well, and it was because I had finally admitted the truth I had been suppressing all my life.
But the act of writing isn’t therapy for me. In fact, the mechanisms that make the therapeutic process effective are useless in writing fiction. All my novels are the result of reimagining, transforming, and transcending all the shit and blood and guts and confusion and heartache and rage that make me a flawed and fucked-up human, without showing any of this work at all, without existing in the work at all. I can’t write about this stuff while I’m in the thick of it. I have to resolve it first. That’s the trick and the challenge.
A few years ago, after coming to terms with my mother as an adult and maintaining a genuinely loving bond with her for many years, we had a cataclysmic and final-feeling rupture. This came on the heels of a series of health crises, all of which I nursed her through, for which she seemed resentful and even enraged. It seemed as if she needed to be free of me for her own self-preservation, in order not to feel old or weak or dependent. I understood this deeply, but still, her cold, willful repudiation of me came as a brutal shock.
In its wake, I began to write a novel about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her own problematic mother in the aftermath of her mother’s death. That woman was not me, and her mother was not my mother. In order for this novel to work, I had to create a protagonist who was connected to me by the umbilicus of shared experience, but who was nonetheless her own independent person. And by extension, I had to imagine my narrator’s mother as fully herself.
To borrow from Tolstoy, if everyone who loves their parents loves them in a similar way, then maybe everyone who hates their parents hates them in a unique and bitter bubble of isolation. I knew I needed to capture and evoke my narrator’s particular bubble of mother-hatred and use it as the essential gas for the engine that drove the novel. To do this, I had to exit the acidic bubble I shared with my own mother, pop it, if you will, and step over the residue. Given how raw my feelings were at the time, this felt impossible; I couldn’t hear the novel’s vital pulse. The thudding of my own broken heart drowned it out.
After two despairing years and a few unsuccessful drafts, I put the book aside and wrote a detective novel for fun. Interestingly, I invented a female detective with her own problematic mother, and naturally, this particular mother-daughter dyad existed in its own little acidic black bubble, so I had to leave those other ones behind, mine and my original narrator’s. Writing this book was a blessed reprieve, a hard-won parole.
After I finished it, I went back to the novel I couldn’t write and found it right where I’d left it. But now, having been away from it, I was able to see it with fresh eyes. Its conundrum, I realized, was actually structural and fairly simple. The problem was that my fictional protagonist resolved her feelings about her mother midway through the novel and the second half felt shapeless and drained of drama. For the first time, I saw that the whole novel needed to be about the process of letting a problematic, complicated mother go. This was the novel’s subject, the question at its heart, its impetus and reason for existing. My narrator couldn’t be free of her mother until the very last lines of the book.
I was aware, as I finished this new, sustained, coherent draft, that I had let my own mother go, out here in the parallel world beyond the novel. While I’d taken a hiatus from the book, I’d worked through my grief and pain, saying goodbye to my mother and moving on without her. I’d done the hard work in my own life, and then I was able to solve the problem of the narrative. In other words, things needed to resolve in my psyche for me to be able to resolve the book, because the novel ultimately had to exist without me, on its own terms.
As I wrote this new draft, I practiced a sleight of hand I’ve learned to do over the years, a trick of distraction in which my imagination does the gnarly job my conscious brain is ill-equipped to carry out. I had to balance the most painful truths of my life with the art of making fiction. Every quality that bound my own mother-daughter dyad to my fictional one had to be finessed, run through the machine in my brain that alchemically transforms emotional muck into fictional silk. Every time my own life intruded on the narrative, the voice rang false. And I couldn’t write anything true if I thought about my own mother, so all the glancing factual intersections between the mother in the novel and my own mother had to be run through that machine, the engine generated solely by me, in order to drain the personal from the universal, to give all the feelings to my narrator.
This is true for every book I write. If readers catch any defensiveness, grievance, or self-righteousness on the part of the author, any personal agenda at all, any whiff of my presence, I’ve lost them. They’re on to me. Writing fiction is like a magic trick, but only in that it involves skillful prestidigitation rather than literal magic. Look over here at these fictional characters, I say, watch them talk and act like real people, get involved in their problems and be seduced by their verisimilitude. Meanwhile, I’m invisibly hiding in the back, behind the curtain, dealing with my own shit. But the reader can’t know that. Fiction at its best feels transparent and universal and sublimely human. The muck of the writer’s psyche has to be shaped and honed through draft after draft until it becomes the muck of someone else’s psyche, a person wholly invented who feels more intimately knowable than any real person.
The painter Philip Guston once said something along the lines of “I don’t really start painting until I leave the room.” I would say the same about writing. I can’t write in an authentic voice if I get in my own way, if my own feelings are there, lurking. I have to disappear, not only for the reader, but for myself, and this art of deliberate, practiced self-annihilation gives me the purest, most exhilarating pleasure I’ve ever known. The act of writing novels feels almost like the process of nuclear fission, generating energy by splitting the atoms of emotional experience, after which the novel itself becomes an underground silo for the radioactive byproducts of my life, buried in layers of concrete that hopefully won’t leak until the end of time.
Writing fiction has always felt like a safe shelter, a bunker where I can transform volcanic rage, guilt, pain, and heartbreak into stories about imaginary characters who will, I hope, connect to real people who’ve felt similar things, so that we might all feel less alone. I work through it all by making it universal, connecting my subjective experience to the abiding belief that we’re all in this together.