I’m thrilled to welcome Tanya back to Lit, etc.! As some of you may recall, I adored Leave of Absence and when Tanya asked if I’d participate in the blog tour for her new release, I couldn’t say no.
I asked Tanya about writing difficult topics and if your interested, you can read her previous guest post, in which she discusses writing about mental illness.
My Characters Put Me Through the Emotional Wringer
I absolutely love creating and writing stories. The best part is making characters. From the moment they take shape, they become part of me, and I spend as much time with them as I do with my family. Okay, probably more so. I’d ask that people refrain from telling my husband and children about this, but they probably already know. I spend every waking moment, and often sleeping ones, with these characters. I come to think what they think and to feel what they feel. This is all well and good, except for the fact that I put them through hell.
Actually, they don’t merely go through hell. The main characters live there, and hell is not just their external world but their inner reality as well. In Leave of Absence, Penelope Baker had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was hospitalized in a behavioral health center to stabilize, and wrestled with the impact schizophrenia had on her once-happy life. Oliver Graham found himself in the same hospital as he wrestled with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In my latest novel, My Life in a Nutshell, Brian Cunningham struggles with debilitating anxiety. Life is essentially one gigantic panic attack for Brian, trapping him in lonely isolation.
Given that I become one with my characters, writing about living with mental illness and its impact isn’t always easy. I feel with them and for them. When I wrote about Brian’s anxiety and panic, there were times when I felt the symptoms right along with him. When he or Penelope or Oliver was reduced to tears, I often was too.
Perhaps it would be easier if my heart were the only part of me that felt their hell. However, my mind, my thoughts are intertwined with them as well. As a nationally certified counselor, I know the symptoms of mental illnesses, how they can manifest, and what they look like off the pages of the DSM-5 and into the real world. I know how my characters are affected, how their lives are impacted. I share their pain as I write it.
Further, I’ve experienced some of this stuff myself. Brian isn’t at all autobiographical (none of my characters are), but it was easy to create his social anxiety. The poor guy lives in constant fear, and he is terrified of being judged. His internal dialogue is one of worry about making mistakes and self-flagellation for being an idiot. I’m definitely not as extreme as Brian (I can go to restaurants, for example, or do my shopping during the day rather than in the middle of the night at Walmart), but I do share some of his inner dialogue. I could project some of myself into him, and in turn he reflected it back. We suffered together.
So why do I do this? Why do I put my characters, and myself in the process, through these hells? I do so because it’s real. I want to show the world what mental illness is really like, beyond facts in a textbook, so empathy and understanding can increase. The reality of this is that yes, there are struggles and difficulties, but that there is so much more to life than, say, anxiety disorders. Brian is complex and a wonderful human being, and he is not his anxiety. He’s Brain, someone who, like the rest of us, has both pain and triumph. And as much as I share the pain of my characters, I share their happiness and delights.
To be sure, it can be difficult to write about tough topics. It’s emotional. Wonderfully, emotions aren’t always negative. Humans, whether we live in a book or out in the world, have positive emotions, thoughts, and experiences, too. So when I engage in my writing process, the characters and I, who are part of each other, ultimately give each other one of the best human emotions of all: hope.
I’m intrigued by the human experience, which is probably the reason I decided to earn degrees in education and in counseling. I enjoy working with people and helping them empower themselves to make their lives great, and I sincerely appreciate those who have helped me through my own challenges in this human experience (I’ve experienced counseling from both sides of the proverbial couch). I’ve worked at a school for homeless and runaway adolescents and in traditional schools as well. I also love to write, and I enjoy creating stories about the human experience.