My therapist has told me that I should write a memoir. I’ve had kind of a bizarre life, a mixture of hilarity, personal tragedies and dark comedy worthy of a Tim Burton movie. My response is always that I like being alive and there are people who would KILL me for having the nerve to “go there”. That isn’t to say that personal issues never leak into my fiction – an event here, a fear there, occasionally, a character trait (the romantic lead in one of the novels I’m working on lives with undiagnosed ADHD, for instance). But I rarely attempt to capture a time in my life and project it completely onto the page. And then there was “One Percent”.
“One Percent” is a short story I wrote about a girl who becomes obsessed with percentages when she discovers she needs extensive spinal surgery. When I was fifteen years old, I had spinal surgery and it was a highly emotional time for me. Still, it seemed like a safe space in my life to mine ideas from, as the things that made that period so emotional had mostly been about myself and coming to terms with some things in my life, and so, didn’t drag anybody else’s personal life out into the mud along with mine.
I sat down and wrote a story about what it was like. I used a detached and clinical voice because it was how my main character was holding onto sanity – being detached and clinical. And I thought I had done a good job of accurately depicting the situation.
The beauty of having a person that is not personally attached to you view a piece is that they often have no problem with calling you on your crap. After submitting this piece to a million different places and getting no bites at all, one awesome editor and her team (who shall remain nameless unless she wishes to be named) gave me feedback that changed my outlook on the entire piece.
Something had always seemed wrong with the story, but after many reads, I still hadn’t been able to peg what that something was, so I chalked it up to it being insecurity towards submitting my work and let it fly. But this feedback helped me to find what had been missing.
The answer? I was emotionally detached from the piece. And once it was said, it made so much sense. My detached and clinical way of telling the story was merely an excuse to relive the tale without the emotional one-two punch. Even my choice of a 3rd person point of view when 95% of my work is in 1st person reeks of avoidance.
I felt stupid. How had I not seen it sooner?
As I prepared for the rewrite, I realized that the first step was to cut the 3rd person. Sure, a very emotional story could be told using 3rd person, but my brain was already making excuses to put distance between myself and Tina, my main character. If I allowed myself any opportunity, I would maintain my detachment. So ‘she’ quickly became ‘I’, which quickly became a completely different story than the one I had initially been trying to tell.
However, too much attachment can be bad as well. When trying to puzzle out my story idea with a writer friend, she pointed out that I kept referring to the character as myself. “You can lie!” She reminded me. “This isn’t memoir, it’s fiction. You can change the entire situation to get your point across. She is not you. She is your main character.” And she was right.
If I was going to tell Tina’s story, it couldn’t be my story. It had to be Tina’s. And if I was going to tell her story with the proper emotional resonance, I would have to tap into my feelings from that time without a filter. But I had to maintain a balance to keep the story from being either a landing spot for emotional wreckage or a detached and clinical robotic recitation.
It hasn’t been easy. But about a week into my edits, I feel like I have created an entirely different piece, one that is far more honest and, frankly, far more readable. And though I am unsure of the future of it, I can now know that I have done my best service to the story.
Have any of you readers ever had a topic that you needed to write about that hit a little too close to home? How did you handle it? To my non-writer readers, have you ever had a situation that you couldn’t see objectively because you were simply too close? Post below and stay tuned for our next blog post on July 30th, when Sucker Literary makes a stop here on their blog tour! See you then.