A week ago, I finished writing my third novel of the year. “Hambden” (working title) was the most difficult novel I’ve ever written. It took me a little over two months to write, but the short birthing period says very little about the emotional toil it took for me to reach The End.
The plot evolved from watching news coverage of the Paris attacks last year. Then, the attacks didn’t stop. The shootings increased. Living in Chardon, Ohio–a small town that suffered its own school shooting in 2012–kept me surrounded by red, cardboard hearts, silently commanding all of us to “Remember.”
I suppose my husband is the only person who can speak from experience about my consistent emotional breakdowns whenever I heard about some other psycho with a gun. Although he perhaps didn’t understand my hysteria, people with anxiety disorder surely do. When you’re already afraid to leave your house just because, multiply that with the fear of getting murdered by some asshole teenager with “Killer” written on his cheap, white t-shirt.
Buried beneath my anxiety and depression, an idea bloomed. Instead of ignoring what was going on in the world, I would write about it–namely, I would write about a shooting at an Ohio college, only I would write about the aftermath of the tragedy instead of the tragedy itself. How does a community rebuild? How are individuals affected?
My “individuals” (we writers call ’em “characters”) soon echoed in my head like gunshots. Meet Isaac Twain: emergency English Department hire who’s new to Hambden University and knows very little about the shooting that stole six lives the prior June. Meet John Conlon: hero teacher who stopped the shooting and desperately tries to hide how fucked up he is by being charismatic, funny, and brave.
I’m not giving anything away when I tell you surviving the school shooting messed John up big time, and, as I wrote my novel, I found it alarmingly easy to slip into his shoes day after day as he battled depression, PTSD, anxiety, and night terrors. However, what surprised me was how hard it was to take those shoes off at the end of the day.
In my past and present, I’ve battled the same demons as John Conlon. No one’s ever put a gun in my face, but depression is in my genes. A hellish job shoved me into PTSD and anxiety. My colorful imagination makes me a writer by day and sufferer of vivid, bloody dreams at night. Immersing myself in “Hambden,” in John and Isaac’s world of broken pieces, was more destructive than I’d expected.
I would never suggest we only write about happy things. I would never suggest we stop writing about mental illness. I’ve found that sharing my own mental health problems has helped my readers be open about their own–and that’s important, having that open dialogue. The more we talk about mental illness, the better we can deal with it. The more likely we are to heal. And yet, writer beware. There must be a strict delineation between the fiction you create and the life you live.
Halfway through “Hambden,” I came to the realization that writing is my job. It’s not my life (no matter what the passionate cliches on Pinterest want you to think). It is necessary for all of us to keep our work and our lives separate. Once I came to terms with that–once I made an agreement with Isaac and John that they had my mornings and life had my afternoons–I stopped feeling so comfortable in John’s sad, cold shoes. I could escape and stop thinking about the book as soon as I hit “Save” every morning.
Due to editing deadlines for next year’s Bite Somebody Else, “Hambden” will not be touched again until December. Then, I will revisit that world of violence and tragedy. Yet, even in that world, there are laughs and there is love. Writing might not be life, but sometimes, it sure does imitate it.
The “Hambden” theme song: