Therapeutic Fiction

My friend Ayelet Waldman recently started writing a bimonthly column for the e-magazine, opening with a chilling description of how her now-defunct blog (still up at Bad Mother) became a means of communicating suicidal thoughts. I have no wish to comment on that here, aside from noting that the very idea of being so open with the world makes my blood run cold. However, the essay, and the Feb 9th blog that spawned it, should be read by everyone who knows, suspects, or is, a potential suicide. That is, basically, everyone.

However, what interests me at the moment is in the latter portion of her column, where she writes:
‘e2’80’9cAs a novelist, I mined my history, my family and my memory, but in a very specific way. Writing fiction, I never made use of experiences immediately as they happened. I needed to let things fester in my memory, mature and transmogrify into something meaningful. The fictionalized scene I ended up with was often unrecognizable from the actual event that had been its progenitor.
‘e2’80’9cBut in the months I had the blog, I was spewing as fast as my family was experiencing. My initial idea, that the blog would act as a kind of digital notebook, was not panning out. Once the experience was turned into words, I found that it was frozen. The fertile composting that I count on to generate my fiction was no longer happening.’e2’80’9d

All writers use their lives as raw material: how else? Some of us change a few more of the details than others, so the characters, the events, the places appear to be cut from the whole cloth of our imagination. When asked if I use family or friends in my writing, I always answer, ‘e2’80’9cNo, although I’e2’80’99ve borrowed one friend’e2’80’99s hair for the artist in A Grave Talent and used a friend of my husband’e2’80’99s as a basis for the English professor in To Play the Fool.’e2’80’9d All this means is, the process of turning reality into fiction is more deeply buried in my subconscious mind, the composting process (to borrow Ayelet’s imagery) thorough enough to leave fewer recognizable chunks.

However, on at least two occasions, I have deliberately and with malice aforethought written a piece of fiction precisely intending to clothe an event in the comforting gauze of unreality. One was a deeply troubling dream of being trapped in a narrow place, which kept me wincing for weeks until it made its way into the pages of (I think) A Darker Place. The other was the brief, horrifying glimpse of a cat about to die on a freeway, a sight that haunted me for months until eventually I gave it to a character and wrote it into a short story. (For an anthology on, of all things, basketball, edited by Otto Penzler as Murder at the Foul Line–it will be published this fall.)

The other day, I was driving that same patch of road, and remembered the image of the truck that had spilled the cat onto the road. I knew it had come from that story, and I drove on, thinking about writing Otto again to find out where the anthology stood.

Two miles later, I realized that it wasn’e2’80’99t a piece of made-up horror in a story spawned by a twisted mind. The thing had actually happened, but because I had changed it, worked it into a design towards an end, the power had gone out of its memory.

And when you finally read that story and it gives you the heebie-jeebies, I’e2’80’99m sure it will make you feel much better to know that I’e2’80’99ve successfully transferred the image from my basket of nightmares to yours.

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  1. julia on April 9, 2005 at 4:26 pm


    Salon readers, at least the ones who trouble to write letters, can be a bit – intemperate? – sometimes, and have been known to lack a certain amount of perspective, and your friend has gotten a few barrels full of that. Good for her keeping going. I wouldn’t have the nerve.

    (also, since this is my first comment, omigodLaurieKingfangirlsqueee – there, it was going to happen, at least I can get it over with quickly)

  2. Jamie on April 9, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    “And when you finally read that story and it gives you the heebie-jeebies, I’e2’80’99m sure it will make you feel much better to know that I’e2’80’99ve successfully transferred the image from my basket of nightmares to yours. “…you are too kind 🙂

  3. Anonymous on April 9, 2005 at 5:21 pm


    Your fiction is my therapy!!!


  4. Anonymous on April 9, 2005 at 5:23 pm


    My prayers for your son and all others who are in harm’s way.


  5. sinda on April 11, 2005 at 4:39 pm


    While I completely understand Ayelet’s decision not to blog, and am happy that at least I can read her relatively frequently over at Salon, I was so sad to see her blog end. I still check it occasinally to see if, just maybe…

    So it was with great trepidation that I continued reading your post after the introduction. Oh no, I thought, is this her way of leading into a final post, an ‘I can’t blog anymore because it’s taking too much of my writing time or concepts’?

    THANK GOODNESS it was not – you scared me almost as much as The Game did upon my first reading of it (and man, was I scared – tight, suspenseful feelings all the way through, you really had me).

    On a related note, I’ve enjoyed reading all of the discussions around Ayelet’s articles – her blog, Salon articles, and the NYT piece. I still haven’t decided what I think – I probably come down somewhere in the middle of it all – but I think it can only be for the good to engender so much thoughtful dialogue.

    Anyway, thanks for not quitting!

  6. Erin on April 12, 2005 at 3:07 am

    “…clothe an event in the comforting gauze of unreality.”

    I rather like that description. It very much reminds me of a comparative literature class on fantasy and the supernatural that I took last quarter. The major question was why is fiction, especially sci-fi/fantasy, so huge. Escapism was the obvious answer, but we also discussed how fiction gives freedom of thought, especially philosophy and politics, to the author and his audience. By cloaking major issues in fiction, the author can point out flaws within our society without being attacked by everyone and their dog.

    I know that really isn’t the point of your post, but it made me think=)

  7. mattiemayson on April 20, 2005 at 8:30 pm

    Until I read this, I didn’t really know you were a writer (that is, a published writer), and I have to admit, I have no idea what you’ve written or published. Hopefully that won’t bias you against my comments- I just discovered your blog through links as I was just clicking on through.

    I love the internet for the sense that we’re all equal here. Good grief, you could be J.K. Rowling and we’d be able to converse on equal terms. You might be Paris Hilton and I’d be able to run circles around you intellectually. It’s an awesome leveller and a great way to communicate while still preserving a distance.

    Anyway, this is a very interesting post and brings up a lot of internet-related issues. People so often are more honest, more cutting, and even more cruel on the internet than they are in real life, or even than they’d be with themselves in a written journal. I know I am, but then again, I make sure that what I write in my own blog is anonymous, because that’s *why* I have the blog. So that I can communicate with people on the internet who don’t know me in real life. In real life, I feel like I’ve got to keep up this optimism I just don’t feel. It’s a relief and a blessing to just write out what’s going on in my life without wondering ‘is this going to hurt my Dad’s feelings?’ ‘What if my husband takes this the wrong way?’

    And actually, I don’t think my husband even knows I HAVE a blog. I hope not. Because some of what I write I’d rather share with anonymous strangers than with him- and how bizarre that I would feel that way! I’m closer to him than anyone else is on earth, but I’m dealing with some issues (degrading health, depression, an approaching early death) that I just don’t want to throw on his shoulders, too. Neither do I want him to see how desperate I feel at times. Perhaps this is why your friend chooses to write down her suicidal thoughts. I’d never do that, not because I haven’t had them (really, who hasn’t?) but because it still remains illegal to end you own life in America. In fact, even thinking about it is supposed justification for mental hospitalization, although don’t ask me why. Why are we scared of thoughts? If you feel suicidal, isn’t it better to talk about it without being afraid the cops will show up at your door and drag you off to the ‘asylum?’

    I don’t believe suicide is right.. but neither do I believe it’s wrong. I realize, however, that I have a unique advantage and viewpoint on the subject that not everyone has. I am in extreme pain and have a dehabilitating disease that is likely to get much worse before it ever gets better. This depresses me enormously and I often feel that I wish I was dead. However, I cannot do it, cannot take my own life, simply because it would hurt my husband and my family too much. I can’t bear to think of their grief as they reviewed their actions and statements toward me, wondering if one of them could have done something, anything to help me. Nothing I write or say could ever ease that guilt and loss, so I guess I’m trapped here on earth.

    I have a close friend who actually has attempted suicide several times. She’s been in a mental hospital, at her own request, when she felt she could no longer protect herself. From her descriptions of the places, I believe we truly do live in the 19th century, so far as our treatment of mental illness goes.

    I’m curious, though, why are you so afraid of being open with the world that you say it “makes your blood run cold?” That intrigues me, because while a lot of people might find being honest too exposing, I doubt many people would say they’re actually afraid of it. I’m not trying to insult you or put you in the hot seat, but I just think it’s an interesting choice of words which probably reveals a lot more about yourself than you might have thought.

    I’m constantly revealing parts of myself that I was previously unaware of in samples of my writing. For example, I just read through what I’ve already written and realized I wrote “so I guess I’m trapped here on earth.” I can’t believe I used those words, but they really do say what I meant. I feel trapped. By chronic, constant pain, by the expectations of people who want me to conquer a disease that has no cure (and no definate cause, even, as of yet.) If someone asked me how I feel about my life, I’d never have said ‘trapped’, but now I realize, the adjective is a good one.

    About writers using their lives as material- now that’s a whole different subject, which I want to comment on too, but it will have to wait since… oh fine, I’ll admit it… it’s my naptime, and my meds don’t kick in without a nap.

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