Author of Leave of Absence, Tanya J Peterson shares with Famous Five Plus, My Writing Process: A Look at How and Why I Write Novels about Mental Illness
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
I happy to say that I have just completed a novel, and it’s in the publication process now. The release date is yet to be determined, but it should be available in the spring of 2014.
I’m excited about this novel. Entitled My Life in a Nutshell, it’s the story of Brian Cunningham, a man living with debilitating anxiety and depression. It’s told from his point of view, so readers can see what life is like for him through his mind. Brian is yanked out of his very small and restrictive comfort zone by seven-year-old Abigail Harris, a little girl who’s bounced from one foster home to another since she was two years old. I’d write more but instead will leave you hanging in order to avoid revealing too much.
HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
The genre of my writing is contemporary fiction, which is an extremely broad category, and the novels within are varied. It’s difficult to state why one novelist in such a huge genre is different from another.
Perhaps my works are unique for their mission (more on that in the next question). I use fiction for non-fiction purposes. Actually, Leave of Absence was selected as a finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards 2013 competition in a contemporary fiction sub-category they dubbed “Faction,” fiction based on fact.
WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU DO?
My goal, through my novels, is to change the way the world thinks about mental illness and the people who experience it. I’m hoping to help increase both factual understanding and empathy.
Fiction is a powerful vehicle for teaching fact. People connect to characters in novels, and they empathize with them. Commonly, people transfer their empathy to real-life human beings. So I use fiction as my medium for humanizing mental illness, for deepening empathy and compassion.
HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
I begin with what to me are the biggies: theme and character. I ponder what I’d like to focus on, what theme I want to illustrate, and then I envision the characters who will help me do this. While I do brainstorm as I create characters, I typically end up “feeling” them rather than “thinking” them. For example, with Leave of Absence, I wanted to show life in behavioral health hospitals, and I wanted to portray schizophrenia and major depression. In My Life in a Nutshell, I wanted to show how very debilitating various forms of anxiety can be. With each story, I pondered, often with my eyes closed, almost in mediation, how that would play out. As I did this both times, characters came to mind, and with them, deeper issues than I already had in mind. Once I know the characters, I spend time with them in my mind, and it doesn’t take long before I’ve bonded with them and feel close to them. After all, if I don’t feel a closeness to and an empathy for my characters, how in the world will readers feel it? And isn’t my whole point to build empathy and understanding?
Once my characters are firmly established in my heart, it’s time to delve into their specific difficulties. While I do have a Master’s degree in counseling and am credentialed as a Nationally Certified Counselor, and while I do live with bipolar 1 disorder and experience anxiety, I never, ever, think that I know it all. That would be absurd! I enter the research phase, a phase I never fully leave until a manuscript has been revised by me, edited by a professional, revised by me again, and re-edited by said professional. Research is an integral part of my writing process. So are brainstorming and sketching and revising. With each and every chapter, I begin by reviewing where I’ve been and where I want to go. Each chapter, as I write, is a step in how the characters are going to get where they need to be.
Writing, while challenging, is great fun. Positive psychologists speak of flow, the period in which one is fully engaged in what he or she is doing. In flow, one is focused, and all other thoughts, worries, stresses, and other negative things fall away. Finding flow is important for mental health and well-being. I find my flow when I write. Hopefully, that helps me achieve what I’m writing for in the first place: understanding of mental illness and empathy for those who experience it.