Podcast Ep. #10: How to Fail at Writing a Novel, Part II

Today is the second episode of my series on novel-writing fails. And I’m going to go ahead and give a trigger warning for this episode. I will talk a fair bit about mental illness because it relates to my personal story: specifically, schizophrenia, anorexia, binge-eating, and the hospitalization thereof. If you need to skip over this episode, please feel free to do so. Long story short, my second novel attempt involved me writing a very personal story which ended up being semi-autobiographical. That, in itself, was not a bad thing, but it did expose flaws in my writing process. We are leaving the intro now, so if you need to exit, now is the time.

Although I did write extensively while I was in high school, my second truly serious attempt at writing a story on a large scale occurred when I was twenty-one to twenty-three years old. As part of my creative writing major in college, I had to complete a senior honors project which consisted of me writing a novella and revising it over the course of my final year and then presenting part of that novella at my university’s undergrad research conference at the end of the school year. I also had to complete an internship at my university’s press house, receive critiques from two professors on my manuscript, and write a sample query letter as if I were going to send the novella out to publishing agents. And, on paper, this may seem like the perfect opportunity for someone to write something that will help get their foot in the door, so to speak, of the publishing world. For me, it was a great opportunity that could not have come at a worse time. But let’s rewind a bit.

For you to understand the novella I wrote, you have to understand a little bit about my family, so excuse me while I go into too much personal information. My mother has a variety of mental disorders that she’s struggled with for years, so my dad raised me as a single parent from the time I was five to when I was twenty-one. In February of my junior year of college, he got remarried to a woman I would eventually come to love and respect a lot, but at the time it felt like a very sudden change, and I had only met my stepmother one time before they married and moved in together. I was away at school when this happened, and when I came back during spring break, all my stuff was in boxes in a single room in this strange woman’s house. She was also Vietnamese, and suddenly I was being thrust into this whole new culture, and I didn’t know how to exist in that culture or in her house.

Even though I was very young, I was used to being the ‘woman of the house,’ so to speak, and now I was living in some other woman’s house under her rules. She immediately treated me like I was her daughter, her flesh-and-blood, which I am very grateful for now, but at the time, that treatment was very jarring because I didn’t feel like I needed or wanted another mom. I didn’t want to call this woman ‘mom’ or ‘stepmom’ because in my mind, she hadn’t raised me, she hadn’t earned that title, and I got really upset when multiple people called her my stepmother in front of me. However, I tried to hold all of these feelings in and act like I was okay because I could tell my dad was happy, and I knew he had sacrificed a lot for me when I was growing up, and he deserved to find happiness with someone, regardless of how I felt about that person.

While I was dealing with these changes, however, my biological mother started to go through a really bad phase of anorexia and binge-eating due to her paranoid schizophrenia. When I went to visit her at the start of the summer before my senior year, she was literally skin and bones. My grandmother and I had to petition the court to get her put in the hospital, and she stayed there for two or three weeks getting treatment. And I had seen this scenario before. I had filled out that same petition before when I was nineteen; I had watched my mom get taken to the hospital before, get on meds, get home, get off meds, recover, decline, recover, decline, recover, decline. Something about it happening at that time though, at the same time that people were telling me how wonderful this other woman was that had come into my dad’s life and into my life, something about the intersection of those events broke me. It just shut me down emotionally.

I could not stop thinking about how utterly unfair it was that this woman I barely knew got to make me lunches and visit my school and live with my dad every day; she got to give me advice; she got to watch me sing at church; she got the compliments from people telling her how sweet and wonderful her daughter was. Meanwhile, the mom who gave birth to me was sitting in literal darkness in her bedroom, drifting in and out of a catatonic state, just a broken, dying shell of a person. I got so angry. I got so angry. And then I swear to you, it was like a switch in my brain flipped, and after this flood of emotions, I did not feel any emotion for two years. No desire for anything. No affection for anyone. My level of caring about my life and my future was so low you would have had to go to the deepest point in the ocean to find it. This is the time that I began binge-watching Korean dramas to get out of my own head; I found that living vicariously through characters was the only way I could channel emotions for even a second, either by reading and watching them on-screen or writing about them. And this is the mental and emotional state I was in when I started writing my novella.

The name of my novella would come to be “Cindy,” named after its titular character who, as you may have guessed, was a young girl growing up with a mentally ill mother. This semi-autobiographical novella follows Cindy through different stages of her life from early childhood to her second year of high school and shows how the highs and lows of her mother’s mental state, as well as a lot of her mother’s quirks, impact her worldview and her view of herself and the relationships she has with other people inside and outside of her family. This was a novella that I wrote because at the time it was the only thing I could write. Every other thought and desire had been stripped out of me, and my experience with my mom was the only thing I had left, and I couldn’t imagine at that point ever again being able to write something that was not about my mom. Because at every turn, all I could see were the ways in which she had shaped me into the person I was. My mom was this tragic figure looming in my head at all times, her pain and her grief and her losses overshadowing everything I did. Every decision I made. Any relationship I formed. Any success or failure that I had. Everything came back to her.

I could always trace everything that I did back to her, but particularly everything that I wrote. And even though people praised me for being so open and honest in writing about my experiences with her, I started feeling really scared. What if this was the only thing I felt for the rest of my life, all this anger and bitterness and grief? What if I could only write about my mom and nothing else? There was so much about my mom inside of me, so many of her stories. What if there simply wasn’t room for anything else? What if there wasn’t room for any other characters, any other story? It was just my mom’s story and my story running through my head, over and over again. And I kept thinking, what if, what if, what if, what if I really can’t be a fiction writer like I always wanted to be? Everything I write comes out memoir.

So that novella, even though it was complete, and it definitely was something I could have expanded, and I did get positive feedback on it…gosh, it frightened me. Because as much as I wanted to get all that stuff about my mom out of my system, I also wanted to let it go and be able to move forward with my life and write about something else. Anything else. And this was one reason I decided, ultimately, to not try to turn that novella into something publishable. In the end, it was too personal, and I wanted to move away from it, not closer towards it, or I felt like I might be trapped there, reliving the same scenarios forever.

I am going to record a part two for this part two in the next episode, and that’s because I want to talk about some technical things I struggled with in my novella, apart from the content of it. But what broad things did I learn from the experience of writing a novella that was so deeply personal?

Well, first of all, I had always heard that old piece of writing advice: “Write what you know.” And up to that point, I had taken that quite literally. I almost always stuck to only what I knew and what was personal and important to me, even when I wrote fiction. I stuck to the places I knew, the types of people that I knew, the culture I knew, the worldview I had, the topics that I knew a lot about or that I was personally interested in. I wrote characters that felt like me, that sounded like me, and that I could relate to in their thoughts and their actions. For the purposes of this novella, which, as I said, was semi-autobiographical, that was fine, but writing the character of Cindy (and then realizing that I did not want to continue writing her) made me confront the fact that I had no idea how to write a main character that was not me in some way. I felt like if I had not written that novella, I wouldn’t have been able to write anything compelling for my senior project because I had no idea what other type of character or story world I could have produced.

But if I didn’t want to write about my mom forever, then I needed to be able to not write about myself. I needed to be able to put myself in the shoes of a character that was different from me. And I had never written a main character who was not a female around my age. I had never written a main character who was not Christian, who was not from the southern U.S. I had never written a main character who did not have a difficult or traumatic relationship with her mother. I had not intended for my characters to all be me, but they were all me in ways that mattered. So, at that point, I had to confront the fact that I was terrified to write a character that I couldn’t personally identify with, so I had just been avoiding it for as long as possible, but now I was at a crossroads. I had real difficulties putting myself in the head of someone who had a different thought process, a different personality, and a different worldview from me, but if I wanted to be any good as a fiction writer, I knew I had to start forcing myself to write those characters.

Branching off that thought, another thing I learned was that I sometimes put an unhealthy amount of my personal trauma into my writing. And what I mean by that is, instead of letting my personal experiences inform my writing at places in the text where it would be relevant (such as a scene that takes place in a mental hospital), I was letting my personal experiences drive what I was writing to the point where I couldn’t see the text clearly. Like, I had a deep personal need to say certain things, so I would say those things regardless of whether they added to the fictional story or not. I was not thinking about the characters and what they needed or the story and what it needed. I was just thinking about myself and whatever I needed to get out of my system that day, and there was no separation between me as a person and me as an author. And since I wanted to write in a professional capacity, I knew I needed to learn how to set boundaries with myself so that I could approach my work in a more objective and unbiased way and not let my personal feelings bleed all over the text. In other words, a character should not be angry in a scene just because I, at the moment, was angry about something or because I would have felt that way had I been in the character’s position. If the story wasn’t about me, then it shouldn’t be about me.

this train compartment

is stuffed to the brim

with the tortured words

I’ve written in memoriam

of the girl I used to be,

the one who survived

off sugar-spun dreams,

off cloud visions

that blacked out

and burst at the seams

a case here, a case there;

a case for when you scolded me

for cutting my hair;

a case for when you looked at me

and stared, stared, stared straight through;

a case for the parts of me

that remind me of you;

a case for when you taught me

to write my name;

a case for my pictures you framed,

the ones that hung in your apartment kitchen;

a case for the letters we’ve written

and for the hymns we sung

all morning long, the words

that remain on the tip of my tongue

and the pulse of your foot pedal;

a case for life’s inevitable

blank space where memories

used to play

a case for the carob cake you baked for my birthday—

thirteenth, yeah, the tag has a date

a case for the twisted face mocking your frown

a case for strangers’ stares every time we went out

a case for each unanswered knock on your door

a case for ballet on your living room floor

a case for this reference they won’t understand

a case for you, who made me who I am

a case for what only makes sense if I yell

a case for everything I’ll never tell

pack them up and lock them tight,

whatever I need to sleep at night,

however I can say to the world,

‘I’m all right’

but, Mama, I’m scared

I’ve locked myself

in here too

and, Mama, I’m scared

I don’t know who I am

without you

and, Mama, I’m scared

I don’t know how to live

outside this room

or how to feel anything

that won’t lead me

back to you

Mama, you’re a name

I can’t un-name,

a vow I’ve made,

a thirst unslaked,

a bitter pill I take and take and take

I’ve been stuck here on this train

because of you—

because the labels on the cases

are my only proof

not everything you remember—

how you remember it—

is the truth

but when I arrive at the next station

and gather up my things,

I will take only what I need

for my next journey

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About Me

JodiMarie Meyer enjoys toeing the line between the mundane and the magical and exploring the dichotomies of good and evil; she primarily writes love stories, but not always. Definitely someone who got in trouble for daydreaming in class. Definitely someone who scribbles frantic story notes while stirring pasta. She makes her home in the Maryland countryside with her husband, dog, and rabbit. She is the author of one short story collection: magic/madness. Currently, she is writing her debut novel, Luc & Lila.