Fewer things are as satisfying as a writer as when a reader comes to you and says something like, “How did you know what that’s like? You nailed it.”
I’ve had comments along those lines about a number of books. One reader, a woman who’d married a widower, asked how I’d known how it felt, because my main character in Lost Without You struggled with the very same things this reader had.
More than once, I had military wives email to say that surely I was a military wife too, because there was “no way” I could possibly know what it was like otherwise for Band of Sisters and the sequel, Band of Sisters: Coming Home.
No, I haven’t married a widower. I’m not a military wife. Nor do I have an eating disorder. I’ve never been divorced. I’ve also never dealt with racism personally. Or a dozen (more) things I’ve written about.
In most cases, it’s high praise to think you managed to create characters and events that ring true when they aren’t things you’ve personally gone through.
But I ran into a slightly different situation recently regarding my most recent contribution to the Newport Ladies Book Club, and it made me smile.
Someone I know beckoned me over and asked in a slightly worried tone, “I just finished reading Ilana’s Wish. And, um… How did you know so much about addiction?” Her tone clearly implied that maybe I had a problem, a dark past, to confess.
To ease her mind and lighten the moment, I said the first thing that came to mind: “I’ve watched a lot of Dr. Phil over the years.”
That’s actually true, in a sense. I really do watch the good doctor; his is one of the few shows I’ll bother recording and watching. One reason is that it’s educational, but another part is purely for characterization and research. Really.
So when I began writing Ilana’s Wish, I’d already seen a lot I could use. After all, Dr. Phil has had a ton of addicts on his show. After seeing enough of them, you start to see patterns.
I assured the concerned loved one that I didn’t personally have a drug addiction, but as the conversation moved elsewhere, I realized that I could have given her a fuller answer.
I do know what chronic pain is like. I drew a lot of Ilana’s experience with pain from reality in that way. I have had chronic migraines for over a decade (and no, please don’t give me your cure; I can guarantee I’ve tried it).
And I’ve seen people with various addictions in real life, some actively battling the addiction, others in denial, like Ilana.
I’ve come to see that most people in the world have something they cling to as a crutch that can easily become an addiction.
In the majority of the population, that addiction isn’t as menacing and scary as drugs or alcohol, but that doesn’t mean the addiction is any less real. I even heard a man say recently that his marriage had ended in divorce because of his addiction to fitness and to triathlons in particular.
Possibly the most common addiction, and one that’s publicly acceptable to a great degree, is food addiction. It’s what we celebrate with. Mourn with. De-stress with. Fight boredom with. And we can’t stop it cold turkey or even gradually. We have to eat. You can’t be “clean” of food. For that reason, I think food addictions may be some of the hardest to fight.
How many chocolate-themed memes are out there, with sayings like “Hand over the chocolate, and no one gets hurt”? And we just laugh. And we eat more chocolate. Sometimes it’s an innocent joke, but many women really are food addicts.
I’m guilty of laughing along, although the process of writing Ilana’s story helped me recognize the need to face own my emotions head on and to really feel them, even when doing so is uncomfortable and painful.
Numbing our emotions with chocolate (or potato chips or French fries or a shake or something else) isn’t the solution. It really isn’t, even when it feels good in the moment.
In that sense, I really do relate to Ilana, and that’s the part of myself I drew from when writing her story.
Having been on prescription painkillers for pain, I’ve faced thoughts of What if regarding addiction. What if I were to get addicted? What can I do to be sure I don’t? It’s a scary thing to consider.
In the same way, Ilana’s story came from that vulnerable part of me where emotions can be scary and hard to face.
I hope a lot of readers can see themselves in her story, as I did. Not in full-blown drug addiction (or I hope not, for everyone’s sake), but perhaps in an increased awareness that maybe, just maybe, there could be a healthier way of coping and managing our emotions.
But back to that reader, and to any other reader with the same worry:
How did I know so much about addiction? I researched it. I talked with a friend who is a recovering addict and picked her brain thoroughly. I really did think back on episodes of Dr. Phil. As I mentioned, I drew on my own experience with chronic pain. I observed other people who I believe are addicts with different types of addictions. I paid attention to their excuses and justifications and behaviors.
So no worries that I’m in Ilana’s situation; I promise I’m not. I just do my research and have a good imagination.
That’s what writers do.