Writing the Life Experiences of Others

Image result for lonelyWell, here we are in a new year. I’ve learned lots of lessons in 2016, and I hope to carry them forward to make 2017 the best year yet. The best part of last year was, by far, the unprecedented response I’ve had to the release of my latest novel, The Ghosts of Tullybrae House. Thank you to everyone for your support. I can’t wait to see what’s next for me.

If you’ve read any of my interviews, you’ll know that I do read the reviews that readers leave on my books. Some authors will suggest that you shouldn’t do this. It’s best, they’ll tell you, not to dwell on what someone said, but rather to look to the future and continue writing. For me, taking the time to consider and evaluate what my readers are saying about my work gives me a chance to gain insight on what I might improve on. After all, every review is a chance to learn. And I’m not just talking about the negative or critical ones. I mean the positive ones, too.

Recently, a positive review was submitted for The Ghosts of Tullybrae House that gave me insight into something I appear to have done right. It was something I hadn’t fully comprehended I was doing, come to that. In Tullybrae, my main character, Emmie, was adopted at a young age. I wrote about how she loved her adoptive family, but felt disconnected from them. I went into some very deep detail about the effect her early experiences had on her psychological and emotional development, too. They are too many and too minute to go into in one small blog post, but let it suffice to say I developed that aspect of her character as well as I could.

In response to this, reader “cjtimm” said:

The main character Emmeline spoke to me since I too was adopted at 6+ and felt the same with my adopted family. At 74 year of age I was surprised to read of the same feeling expressed by her.

Now, full disclosure: I was never adopted. I look exactly like my mother, and in terms of my personality I am my father’s daughter to a fault (sorry, Dad!). I don’t pretend to have any direct insight into what a person who was adopted might feel like, and I know that each individual who was is different and has had different experiences and outcomes. I am no authority, I can only guess at what someone in Emmie’s place might feel like. But believe it or not, the thoughts, feelings and motivations that I wrote of Emmie were actually based on a real person.

He was a boyfriend from long ago, when I was in my early twenties—I’ll call him Matt, though obviously that’s not his real name. Both Matt and his sister were adopted. Their mother couldn’t have children of her own because she had weak kidneys and was told early on in life that her body could not support a pregnancy. Matt’s parents were wonderful. They were loving, supportive and nurturing. Matt never denied that they loved him with all their hearts, yet despite this, he struggled all his life. In his early years and through his teens, he lived with behavioural problems. Later, he expressed feelings of never really having connected with his adoptive mother. And there were many other things I noticed or felt during our long-ago relationship which I suspect had been shaped by his experience.

It’s funny, but up until the time I sat down to write Tullybrae, I never realized how much I was paying attention to those little things. I never realized that I was absorbing them, and storing them away in the very back of my memory. But as I began to write Emmie and her brother Chase, and as I tried to put myself in their shoes, I discovered that much of the detail I was putting in about how their different adoptive experiences shaped their outlook on life was based on what I had observed in Matt.

Matt and I ended our relationship over fifteen years ago, and I regret to admit that it was not under amicable circumstances. We were too different, in the end, and our life trajectories were simply not meant to run in tandem. Of course I wish him all the best in life, and I hope he’s found whatever is going to make him happy. In writing him into Emmie, and even into her brother Chase (whose First Nations heritage and circumstance of birth was also something I borrowed from Matt), I hope I’ve been able to say, in my own small way, that I was listening to him and that, while I could not say exactly that I knew for certain how he felt, I could at least empathize as an outside observer.

I hadn’t fully realized until seeing the comment from cjtimm that that was what I was doing. But now that I have that feedback, I’m able to understand better my own writing process, and how I translate my personal experiences and those of the people around me into stories that resonate with others… 

At least I hope that’s what I’m doing.

Thanks, cjtimm, for taking the time to write your review. It was immensely helpful, and very much appreciated!

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