Today’s guest, Barbara Claypole White, is a strong woman, a great mom, and a Women’s Fiction Author — a good one, as you’ll see from her post. Here’s Barbara:
Readers constantly ask if my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, is autobiographical. Since my heroine is a young widow, the answer is always, “God, I hope not.” There are, however, echoes of my life in everything I write. Writing is my escape, my coping mechanism, and the way I process my world.
A huge part of that world is dominated by son’s OCD—a debilitating anxiety disorder that is often described as an allergy to life. An award-winning poet, the Beloved Teenage Delinquent has battled OCD since he was four. He’s the poster child for fighting mental illness stigma: He’s stunningly good looking, funny, compassionate, has lots of friends, a near perfect GPA, his own band, a cute girlfriend…. But he and I have visited hell together. More than once. How have we survived? Hope, humor, and the British war mentality. Plus, we both use OCD to fuel our writing.
And yet, when I talk about the inspiration behind my fiction, I walk a fine line. My son may be out of the OCD closet, but my husband is intensely private, and not every part of our life needs to be shared. Anyone in my OCD support group will tell you that OCD destroys families. It nearly destroyed mine. Parts of that are still raw, but the experience helped craft the story that became THE UNFINISHED GARDEN.
TUG is classic women’s fiction. It’s the story of my heroine, Tilly, but only because of my hero, James. James is brilliant, charismatic, and obsessive-compulsive. He wasn’t my first hero, and yet once I unleashed him, his insights into Tilly created her character arc.
James evolved out of my darkest fear as a mother. Compulsive behavior is ritualistic and appears bizarre to people who don’t understand; obsessive thoughts are isolating. One Friday night, when my son and I were crumpled on the kitchen floor crying as he said over and over, “Make it stop, Mommy. Make it stop,” I had a horrible thought: What if, when he grew up, no one could see beyond his quirky behavior to love him for the incredible person he is? What if he ended up alone because of his OCD? That doubt led me to James.
But that was just the beginning. Once my son and I started exposure therapy—when you meet fears head on—I saw the incredible courage it takes to boss back OCD. Navigating ordinary life as an obsessive-compulsive is like walking through a minefield. To keep moving forward takes herculean bravery. Some days you’re strong enough; some days you’re not. As with any war, you have victories and defeats. That’s the side of OCD I wanted to show through James. Incidentally, he’s the least messed-up character in the novel. Despite his OCD, he has a strong sense of self.
By the time I sold TUG, my son had been OCD-free for three years and James’s struggles belonged to a life I had left behind. Then junior year of high school hit, and OCD started creeping back into our house. During my book launch, I prattled on about how my son had beaten OCD, unaware that he was drowning. Then his anxiety exploded. Within a week, we were both back to crying on the floor. It seemed nothing much had changed in thirteen years. In the months that followed, we struggled, we got back into full-blown treatment, and we both turned to our art: song writing and poetry for him, novel two for me.
Novel two may have nothing to do with OCD but it is about mental illness, issues of control, and parental fear. My heroine is the mother of a graduate student with clinical depression. A holistic veterinarian, she sees the world very differently to the way I do. She’s calm and spiritual; I’m passionate, opinionated, and I yell at inanimate objects. We had been struggling to connect, until I wrote these lines:
“Parenthood started with such optimism. Your child would achieve his baby milestones, collect gold stars, maintain a good grade point average, hang out with the crowd that didn’t drink and drive. And then, when you weren’t paying attention, it all stripped down to one horrifying truth: you just wanted your son to find the will to live.”
I was crying at the time. I cried through most of September….
Funny thing, though—once I understood my new heroine’s journey, I felt better about my own. Using the crap of everyday life to feed your fiction can be empowering. It lets you think around corners. Truth doesn’t have to hold you back. You can find joy in darkness; create your own happy ending and write a better story for yourself. Wait…that’s my new hero’s arc. Sorry, I’m off to write!
Does your life end up in your books? Is it hard for you to write? Or is it cathartic?