Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing About 'Issues' That Aren't Your Own

Please forgive my blogger-lameness lately. I've been out of town (hello Chicago!) and have just started working on revisions for the still-untitled book (which Agent E loved - more on that later).

While I was gone, the lovely and talented agent Mary Kole over on had a great post about writing 'issue' books and the responses that followed (her blog was just chosen as one of the best agent blogs by Writer's Digest, as well it should be. I can say that because Agent E doesn't blog.), but since I was so late to the post I decided to comment on it over here.

One of the questions I get all the time is if I grew up in a hoarded home like Lucy did. The answer is no. I've never even been in a house that was as bad as Lucy's. I have been in hoarder's homes before which gave me a good jumping-off point, but my house growing up was always neat and clean (and I would say that even if my mom didn't read the blog).

The best compliments I ever get are from people who grew up like Lucy did and wonder how I ever got so many details right. One adult child of a hoarder told me that it felt like I had a hidden camera in her house while she was growing up. Some children of hoarders have told me that the book is difficult for them to read because it hits so close to home. While these comments are painful, at the same time I give a little inner 'whoo hoo' because that means I did it right.

I got the idea to write a book about hoarding from a magazine article I read on adult children of hoarders. I thought about it for awhile and started "what iffing" the subject. What if I grew up like that? What if I was all alone with my secrets? God bless Google, because a simple search put me in touch with the website Children of Hoarders. Several women who were on the site agreed to be my research partners and were invaluable with helping me to understand their experiences. I literally couldn't have done it without them. In addition, I downloaded many pictures of hoarded homes and watched the documentary My Mother's Garden many, many times while I was writing (neither Hoarders on A&E or Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC were on yet).

My biggest fear was that I'd get an important detail wrong. That someone who really was an expert on the subject would see a big red flag and know that I was faking it. So far, that hasn't happened (although I still worry).

When you write issue books, you not only have a duty to get the details right for the story, but you need to become an expert on the subject for the people who will contact you once the books come out. Because they will. You'll get heartbreaking emails from teenagers who are still living in a hoarding situation and from adults whose aging parents are living in danger from their hoarded homes. And you'll have to know what to tell them. You'll have to have your facts right so that you can give them the advice they need in the short term and send them on to experts who can help them more than you can. You'll have to be so immersed in your subject that you can simply be an understanding ear so that people in pain will know they aren't alone.

One of the great things about books is that they let you walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Even more than TV or movies, books give you an intimate look at a life that isn't your own. I didn't set out to write an 'issue' book - Lucy's issues in Dirty Little Secrets didn't start out as my own, but over the past couple of years, in some small way, they've become mine too.

On this date: In 1933, James Brown was born.


Melissa said...

I'm sure that when one is writing about something they didn't themselves experience, they are open and vulnerable to criticism. At the same time, I've read many novels for which the author had to do a lot of research to get it "right." From your post, it's clear that you were motivated to get it right, and (since I have yet to read your novel) I think that means you'd inevitably be well on your way to doing so.

Hoarding is something that a lot of people would be too ashamed to admit they experienced. However, since you've written a book like Dirty Little Secrets, they will have something to turn to something to let them know they are't alone.

Carin said...

I'm Off topic, but thanks so much for posting this picture! I'm reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson and they mention this sculpture and I didn't know what they were talking about.

cynjay said...

Thanks Melissa - that's one of the reason's I wrote it, so that people would hopefully feel less ashamed.

Carin - yes, I had to go see the Bean! I didn't make it to Frenchy's Porn Store though - next time.