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January 31, 2010

There is an enduring theory that a difficult childhood is essential fodder for novelists. It holds that the best storytelling comes from an unconscious desire to confront and conquer the lingering fears of the powerless child hidden deep within every writer’s psyche. Author David Morrell, for one, freely admits he has used the abandonment and abuse he experienced as a child as the catalyst for his many successful thrillers, among them FIRST BLOOD, the novel that spawned the Rambo movies.

Of course, not every writer claims to have had an awful childhood. Many will protest that their upbringing was pleasant, or even idyllic, and dispute that it’s necessary to have been traumatized in order to write successful books. But the truth is, nobody’s life is trouble free and, for some of us, our secrets may be buried so deeply that we, ourselves, don’t realize they are there. For those writers in denial, it may be that the perfect worlds they create are actually idealized versions of their lives.  If you probe deeply enough into any novel that has done the essential task of presenting conflict in the form of obstacles the protagonist must overcome, you will, no doubt, find the enduring issue that haunts its creator.

For me, that issue is loss. My father died when I was an infant, and that most fundamental of losses would shape my character in many ways, not all of them good. For example, I was well into adulthood before I realized I had wasted far too much time seeking substitute father figures to fill the void in my life. My reluctance to let go of bad relationships because I was so afraid of losing any potential source of love had been even more harmful.

Lo and behold, fear of loss, and the lengths to which a person will go to avoid losing whatever is important to her, turned out to be the main theme of my first novel. I’m now currently at work on my second and, once again, it’s becoming clear that coming to terms with loss will be one of the challenges for the main character.

In THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, David Morrell’s wonderful guide to writing fiction as an art and a career, he calls the process I’m so obviously engaged in “fiction writing as self-psychoanalysis”. Even though I wholeheartedly agree with the truth of that insight, at the same time, I never want to forget that my main purpose in writing is to engage and entertain, hoping all the while to achieve the ultimate goal: that my reader will experience the same transcendent connection and revelation that my favorite books have given me.

So, although I now realize that one of my motivations for writing is to reveal my hidden demons to myself, it remains even more important to me to write for my potential reader. My most enjoyable fantasy is the one that envisions my book in the hands of the person who will, between its covers, discover their own secret fears.

So, tell me, what are you afraid of?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2010 4:49 PM

    Oh, oh since my book, “I Like To Whine” is so far the best selling one I have written, your post gives me pause. Perhaps I should have titled it, “I Like Wine”. That is far less threatening. Great post and good food for thought.

  2. Sharen Ford permalink*
    January 31, 2010 5:35 PM

    Thanks, Bill. “I Like to Whine” is a very intriguing title– definitely all kinds of childhood angst implied there.

    Now, if you called it “I Like Wine”, we’d all be picturing Little Bill swigging away.

  3. Terry permalink
    February 4, 2010 7:57 AM

    Well said. It made me think about my WIP, which I see as a rather light-hearted murder mystery, and I realize it’s very much about the victims of envy, jealousy and greed. Also about loss. Much heavier underneath than on the surface.

  4. Sharen Ford permalink*
    February 4, 2010 8:06 AM

    Hi, Terry. I’m so glad this resonated with you. It was a real revelation for me when I first understood that my own “demons” were actually one of my main motivations for writing,

    Good luck with your book. Those all sound like great elements for a murder mystery.

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