20 October 2014

Life imitating art

A strange thing happened when I started work on the final edits of my novel: I found myself resisting my ordering compulsions, without having made the conscious decision to do so. 

At first, I assumed pressure of time had driven me to this unaccustomed 'laziness' with regard to positioning my belongings. I'd just read my novel again, ahead of taking a week off for rewrites, and wanted to get through as many chapters as possible, while it was still fresh in my mind.

In fact, there was a more creative reason behind this behaviour, which I only realised a few days later.

Some members of my writing group had fed back that they'd like to see more of an emotional response from my protagonist, Clare, whom I've given the same form of OCD as me, ie a need for order and symmetry in her environment. They wanted to get a better sense of how disordered surroundings affected her and how she felt when trying to resist her compulsions. 

It seemed my sub-conscious had pushed me into resisting my own, to give me fresh insight into how this really feels. It can be hard to draw on emotions you've experienced in the past - like physical pain, they become abstract over time. Now, I had the opportunity to tap into these feelings anew, and translate them into my writing.

With fingers hovering over the keyboard, and eyes closed, I visualised all of the objects that I'd left out of place. Thinking of them made me restless and uneasy; like when you know you've forgotten to do something, but can't pinpoint what. My mind felt frayed and my body twitched with the urge to leave my desk and put things right.

Image courtesy of scottchan/
Suddenly, I found it much easier to explain Clare's experience of OCD - at least, insofar as anybody with the condition can explain it to anyone else. I still struggled to find the right words, but every writer faces that literary battle, with every sentence they create.

In the past, I've sometimes enacted actions to be sure that what I've portrayed fictionally is actually possible - it's all too easy to devise a scenario where, say, a character would need three hands to do what you've asked of them. Such role-play has always been deliberate, however, and only used in the quest for physical, rather than emotional, accuracy. 

Writers' lives would be a lot simpler, of course, if we could go through everything we describe.

One of the characters in my novel cheats on their partner and I've have had difficulty getting to grips with their feelings of guilt. I've tried to put myself in their shoes, but can't bring myself to imagine doing the same thing (something I'm sure my boyfriend, Pete, will be relieved to hear). That is definitely one activity I won't be enacting in the interests of research - consciously or otherwise!


ruthdehaas said...

Interesting to hear about how you interact with your fiction, hope the book is going well. Not sure I agree with you that a writer's life would be simpler if we could experience everything we write about though. My life would be much more complicated if I went through everything I've put my characters through. Some things are much better left to the imagination.

Helen Barbour said...

Mmm, good point re not necessarily wanting to experience everything our characters do - even if it were to make writing about them easier. I should be more careful what I wish for! If only we could experience everything virtually, with a guarantee of no negative physical, emotional or mental consequences...

ocdtalk said...

I guess that's one of the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction. I had to dig deep to remember how some events actually felt, but I definitely had experienced everything in my book at one point or another.

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, I agree that it is necessary to 'dig deep', even with regard to emotions we have experienced, such as grief. I was utterly devastated when a very close friend died 5 years ago, and didn't start to feel better for 6 months, but now only remember that devastation in an abstract way, rather than how awful I actually felt. I guess we are hard-wired to forget to ensure some degree of resilience!