This post continues my September series. I’m sharing my top five writing experiences (so far). It’s my hope they’ll motivate and inspire others as we head into autumn. Rather than rank them, I’ve placed them in chronological order given they build one upon the other. Each was a positive and treasured experience that aided my growth. Thus far in the series there’s been:
My choice this week comes from April 2017 when two events happened simultaneously, one making the other possible. Together, they created an extreme perspective it’d be difficult to replicate.
The two events? One involved me finally able to breathe after almost a decade of oxygen deprivation. The other involves a girl named Kasaria taking her first breath at age seventeen. Of course, given how I write blog posts, there’s a story that goes with all this…
June 2009. Living in Wyoming, I was still working full-time, but began suffering shortness of breath. Trusting my doctor resulted in a misdiagnosis, rapid decline, and ending up in the ICU in May 2010, one third of my lung capacity destroyed. Over the following summer I was overdosed on Prednisone for two months. What saved me was seeing a doctor in Denver, Colorado in November 2010. I was diagnosed with Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis. It’s rare, really rare.
My recovery ran through 2011, but there was a severe relapse in 2012. After regaining enough of my health to travel, I relocated to Montana in 2014. Again, though, one caregiver after another mismanaged my disease while refusing to provide a referral to a pulmonologist.
Life was a roller coaster, my oxygen saturation below the minimum more often than not, decision making a struggle unless I was at rest. Like, while writing. When I wrote Trust in the Forgotten in April 2016 I was doing fair. In the autumn of 2016, though, while drafting A River in Each Hand, I suffered another severe relapse. The novel was equal parts imaginative and incomprehensible.
Disoriented, suffering related side effects of the disease, and losing a minimum of two pounds per week, I got my referral.
I saw the pulmonologist in January 2017 and had to be helped to his office. He was, shall we say, not pleased with my treatment to that point. I told him I’d had enough, that I couldn’t suffer the oxygen deprivation any longer, that I didn’t want to live. Then, I cried. There were tests and experimenting with the inhalers I’d been told wouldn’t help. They were wrong. He found one that helped. My oxygen saturation soared and it was like that every—single—day thereafter.
My turning point coincided with drafting Torment Surfacing in April 2017. The narrative outline, though, had been created while I was still improving.
Torment Surfacing might be the most unique novel I’ve ever written, in a plotting sense. Kasaria doesn’t “awaken” until after the 1st Plot Point. For the sake of not spoiling the plot, I’ll call her condition a from-birth coma, but that isn’t exactly accurate. Not at all.
In the rather lethargic narrative outline, Kasaria was to awaken and spend much of the rest of the novel trying to adapt to real life. She’s so lost that at the moment she awakens she doesn’t even have a name.
It was all going according to plan. Until it wasn’t. Like, in the chapter when she awakens.
Her untapped knowledge of the real world flooded back in faster than it was supposed to because she was straining to remember (remember from a coma? … told you it was an interesting plot). By the end of the chapter she’d gained a name and was sitting up in bed trying to reason out what she didn’t know.
Know or not, she was willing to learn on the fly. No hiding until she was comfortable.
At first, I was in a panic. She was chewing up events in my outline at an astonishing rate. In quick order, though, I realized how immeasurably better the novel was for the changes she was demanding. Splitting my time between drafting and giving her the outline she wanted required super long days. I didn’t care. I’d classify Kasaria as an introvert, but the level of defiance and determination she was adopting in order to live startled me.
I know what you’re thinking by this point, that I’d become more connected to Kasaria because of our similar situations, and because I was feeling better. In short, her determination was a product of my higher oxygen saturation.
You’d be exactly right, but that wasn’t the lesson I learned.
The lesson I was granted because of the unique circumstances and, quite frankly, coincidental parallel in our lives, was a writing lesson, not a health one. When she awoke in the home on the river, and for quite a few chapters after that, I learned the hard way what it is to try and write a character when you’re disconnected from her. It was one extreme on the spectrum.
The story was still the story I’d envisioned, as was her backstory, but she wasn’t the heroine envisioned (hint: she was better). I was scrambling to keep up with a character who was far more complex than I’d given her credit for being.
And then, the impossible.
By the time Kasaria stepped on the raft for the journey downriver I’d caught up to her. The disconnect ended. In its place was me more connected to a character than I’d ever been in my life. It wasn’t just the parallels already mentioned, but me relearning all I knew about insight into my characters. It bled over to the five men on the raft
with her, two of whom had POVs.
In quick order, the adventure downriver became a character study that lifted the novel to another level as characters plotted against one another. Even while I was writing it I was looking forward to revising the first third of the novel. My outline threadbare in places, I threw down additional obstacles and let the characters react. It was a heady experience. I’d race to the computer each morning. I was on that raft and didn’t want to miss a thing. I’d leaped to the opposite end of the spectrum.
The stark contrast in perspectives was me moving from frozen to boiling in mere days. It provided an insight I’ve never forgotten. Now, if I’m getting it wrong, I recognize the problem with a clarity I hadn’t possessed before Torment Surfacing.
There was an added lesson attached to the experience. Pacing. The original outline dragged. The resulting story sprinted. I learned more about pacing a novel than I’d ever known. It was the reason why I later went back and devised a way for her to have a voice in the story beginning on page one, even though she wasn’t there. Well, not exactly.
Torment Surfacing became my gold standard for pacing, and for character study. It achieved that level because of the strangest of circumstances, but that doesn’t change the value. Just as my Prednisone overdose gave me a glimpse at the Alzheimer’s experience, the extreme perspectives I was given that spring month in 2016 was an insight I’ll never forget.