I recently published my first novel, Playing the Genetic Lottery, after working as a non-fiction writer for more than 25 years. If I had known how much fun it was to write a novel, I might have written one sooner. Sure, non-fiction writing pays the bills, and there is still room for creativity in my commercial assignments. But as far as creativity, and fun for that matter, you can’t beat fiction.
I spent about nine months writing Playing the Genetic Lottery, which is a memoir-style novel about a 32-year-old wife and mother who grew up with two schizophrenic parents. You’d think that addressing such a heavy topic might be a downer. But I had a blast writing the story. Sure, mental illness is a very serious subject, and yes, I have a lot of compassion for people who are unlucky enough to have such a serious illness. I also am very moved by the impact such an illness has one one’s family and close friends. Despite that, I really loved creating my characters and their world. Unlike a magazine article or a grant proposal, where I’m constrained with providing mainly “just the facts, ma’am,” to quote Joe Friday in the old Dragnet TV series, writing fiction allowed me free reign in my work.
Sure, I did a lot of research to create realistic scenarios. (You can never quite excise the non-fiction gene from a journalist.) And I worked hard to make sure the book did not perpetuate any common misconceptions about mental illness. I could, and did, make up people, scenes, locales, conversations and more. Although I did have to proofread and edit my work I didn’t have to scrupulously fact check everything. While I made an effort to be consistent throughout the story, I didn’t have to call someone up to double check whether the car accident happened with my protagonist was in the third grade or the fourth. After all, I was the sole source of the novel.
That freedom allowed me to get lost in the story. After I finished writing for the day, I’d take a break, then think about what I was going to write about the next day. Often the book was the last thing I thought about before going to sleep, and the first thing that came to mind when I woke up. Sometimes coming up with an idea was difficult. Other times it was easy. And there were even times when the ideas seemed to pop into my head without any thought whatsoever. At those times, it almost seemed like the novel had taken on a life of its own, and was directing me, rather than the other way around.
This is not to say that writing the book was easy. It wasn’t. Even when I knew what I wanted to write about, sometimes the work went slowly. Often times I felt like I was dragging words out of my head one-by-one. Of course, then there were other days when the words just flowed, and my fingers could barely keep up with my thoughts. Like anything in life, nothing is all good or all bad. Writing a novel, I’ve found, was interesting, challenging, enlightening, tedious, humorous, moving, time consuming, and entertaining. But most of all, it was a lot of fun.