by Jerry Waxler
In my previous post, I described the novel, Back in Six Weeks, by Sharon Gerdes about a woman who survives postpartum psychosis and lives to share the story with others. In this post, I ask the author to share her insights into the process of transforming a difficult experience into a novel.
Jerry: What a great example you have set by exposing this socially hidden experience to readers. Could you say more about your journey to write it and in particular to write it as fiction?
Sharon: When I first started writing about my postpartum psychosis, I considered several possibilities. One was a self-help book for women. But because I didn’t have any credentials in the counseling field, fiction seemed like a better way to tell my story. At first I wanted to write under a pen name. Again, I was ashamed to admit that I had been crazy and had struck a nurse in the hospital. When people asked what I was writing about, I used to get all choked up. But over time, I became more comfortable telling the story. It’s still painful, but I gradually transferred the pain to Kate, the protagonist in my story. It became both Kate’s story and mine.
Also, my story did not happen in a vacuum. Although I didn’t blame my husband, he always felt guilty and thought he should have done more to circumvent the psychosis. By writing my story as fiction, I was able to diminish the blame. After all, you have to eat Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Fiction gives you more freedom to tell your story, and still keep peace in the family.
The more I looked into it, the more I realized how hidden the problem has been, for the obvious reason that other women have been just as reluctant to talk about it. In 2000, the authors of “Women’s Moods” said that there was an “epidemic of silence” about this issue. A lot has changed in the past fifteen years as more women share their stories. I’m now proud to say that I had a postpartum psychosis, but went on to lead a happy and productive life.
Jerry: What a journey, from shame to sharing. Actually, this isn’t the first book I’ve read on the subject. I read Brooke Shields’ memoir Down Came the Rain in which she shares her postpartum depression. How do you see her memoir fitting into the whole spectrum of publicizing this issue?
Sharon: As a point of differentiation, Brook Shields had Postpartum Depression, which occurs in roughly one in seven new mothers. I had Postpartum Psychosis, which only happens to one or two per thousand women. Women with psychosis are much more likely to harm themselves and/or their children. Roughly five percent of women with postpartum psychosis commit either suicide or infanticide. Some end up in prison. I’ve heard so many sad stories. I went from feeling bitter to feeling fortunate that I had such a good outcome.
Jerry: You started out as a technical writer, not a fiction writer. How did you learn the art of story-telling?
Sharon: It evolved over time. I had been writing articles about food science professionally for about fifteen years, so I considered myself a good author. But I soon learned that fiction is very different than non-fiction. It’s a real art form, and you don’t learn overnight. I took Jonathan Maberry’s “Novel in Nine Months” class. That got me off to a good start and provided the inspiration to carry me through to publication. It has been a nine-year journey. I attended numerous writers’ conferences and peer critique groups. I read a lot of books on how to write fiction. I worked with Toni Lopopolo and Kathryn Craft, both of whom helped me refine my story and my art. At one point I put the book away for two years, and then started it again. I would suggest that for the average person, writing a blog, a poem, or a short story might be a good way to tell their tale. A memoir is much more involved, and a novel is perhaps the hardest. For years and years I got up in the wee hours of the morning and wrote a set number of words or pages before I started my paying job. I hired professional editors to help me get the manuscript ready for final publication. It all paid off, as readers tell me they couldn’t put my novel down.
Jerry: As an aside, it’s interesting you mention Kathryn Craft. I’m writing about her recently published novel, The Far End of Happy, based on her own real experience of her husband’s suicide.
Jerry (continued): I am fascinated by the way writing your story helped you move past your shame and gave you the ability to talk about it, and even more fascinated that once you opened that door, you were able to help others, as well. Could you say more about how writing the novel has helped you become more engaged with helping other women?
Sharon: I’ve become involved with Postpartum Support International (PSI) and through that group am trying to help other women. I had extensive media training in my professional life, and so I joined the board of PSI as the Media / Public Relations Chair. I was recently elected Vice-President. Through our annual conferences, I personally met several other women who had a similar lived experience. Our little group of survivors has become close friends. I am involved in the PSI prison pen pal network, and offer an occasional cheery letter to an inmate. As I had no mental health problems in my subsequent childbirth, I’ve provided encouragement to other women who were afraid to have another baby after experiencing a postpartum psychosis.
Jerry: I’m interested in your experience as a novelist writing about your own experience, and then trying to write other novels that are about characters other than you. My readers are aspiring memoir writers and for many of us, once we’ve written a memoir, we wonder what we can write next. Writing the memoir gives us the knack of sharing our own first person points of view. But then, it seems to me that writing fiction requires that you be able to jump into other minds as well. What did it feel like for you to go from the incredibly personal account of your own darkest hour, to writing about other characters in fictitious situations? Can you give a glimpse of how that works?
I learned to base fictional characters on two or more persons that I’ve met or known in real life. By making those characters a composite, the author can create more interesting and realistic characters. I actually started my novel in third person, and then switched to first person. I learned a few tricks of the trade, such as adding a physical reaction—clenching a fist, or gasping for breath—at critical points in the manuscript. This all helps to engage the reader and bring your writing, either memoir or fiction, to life.
Jerry: So what’s next for you?
Sharon: I had a subsequent childbirth that ended tragically, but for different reasons. I realized that I was trying to cover too many subjects in one book. So what was originally one novel morphed into two. I have also started a third novel, which is a story inspired by my mother’s life after she became a widow. The first two books are sad and dramatic. The third will be much lighter, with two widows pursuing the same gentleman. The characters will poke fun at themselves and each other as they struggle with the early stages of dementia. People read to be inspired, but also to be entertained.
Jerry: Haha! That’s a good reminder! As we write our lives, whether in fiction or nonfiction, we need to remember that if readers are going to keep turning pages, we have to maintain their curiosity. Even though nonfiction writers can’t invent situations, we still try to keep people engaged by developing the dramatic tension and release of situations and emotions that make us human.
Sharon Gerdes’ Home Page:
Read my article about Brooke Shields’ Down Came the Rain
PSI Postpartum Support International for Postpartum Support International (“You are not alone”)
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.