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Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
On September 13, 2001, I stood in front of my multicultural lit class assigning a response essay. The class was small, five students, all of them enrolled in my Technical Communication program. Because I taught all but one of their courses, we’d become a sort of tribe. I remember being excited about the assignment. I don’t remember what I was wearing. I do remember I was growing my hair out, and that I was worried about the pregnancy weight I was putting on and whether or not something I’d elected to call “Second Lunch” was doing me any favors. I remember being tired. It was a Thursday.
The door opened, and the college’s office administrator stepped into the room. It was a first. She was unable to meet my eyes.
“Can you please come to the Dean’s office?”
“Yup.” I grabbed my briefcase. I knew I wasn’t coming back.
Sure, I devoured Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew growing up, but read mysteries as an adult? No thanks. I’d earned a Master’s degree in English, and if that doesn’t cure you of love for genre fiction, nothing will. I’d read most of the classics, explored the margins, analyzed poetry until there was nothing left on the page but brittle black shapes. I’d gone through a Tom Robbins stage, an Anne Rice phase, a Carlos Castaneda period, but no mysteries. As an adult, I only read real books.
Our final conversation 36 hours earlier had ended exactly like this:
HIM: You’re beautiful.
HIM: I love you.
ME: I don’t think that means the same thing to you as it does to me.
We’d been married for 24 days. I was three months pregnant. We’d timed it so that I could have the summer off after the baby was born, not expecting that we’d nail it on our first try. It was 9/11. The University of Minnesota conference I’d been driving to that morning had been unexpectedly canceled as college campuses all over the country shut down. We were under attack.
I returned home to find something I hadn’t expected to find.
There were two plainclothes detectives sitting in the Dean’s office. They rose when we entered. The office administrator disappeared. I was with strangers.
“Is my daughter all right?” The question was a peculiar politeness in that overexposed moment, an invitation for the detectives to deliver good news before they leveled my world. My baby girl was three, and it was naptime in the daycare across the street. I knew she was fine because I would have known if she wasn’t. I also knew that my husband had killed himself.
I had known I would be here, or somewhere like here, since the fist of blackbirds had flown at my car as I’d returned from the canceled U of M conference on 9/11. It was their warning that had forced me online to search his history, the coldness of their black bodies blocking out the sun that had warned me my life was never going to be the same again.
But I couldn’t have known.
He was not depressed. He was a successful DNR ecologist with a family who loved him. He made pies for the hospice care bake sale and volunteer coached the local youth soccer league. We were newlyweds with a baby on the way. And so I took the chair the detectives offered, and I watched their faces, and I felt every part of me shut down except my eyes and my ears. These organs became disconnected recording devices, and so while I can recall the entire conversation, it doesn’t mean any more now than it did then. Just words.
“Do you know where your husband is?”
“Um, we had a fight two days ago. He went to his old house, the one we have on the market? I haven’t heard from him.”
They exchanged glances. Their suits were nice. Both men looked like what I imagine New York detectives look like, polished as stones. The detective who drew the short straw adjusted his collar. “Your husband has killed himself.”
I felt the baby kick, or did I just feel kicked? “When?”
“He was found today, by a coworker. There was a murder-suicide in the same DNR office two years ago, and they were worried for you and your daughter.”
“He killed himself today?”
“He was found today.”
This is important. If he killed himself immediately after our fight, that meant I’d been thinking about a dead man, emailing a corpse, for two days. But I already knew the truth of that, too.
His ghost had visited me the first night.
Mysteries involve murder. They can also include sex, humor, and intrigue, but if it’s a grown-up mystery, people are going to expect a body, preferably in Chapter 1. I knew this. Everybody knows this. Mysteries are also formulaic, another widely accepted belief.
What I didn’t know until my husband’s suicide was that mysteries are also, at their simplest, about understanding human nature and finding closure. I found myself suddenly, urgently, needing both. A friend had lent me a Sue Grafton alphabet mystery a couple years earlier. I read it, and then I went to the library and checked out more. When I read all of these, I turned to Tony Hillerman. Then Janet Evanovich. William Kent Krueger. I was greedy, always a fast reader, stuffing one into my head, then another, and another.
Each one pulled dark secrets into the light.
Each one ended with The Answers.
The United States is a pop psychology culture. We know the five stages of grief, and that alcoholism is a disease, that communication is key, that men are from Mars and women from Venus. Here are things, however, that they don’t tell you about suicide:
1. If you hear the last words of your husband, and they come after he has made up his mind to end his life, you will forever be able to replay them in your head in Dolby surround sound. This is because there is an audible click that happens when a living man begins to speak like a dead man, and a dead man’s voice is terrifying.
2. The police officer at the station will mean well, but he still has to ask you if you want to take home the gun your husband shot himself with. If the officer is also new to the force, he may wonder aloud, with a mixture of awe and revulsion, how a person could choose a muzzle-loading rifle to do the deed. Finally, if he is both new to the force and young, he may hand you your husband’s glasses without noticing that they have tiny fragments of gray and red matter on them.
3. The phlebotomist taking your blood may not consider what brought you into her lab, or guess that after six agonizing weeks, you’ve finally decided to remove your wedding ring. She will only see a pregnant, single woman getting an HIV test, and you will disgust her.
4. Trying to get a handle on grief without answers is like trying to take a picture of the whole world while standing on it.
I’d read thirty mysteries in a matter of weeks before I finally decided to write one. It was January of 2002. My belly was swollen. I could go an hour at a time without thinking of him. My brain and heart were starved. I lived at the end of a lonely country road that the plows visited last, and I saw how people were looking at me. Eight months pregnant. Husband killed himself. Out there alone with a three-year-old, 40 miles from the nearest hospital.
People wanted to help. They worried about me. I still carry that with me, all the worry they had, all the pain they tried to haul for me so I wouldn’t have to heft it alone. Not just my friends and family, but strangers reached out to hold me up, and they didn’t stop even after the funeral. Grief is very selfish, though, and so I could only watch and keep turning inward.
Writing a novel saved me.
Here’s how May Day, the first mystery I wrote, begins:
I tried not to dwell on the fact that the only decent man in town had stood me up. Actually, he may have been the only literate, single man in a seventy-mile radius who was attracted to me and attractive. The warm buzz that was still between my legs tried to convince the dull murmur in my head that it was just a misunderstanding. To distract myself from thoughts of Jeff’s laugh, mouth, and hands, I downed a couple aspirin for my potato chip hangover and began the one job I truly enjoyed at the library: putting away the books.
I glanced at the spines of the hardcovers in my hands and strolled over to the Pl-Sca aisle, thinking the only thing I really didn’t like about the job was picking magazine inserts off the floor. Certainly the reader saw them fall, but without fail, gravity was too intense to allow retrieval except by a trained library staff member. I bet I found three a day. But as I teetered down the carpeted aisle in my flowered heels, I discovered a new thing not to like: there was a guy lying on the tight-weave Berber with his legs lockstep straight, his arms crossed over his chest, and a reference book opened on his face. He was wearing a familiar blue-checked shirt, and if he was who I thought he was, I knew him intimately. A sour citrus taste rose at the back of my throat. Alone, the library aisle wasn’t strange; alone, the man wasn’t strange. Together, they made my heart slam through my knees. I prodded his crossed legs with my foot and felt no warmth and no give.
My eyes scoured the library in a calm panic, and I was aware of my neck creaking on its hinges. I could smell only books and stillness, tinged with a faintly coppery odor. Everything was in order except the dead man laid out neatly on the carpeting, wearing the same flannel I had seen him in two days earlier. I wondered chaotically if dead people could lie, if they still got to use verbs after they were gone, and if maybe this was the best excuse ever for missing a date. Then I had a full-body ice wash, five years all over again, a nightmare pinning me to my bed as I silently mouthed the word “mom.”
Had proximity to me killed him?
On February 28, 2002, six months and two weeks after Jay’s suicide, I called my mom and asked if she’d stay overnight at my house. She had driven the two hours one way to sleep over every Monday since his death, but this was a Thursday. My dad visited when I asked, was over regularly to repaint walls and fix leaks, but he preferred his own bed and had never slept in my house for any reason. He asked if he could come with mom on the 28th, though. I said sure, I needed him to help carry some wood for the woodstove.
My water broke that night, with my parents sleeping upstairs in the spare bedroom and my daughter tucked safely in her room. I wasn’t yet having contractions, but I rang the hospital to let them know that I’d be arriving soon. I’d called the hospital at least three times before to make advance arrangements for my daughter’s birth and then my son’s. Each time, different people, always female, answered the phone the same impersonal way: “Douglas County Hospital, how may I direct your call?”
This time, the nurse on the other end of the line was a man. “This is Jay. How can I help you?”
Jay. My husband’s name. I held the phone.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
“I’m having a baby.”
“Fantastic!” He sounded so excited that I surprised myself by smiling. “Has your water broken?”
“Why don’t you come in now. We’ll take care of you.”
My dad stayed with my daughter so she could sleep through the night. My mom drove me in. Jay took care of everything, just as he’d promised. My son was born healthy, and looking exactly like his dad. I had planned a big-sister party at the hospital, so Zoё, my little girl, arrived to balloons, presents, and cake, all for her. She gathered the bounty around her and declared that having a little brother wasn’t half bad.
I’ve never written factually about my husband’s suicide before the words that you’re reading right now, but if you know my story, you can find it in every novel I write. My anxieties work themselves out in each book. I still hear his voice, I still fear the betrayal and loss that are around every corner, but I get to write the story, and at the end, the mystery is always solved. This is a slant way to deal with loss, but it’s the only way I can do it. Only fiction offers me the truth.
What I have come to call fiction therapy didn’t provide a clear, linear path from trauma to healing and redemption, of course. I was no pretty flower busting out of the crack in the pavement against all odds. The process was and continues to be a messy, three-steps-forward, two-and-a-half-steps-back kind of deal. This important reality is encapsulated in what I refer to as Pee Day. It happened three months after Jay shot himself.
Minnesota was clutched in the cold, dead heart of winter. December, some people call that. I was heading to the basement to do laundry. I stepped off the bottom step into a puddle of dog pee, slipped, and landed on my back without any mediating flailing, just smack, pregnant lady flat on the linoleum-covered cement, soaking up cold urine like a filthy human sponge, staring at the ceiling. Maybe my head hit first because I couldn’t decide what to do next, didn’t even have the wherewithal to worry. In fact, I remember being profoundly relaxed, like I'd finally found my place in the world.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Zoё skipping out of her playroom. Using a beautiful logic unique to three-year-olds (mommy is playing lay down!), she was delighted rather than alarmed to find me sprawled out. She sat cross-legged at my head and wiggled her body underneath me. Now the dog pee was dripping from my hair onto her lap.
“We’ll be okay, mommy,” she said. I’m not sure to this day what she meant by that. Probably she was only repeating what I said to her daily as a sort of prophylactic wish. In any case, it was exactly the right thing to say. She began to pet my head like I did for her when she was sick. As she stroked my pee hair, she hummed a song, equal parts “Happy Birthday” and “Frere Jacques.” The dog padded downstairs and curled next to me. The three of us stayed like that until I remembered how to move.
If there were to be a poster emblematic of my first year of recovery, it’d be that image of faith, love, and pain coexisting in a puddle of dog pee.
We’ll be okay, mommy.
Thanks to the love and support of family and friends and the gentle guidance of fiction therapy, we were. We will be. And I believe everyone deserves that, and so I'm writing Better than Gin, which contains hard-won directions on how to alchemize pain into gold.
I do have a request, though. As you read Better than Gin, please don’t think of entering the fiction therapy process as trying out for the Trauma Olympics. You don’t win the gold the more pain you’ve experienced, though I think we all sometimes secretly believe that. Pain is pain. Bad is bad, good is better. For the love of Betsy, sometimes I’m sad or angry for no discernible reason. It counts.
If you still feel like you need a pass to enter the writing club, I offer you this: transgenerational epigenetics is strongly suggesting that a sense of trauma can be passed down to you from your ancestors. That means if great-grandma Esther had a rough time of it, you can feel emotionally sapped even if your life is pretty good. Fiction therapy helps you where you’re at. The novel you will write functions as both your lighthouse and the Viking funeral boat upon which you get to burn your baggage once and for all. This process is about evolving to be the best version of yourself that you can be, and we all benefit from that.
Along those same lines, you don’t need to be a gifted writer for fiction therapy to work. If you have something to write with or on, you are golden. I guarantee you’re going to surprise yourself with what you create, on paper, inside yourself, and in the world.
So come on. Pack what you need. We’re in this together.
Are you still with me?
That's the intro chapter to Better than Gin: Transform Your Facts into Fiction that Sells (The One Year, One Book Challenge). Thank you for reading it. I'm finally writing this book because I found something that resembles courage (but looks more like accidentally dried fruit that you found under the couch--this stuff isn't pretty) and because it's too important to keep to myself. If writing a novel is as healing, empowering, and freeing as I say it is--and it is--who am I to keep the instructions on transforming life experiences into fiction to myself, as much as the German in me is violently opposed to revisiting and revealing the darkest chapters of my life?
If all goes according to plan (ha!), I'll have the book written, edited, and to my agent to try and sell by March 1 of next year. I'm also putting together a full-day writing workshop based on the book (see table of contents below), its goal to teach others how to transform the crunchy bits of their life into a healing, compelling novel, so please spread the word if you know any writer's workshops or conferences that might be interested.
Aaaannnnd...that's enough vulnerability for one day, maybe a few months. Plan on me retreating to the comfort of cat videos and bathroom humor exclusively until Christmas at the earliest.
Big love to you!
Better than Gin
Working Table of Contents
The Power of Fictionalizing Your Life
I. Why You Should Turn Your Facts into Fiction
II. Reading Like a Writer to Write Like a Writer
III. The Art of the Chickenshitography: Centering Yourself in Truth before Writing Fiction
Writing and Publishing the Novel
IV. A Quick and Dirty Dip into Novel Genre, Structure, and Format
V. Sifting through Your Past to Select Your Strongest Concept
VI. Talk to the World in the Dark: Crafting Your Characters
VII. Mining Memories to Create a Cinematic Setting
VIII. Fire Up the Pyramid on Point (POP) Machine and Write Your Book
IX. Getting All Your Dicks in a Row: the Importance of Editing and Revision
X. I’ve Got an Attic Full of Art. So Now What?
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