I’ve seen it happen time and again at booksignings. People who have never heard of me or of Island Girl, will stop to chat with the visiting author. They’re smiling, curious, perhaps reaching for a copy of the book until I tell them it’s about a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. That’s when I watch that hand retract, see those finger curl back as the smile fades. “Alzheimer’s?” they’ll say. “That’s such a frightening subject.”
Yes it is, and that’s why I wrote about it because I don’t believe in Write What You Know. I believe in Write What Scares the Crap Out of You, because that’s where the best stories lurk.
I’m not talking about fear of spiders or zombies or even serial killers. I’m talking about the ones we don’t mention, or if we do, we whisper in fear of judgment or yell in fear of change. I’m talking about fears that are deep rooted and often arise from a feeling of helplessness, from knowing we have no control over the situation. Things like abandonment, betrayal and loss. Loss of home, of love, of faith in ourselves, in God.
As a writing teacher, I always tell my students to think about what scares their character and then make that happen. They often skirt the issue at first, fall back on humour by giving me fear of clowns, or bad breath or being tricked by a transvestite. Carefully avoiding uncomfortable topics or ideas, usually out of fear of censure. So I push harder, make them dig deeper. Ask them to see their character as more than a one dimensional cut-out because it’s not the easy strengths or movie-star good looks that make a character real. It’s the vulnerabilities, the flaws. The very things that have the potential to make that character weak and unlikeable are the very things that will make him real to a reader, because those vulnerabilities, those flaws, are also what make us human.
Deciding to write Island Girl meant first admitting my own deep fear of Alzheimer’s, an illness that leaves the body intact, but steals away the essence of a person, leaving her dependant on the good nature of others for even the most basic care. In creating the main character, Ruby, I wanted a woman who was accustomed to being in control, proud of her achievements as a strong and independent single mother. And then I wanted to take that control away and see what happened.
Ruby isn’t me by any means. But through her, I was forced to face my own fear. To look at Alzheimer’s from all sides and explore all possible outcomes in order to tell an honest story of one woman’s journey. So if Alzheimer’s scares you as much as it did me, I hope you’ll be like those folks in the bookstore. The ones who took a breath, and let those fingers uncurl.