12/10/2010 04:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Digging Hurts: The Trauma of Writing Fiction Truthfully

I tried to write this post three or four times, but each time I sort of drifted away... online shopping, anyone?

A few months ago I had a minor bout of depression that depressed the hell out of me. Truly, I had no reason for the melancholy that overcame me. Daily I ran through my checklist: Family healthy? Check. Children doing okay? Check. Marriage in good shape? Check. Career on the right path? Check.

Friends, love, home? Check, check, check.

I was ashamed of my dispiritedness. People were starving. Women were being forced into sexual servitude. Unemployment. Cancer. Hurricanes. What the heck was my problem? My husband kept suggesting I dig into it. He wanted me to figure how and why it started. What was the trigger? (Perhaps I was depressed because my husband was so damn analytical.)

After too long a period of rolling my eyes at my husband's suggestions, I allowed myself a (short, always short) trip into my emotional depth, a place I loathe. Better to keep busy. Better to scrub my floors and alphabetize my spice jars. Slowly I circled the events leading up to my sinking down and pinpointed it to a time I was writing a piece for Mail, a British newspaper (on the occasion of the UK version of The Murderer's Daughters being launched.) For that essay, they wanted background material: Why did you write the book? What happened, really really really happened, in your family? How did events affect you, your sister, mother, father...

While writing my novel, I accessed dark emotional truths. I took real events (my father trying to kill my mother) and then punted the reality into a far more dramatic story. Fiction. However, what I denied (until forced by writing the Mail article to go deeper into my own family background) was the cost of doing business. Truthiness makes for a deeper more satisfying read. Truthiness often has little (and sometimes nothing) to do with whether one is portraying actual events from one's past. Sometimes using biographical material adds up to little more than reporting. But when one accesses the emotional truth, the ugly parts of the self that trauma can reveal, that's a gift to the reader -- but it's often ripped from the writer in a way they don't immediately recognize.

Writing my book meant digging deep into family secrets and crypts. Family facts weren't really revealed so much as a family culture was uncovered and combed through. After the book was published, after I raised my head from the comforting minutia of plot and structure and query letters and editorial letters, at some point I realized something: I wasn't telling fairy tales. I'd ripped away a scrim of denial that I'd spent years perfecting, a scrim made up of food and books and television and all the myriad ways we keep ourselves at a distance from ourselves.

Doctor, writer, friend, Kathy Crowley, talking about a study done by her colleague, Dr. Jane Liebschutz, recently told me that "one of the big things that gets missed is how victims of violence or trauma unconsciously narrow their lives -- they do almost nothing, maybe sit and watch TV most of the time, lead these incredibly dull existences, and how this is, in her mind, a protective response to the trauma." (Please, Kath -- do a post on this!)

Probably this is why digging hurts in the aftermath. While I was in the midst of writing, I became dissociative, thus able then to access feelings and events and transform them into fiction spaghetti. Then, months later: Pow, right across the kisser.

Hopefully, mixing up all that fact and fancy turned into nourishing meal for the reader, but I think I've learned something (besides why writing was deemed a depressing job by Health Magazine). If one's past is cooked and served correctly and honestly, it's bound to leave the writer with a bit of indigestion.