Guest Post by Kaki Olsen
Kaki Olsen has been a published personal essayist since 2000 and a published novelist since 2016. In between the two dates, she wrote many scholarly essays on things such as the significance of poverty in science-fiction, the theological argument against zombies and what Dumbledore can teach us about training a leader. She is an insatiable traveler who has been to five continents so far. Born in Texas, raised Bostonian, she currently lives in American Fork, UT with one roommate, three fish and over 50 novel ideas. She is at work on writing one manuscript and editing two others.
For anyone who interacts with me on a regular basis or even follows my Facebook feed, it’s apparent that I haven’t had the most cheerful of lives. I grew up in an environment where unhappiness was to be hidden and mediocrity was an abominable sin. I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 14 and developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ten years later. I fell deeply in love with a man whose undiagnosed mental disorder meant that he did anything from punching me in the face to trying to choke me to death on multiple occasions. I have watched three siblings get happily married and have oodles of adorable children while I face the possibility that the only happily-ever-after relationship I will ever have in my life was with the person who caused my PTSD. I have learned to fend off suicidal urges, how to work through my panic attacks and I feel as though I have given up on being happy in life. Even if we set aside my mental disorders, psychological and physical abuses, I have had a hard time with ordinary life. In one summer, I lost my job three times. Due to my PTSD, I even spent most of one summer unable to face being alone in my apartment and spent days at a time virtually homeless between work shifts.
I apologize for this rather dour introduction to my topic, but I had to put my topic of misery into perspective. I have been told repeatedly that my reason for the miserable circumstances that I so often find myself in are so I can help others who face those challenges. I have seen this manifest in the friend who didn’t know her reasons for failing many of her classes because of crushing unhappiness during winter semesters; she is now undergoing treatment for Seasonal Affect Disorder. Another one felt something was off about her relationship with her fiancé and came to me for advice; once she’d broken up with her manipulative other half, she met the man she’s been married to for five years.
Trials and tribulations can be equally as effective when it comes to writing.
I’m in the process of writing my fifth manuscript and the idea has been in the works for a number of years. I refer to it as my “Evil Narnia” because it is based on the premise that stumbling into a magical world can be a devastating thing. I knew that I would draw on my experiences with PTSD in writing a 17-year-old girl who is held prisoner for six months after finding her way into this alternate world. What I discovered in beginning to write the book is that I had to draw on a completely different epoch of my life.
In this story, the protagonist’s sister sent her an address and an invitation to come on an adventure on April 30. On June 20, after weeks of uncertainty and terrified apprehension, her sister’s body was found. I told my roommate/alpha-reader about this insertion and she immediately sighed very heavily at how I related to it. One day in 1998, my older sister disappeared from her apartment and it was over two months before she made contact again. In that time, a fairly disciplined home turned totalitarian. It turned hostile as everyone blamed each other or themselves. When my sister reached out for the first time since running away, she was met with hatred and anger first.
I have written this story because I know what it is to live through the terror of an absence. I know the breakdown that can happen and the irreparable damage that can be done in such times. But as I pointed out to my roommate, “I’m writing a story about an older sister who runs away and never gets the chance to return. That’s the horror that could have happened to me, but thank goodness it didn’t.”
One of the things I’ve written the most about is how to write effective fights. This was originally geared towards people for whom swordplay or hand-to-hand combat was an integral part of their narrative. One of the most fundamental pieces of advice that I give is to use comparative experience. You may not have ever been burned alive, but you can probably remember burning your hand on a hot stove. You can’t imagine having a compound fracture, but you can remember suffering a broken wrist. Comparative experience draws on the idea that you can imagine the worst-case scenario of what you yourself have gone through.
Writing about emotion and harrowing experiences can be drawn from that same skill. In my recently-published novel, Swan and Shadow, one character’s greatest fear is being powerless during a major crisis. I originally considered this just before my home city of Boston was the site of a terrorist attack. It also came to mind when my nephew was seriously ill and all I could do was pray and ask to go home early because of the stress. I even go out of town on my birthday every year because the last time I worked on that day, my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The great moment of horror for this one character comes when her father is attacked and hospitalized in the line of duty as a police officer. The attack happens at 9 a.m., but because she is a swan until sunset, she is completely unaware of the horror she should be experiencing until 5 o’clock that evening.
In short, if you need to go to the darkest of places for your character, first plumb the depths of what you have already been through. It’s not necessary to have hit rock-bottom during a drug addiction or to have been at death’s door during cancer treatments. You are absolutely capable of knowing the path that leads to that bottom and the kinds of handholds that allow you to claw your way free of those depths.