As published on https://suebe.wordpress.com/2023/02/06/writers-and-therapists-a-guest-post-from-rebecca-wenrich-wheeler/ February 8, 2023 for the WOW! Women on Writing blog tour.
In graduate school, my Group Counseling professor said so many gems that I still remember 14 years later. Two in particular: “The only experience you can speak to with authority is your own.” and “Counseling is one profession where age is always on your side.” Over time, I’ve found these two statements not only apply to the counseling profession but also to my writing life.
I have wanted to be a writer since elementary school. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Hodge, encouraged us to write our own stories. She entered my story, The Funny Cat, into the Young Author’s contest. I won first place, and my dream was born. In the eighth grade, we were asked to write our life plan, and I wrote that I would earn a master’s degree and write a book before I was 30 (only one of those things happened “on schedule”). I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, and later another one in Professional Counseling, but it wouldn't be until many years later that I would publish my first book.
Which brings me back to my Group Counseling professor. I’ve learned that age is also on the writer’s side. The more life experience I accumulate the more layered my work becomes. Characters, like people, can surprise you; their motivations don’t play out in a neat line. Motivations may be influenced by environment, personal history, desires, and social norms. Motivational interviewing is a counseling method of asking questions to help a client uncover their own motivations and reasons for change. A writer might consider asking questions of their characters to help create dynamic personalities. For instance, a writer might ask “What does happiness mean to you?” Or my favorite question, aptly named the miracle question, “If overnight a miracle happened and one thing changed that improved your life, what would that thing be?” Answering these questions for my characters helps guide me to how they respond to conflict and change.
Over the years I have often repeated the sentence: “The only experience you can speak to with authority is your own”. Not only is this statement appropriate for when I teach professional development, but it’s also true for writing. I’m a believer in the adage write what you know. I tend to set my writing in environments that I’m familiar with, which allows for more nuanced setting descriptions. I do incorporate characters with different life experiences than my own, and I must be cautious not to infuse my own assumptions onto the character to avoid falling into stereotype traps. Researching and choosing beta readers with diverse backgrounds helps to improve authenticity and provide a well-rounded viewpoint. I think of my characters as real people, like at any moment, I could meet them in the real world. A reader may see themselves in a character, and they deserve an authentic experience.
Coming-of-age is my favorite YA genre to write. Recently, I found myself pondering why so many adults love to read YA, and then it dawned on me. We spend our entire lives processing what happened to us in childhood and adolescence. As we mature, we understand more how the events of our youth affects us as adults, so when an adult reads YA, the reader gains more insight into their own experience. A truth that will keep therapists and writers employed for life.
Keep looking up.