Terrified About Writing Your Novel? Excellent!

Please welcome multi-published author and returning guest Randy Susan Meyers back to WU!  Randy is an internationally bestselling and award-winning author of five novels, most recently Waisted, which releases TODAY in paperback. Randy’s books have been translated into over twenty-five languages and been chosen three times as a Massachusetts Book Award “Must Read.” Besides reading, her obsessions include gardening, painting garden art, and, during the pandemic, bingeing on ER reruns. She lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street Writer’s Center.

Follow Randy on Twitter, and be sure to visit her website to learn more about her novels.

Terrified About Writing Your Novel? Excellent!

I played with the first line, “Everyone hates a fat woman,” for a decade (and published four other novels) before writing Waisted. The story of women obsessed with the scale screamed in my head, but I kept the words locked away. Because writing it meant facing myself. Writ honest, the novel would have to include tales of self-loathing, food needs so intense one snatches it back from the garbage, and dressing room terror because, for me, no story is worth writing without emotional honesty at the core.

And I wanted to avoid this particular honesty.

When I was a child, my mother hid everything sweet and delicious in a giant lobster soup pot on top of the tallest cabinet in the kitchen. Thus, my sister and I, at the tender ages of perhaps five and eight, learned to be mountain climbers. (Only recently did I consider that maybe Mom was hiding the cookies from herself.) Living with my thin, beautiful, food-hiding mother, I learned:

  • The many places I could stash food, such as the bottom of our hamper.
  • I could hide food better than my mother, who never found the buried hamper cookies I’d retrieve and cram in my mouth (running the faucet hide sounds of chewing.)
  • Nothing devoured fast and furious (while perched on the edge of the tub) can be savored, but even when they barely register, any cookie can taste almost-delicious.
  • When sugar is the drug you need, you don’t need the perfect delivery system. I didn’t need a pretty plate—or even a napkin. (When eating in the bathroom, you have a towel right there.)

All of which led to my novel, Waisted, where weight-obsessed women chosen for a documentary about women and their bodies—an endeavor that promises to heal them—find themselves on lockdown at a hardcore reality show run by punishing, fat-shaming filmmakers.

Before writing Waisted, I didn’t feel ready to hit the personal nadir delving into issues of women and weight could/would ignite. Hiding from the truth was far more inviting. And yet, “Everyone hates a fat woman” wouldn’t let go. So, I began.

Once embroiled in the story, I never wanted to eat again, and I wanted to eat every minute. I never wanted to look at a scale, and I wanted to weigh myself three times a day. Part of me wanted to continue denying the cruelty we face from ourselves and others, but if I wanted to write an authentic story, I had to open myself to every loathsome thought I’d ever had about myself and every bit of self-hatred I (and I imagined other women) held.

Writing Waisted forced me to reckoned with my mother teaching me to hate anything short of perfection. I remembered and confronted the question she’d ask on almost every phone call: “How’s your weight?” as though “my weight” was something separate. Like a roly-poly puppy, I dragged behind me. Or a snarling feral bear.

Inhabiting my weight-obsessed characters forced terrifying introspection. Could I be at peace with my body and choose who I wanted to be? Could my life be other than a reaction to my mother, to self-hatred, to impossible societal standards?

Could I stop denying how my weight—whether up or down—controlled me?

My characters are not my family or me—and yet, of course, they are. The inner lives, traumas, and history of novelists flavors their work. I knew my experiences with body image issues would be baked into Waisted, but I didn’t want this novel to be memoir, just the butter in the story’s cookies. Magic happens when that infusion hits just the right notes. Could I come close to balancing truth and imagination?

I knew this novel would incite strong feelings and reactions, in myself and others, but I still found myself unprepared. Writing this book was a trauma, a blessing, and a ride into my past and future. Putting out this novel, more than any I’ve written, might blow up the hidden craziness about my body I’ve carried all these years.

Some of us are lucky enough to accept our metabolisms, our crooked parts, our curls when we want waterfalls, our pin-straight brown while we long for bouncing blond waves. Some of us fight tooth and nail to carve ourselves into perfection. And some of us rail against having to change a thing.

I knew if I wrote the truth of women facing the devils within her, I could anger many. We’re jaggedly divided on the topic of women’s bodies. Being overweight is an excellent/fantastic/satisfactory choice and anyone who says anything but is fat-shaming!! Being fat is awful, will give you diabetes, and kill you—and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool!!

Likely, the truth is closest to a line from an episode of “Will and Grace.” Grace is asked by Jack why she wanted to lose weight. Her answer: “Because I am a woman in this country.”

But how far will a woman go to lose weight?  I wanted to explore that—and wanted to keep my eyes stapled shut. 

Waisted tells the story of two women who torture themselves and are brutalized by others around weight issues. The lives of these women become enmeshed as they get caught in the war against women, disguised as a war against fat. What lengths will they go to with the promise of weight loss dangled before them?

I thought facing myself would be the hardest part of examining those questions, and that’s true—but I found close seconds. Teenage girls (lovely-average-everyday-smart-plain-gorgeous-skinny-fat-lovely girls) shared stories of mothers monitoring every meal, snack, and drink. One woman described her father, forcing her to do sit-ups in the dining room while her brothers ate home-baked desserts.

I thought I wrote an exaggerated story of women under scrutiny, whipped by impossible expectations. But as was I exaggerating by that much?

Writing Waisted, I stumbled into memories of an uncle insulting my favorite aunt as she lay in a casket—a casket!—him mourning her by saying that she’d once been so beautiful, but look how fat she ended up! She’d been so stunning, that he’d had a crush on her! And look at her now!

My aunt who’d suffered through years of dialysis.

Then this uncle cut his eyes and told me to watch out.

I remember my lovely grandmother—always warm, always kind—chiding herself for having a piece of cake at her 97th birthday party.

After writing Waisted, after letting myself walk in the skin of women wrestling with their weight in the most humiliating ways, I know this: The truth is the truth, and closing my eyes doesn’t make it untrue. Whether I weigh myself or not, the number will remain the same—but the decision to step onto that scale belongs to me. After writing Waisted, if I choose to eat the damn cake, I will enjoy the damn cake. And I’ll never again serve it to myself from the hamper.

This was my present from writing out of terror.

Writing this novel didn’t end my obsession with food, the number on my scale, or what size clothes I wear. Waisted didn’t magically make me at peace or end my life-long food neuroticisms. No magic is that strong. But telling the story of Alice and Daphne, and letting myself ‘go there,’ the stranglehold loosened.

Sure, I still think about the cookies in the lobster pot, I still have moments when I feel I should hide my cake to eat in secret, but I’m no longer a prisoner of childhood monsters.

Writing emotional truth is entirely different than writing a thinly veiled memoir—and it’s terrifying. Writing that honestly can deepen your writing, but you also hit tender spots, spots you perhaps spent years papering over. Each of my novels hit some jagged piece I’d avoided; —fiction is the only comfortable way for me to tell the truth.

In my first novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, I drew on my experience working with batterers to tell the story of two sisters who witnessed their father murder their mother and how it affected their lives for the next forty-plus years. And yes, my older sister had told me many times that my father tried to murder my mother. I’d only been four? Five? Six? But despite being in the tiny Brooklyn apartment when it happened, I had zero memories of the violence.

And yet, when my sister read the first chapter I wrote, she fell into a frightening chasm of memories. I’d captured the day. By letting go and writing without an emotional filter, I reached a place of truth—but only by throwing away the reader over my shoulder (my family, my friends).

Writing my novels rips me apart; finishing the books, leave me at peace.

Telling my secrets is close to impossible. Revealing my family feels unseemly. Weaving a plot matching none of my (or my family’s) journeys, while still falling deeply into the psychological waves in which I swim, turns out to be the method with which I can weave obsessions into stories and find the story-telling propulsion I seek.

As I look over my novels, I see how the disparate issues and storylines—domestic homicide, emotional abuse, infidelity, traumatic brain injury, discovering one’s husband is a criminal, adoption, struggling with body image—all dance with a similar partner. I’ve struggled with not-belonging/trying to belong forever—my personal why, my why, doesn’t matter when creating plots and characters. What matters is not hiding my core obsessions and then obscuring them into fiction.

I always swore I’d never write a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel. And I’ve kept that vow. I borrowed houses where I’ve lived, meals I’ve eaten, and bad bosses. I stole traits of my worst boyfriends and grafted them onto emotionally abusive husbands. I took some of my most significant regrets and rewove them into the worst decisions of my characters. And throughout, the only way I could remain emotionally honest to the bone was by fictionalizing the hell out of circumstances.

You don’t have to be a junkie living on the street to write a character who shoots heroin—but please have a willingness to look at that night you became a black-out drunk.

We’ve all had pain—for me, using that pain for art meant learning the art of transmogrification. When I learned to turn the past inside out—and then discovered the techniques to make that caterpillar into an unrecognizable butterfly, and vice-versa, only then did I find the guts to write an honest book. Crafting fascinating lies, and then molding them with finely milled grains of truth, turned out to be my straightest path to a peaceful truth.

Fifteen years of many-sized me, from 2004 to 2019, with and without Photoshop Botox

Can you identify the obsessions running through your writing? What was the scariest thing you ever wrote about?

Have you found ways to obscure your truth into fiction? Do you find writing into painful topics takes away the sting or increases it?

Food in fiction…I love it. Also, I have an affinity for addiction in memoir and fiction. What’s topic do you like buried in your fiction—either as a reader or writer? 

Over to you!