Stranger Than Fiction: When Your Life Starts to Resemble Your Novel
Sandra A. Miller on Writing about True Events... and Living Fictional Ones
On a summer night twenty-nine years ago Mark, my then boyfriend and now husband, and I were in our second-floor apartment. Mark was ironing a week’s worth of dress shirts for his job as a clinical psychologist at a well-known psychiatric hospital. The windows were open, and the shades were up. A cheap portable radio on the counter was tuned to the Red Sox game, and I was boiling pasta for dinner, occasionally shuffling across the kitchen to give Mark a kiss. It could have been a scene from a romantic indie film, but it was the start of our horror story.
The next day Mark called me between patients. His typically confident tone had a tremor. “Before I say anything,” he told me, “I want you to shut the windows.”
When I came back to the phone—landline days—Mark said, “One of my patients was spying on us last night. She was listening from the yard.”
“She said it made her cry that I did my own ironing, and she wishes that she and I could go to a baseball game together sometime. She wanted to know what you were making for dinner, and did I ever cook?”
So began a four-year stalking ordeal. It was also the day the idea for a novel took root in my consciousness. I didn’t want to fictionalize the sad case of this woman whose mental health issues led her to feel proprietary toward my husband’s home life. The idea that came to me was dangerous in a different way: What would happen if a psychologist were visited by a patient who knew something about him that she shouldn’t have known? Not just that he was a diligent ironer and liked the Red Sox, but something damaging from his past.
Almost three decades later, my debut novel, Wednesdays at One, is about to be published. It’s the story of a clinical psychologist, Gregory Weber, and a mysterious female client, Mira, who appears unscheduled in his office each week and wants to talk about his past, not hers. With each session, Gregory grows increasingly obsessed with discovering what Mira knows and why she’s there. When he can no longer maintain professional boundaries Gregory succumbs to Mira’s probing, putting everything that matters in his life at risk.
As someone who has published a memoir and respects the constraints of the creative nonfiction genre, I found novel writing liberating, as in Really? I can make up anything? But I also found myself—as fiction writers do—mining my own past experiences for my characters’ emotional cores. I am a writer married to a psychologist, publishing a psychological suspense novel about a psychologist. My book is not autofiction: Gregory is ponderous and quietly shame-filled and nothing like my husband Mark, who is ebullient, open, and relatively (I hope) guilt-free. Yet my life with my therapist husband informed my ability to create a credible fictional therapist.
For example, Gregory shares broad details of his professional life with his wife, Olivia, just as Mark talks to me about hypochondria, antisocial personality disorder, sex addiction, and paranoia. On nights when I can’t settle, I’ll often ask him to “bore me to sleep.” In a droning voice, Mark patiently details hypothetical treatment plans for various diagnoses. “We might do exposure therapy plus response prevention,” he’ll say in a robotic whisper. “When someone has germ-based OCD and wants to wash their hands all the time, I make them touch a doorknob or the bottom of their shoe then not allow them to wash.” In lieu of pillow talk, I have learned the nuances of cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on coping skills.
I used to joke that if Mark ever missed work, I could pinch hit for him, but in the pandemic-isolated summer of 2020, I found a more appropriate use for my pillow-talk understanding of CBT: fodder for my writing. Starved of movies, summer BBQs, and in-person fun, I created the puzzle of my guilt-ridden protagonist. I gave him a wife, Olivia—a wannabe writer who felt deeply curious about her husband’s career. I gave them two kids—a son and a daughter just like Mark and I have. And I set them in a house about two miles from our actual home in a prosperous Boston suburb. Outside of my own family living together in isolation that summer, the Webers were the only other people I spent any quality time with.
As I began writing, something unusual happened: As opposed to the struggle I typically feel when beginning a creative project, this one was easy. Not because these characters resembled my own family—the similarities stopped at their personalities—but as I told Mark, “It’s like this story already exists in the world.” After all, the idea of the mysteriously disruptive patient had been germinating in my subconscious for decades. When a writer friend expressed surprise that I was being so productive in the middle of the pandemic, I told her, “It’s like I’m downloading this book from somewhere in the universe.”
I’d heard other writers and artists describe the creative process in a similar way, but it never made sense to me. Carlos Santana claims that he channels his music from God. My experience wasn’t that, but it wasn’t not that either. It felt like a gift from a benign energetic presence, and instead of questioning it, I welcomed the story as it came to me each day.
When I finished a draft in August 2020, I had another unusual feeling: joyful certainty. It was similar to that coup de foudre sense you get when meeting a person who you absolutely know will be significant in your life. I had it with Mark. I had it with many of my now closest friends. And I had it with this book. After a previous failed attempt to publish a novel, I was certain this one would hit.
In October of 2021, I received an offer of publication from the first editor who read Wednesdays at One. As I had always believed it would, my novel had found an excellent home. But what unfolded next would stretch the limits of my belief. Completely fictionalized events in my book, as I had written them, would begin to play out in my life, and not necessarily in good ways.
It began in November 2021 when Mark’s father—relatively healthy at 82—would get sick and be put on a ventilator, almost exactly as Gregory’s father does in the novel. My husband, who always had a complicated relationship with his own father, would start to have healing family conversations in the coming weeks, again, not unlike my protagonist. There was even a moment in December when I was working on the revision for my book—researching ventilators for a hospital scene—while Mark was in the next room talking to his father’s nurse about the prognosis for being on a ventilator.
The next thing that happened felt more personal and trickier to parse. Like Gregory’s wife, Olivia, I began to feel disconnected from my husband. In our marriage, Mark and I tried to solve our arguments swiftly and respectfully, but no amount of processing my feelings with him could keep me from wobbling. I felt like we were both holding something back from each other, and–like Gregory and Olivia—it turns out we were. We spent our 25th anniversary in such a state of disconnection that I didn’t recognize the couple we’d become. As I sat at a restaurant in a silky white dress, unable to stop myself from crying—exactly as Olivia does in an anniversary scene—I left the restaurant wondering: had that really just happened or was my creative mind fooling me? Did my art just curse my life because I had willed it into being?
In Big Magic, her book about the creative process, Elizabeth Gilbert unapologetically uses words like “fairy dust” and “wizardry” when describing how ideas are birthed into books. She writes, “When I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because I believe creativity is a force of enchantment—not entirely human in its origins.”I can list at least five fictional moments from my book that manifested in the real world. To say more would spoil the story.
My previous book, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, puts forth the idea that signs appear all around us, and if we trust them, welcome them in, and believe they have things to show us, then they just might lead to treasure. In that book, I relay the story of how, after years of living without any communication on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Mark, who was my college love, and I reconnected through my chance encounter with one of his therapy clients. When people without any woo woo tendencies hear the details of our unlikely love story, they use words like fate, magic, and destiny to explain something that defies explanation.
I have always been fascinated by the mystical, the supernatural, and the wonders of the unseeable world that science often dismisses. And when something magical comes to pass, I often say exactly what Gregory says when he first sees his wife, Olivia and catches her staring back at him: “It felt less like coincidence and more like confirmation.” I live in the land of woo woo, which, if a bit silly, isn’t a derogatory term for me.
I can list at least five fictional moments from my book that manifested in the real world. To say more would spoil the story. And while I’m not claiming to possess psychic powers, we writers are sensitive creatures who spend our days—antennae out—gathering information to use in our work. When creating our character’s trajectories, we often delve into our surroundings and personal histories for inspiration. Perhaps while peering closely at what might be a character’s future, we sometimes are given a glimpse of our own.
After writing Wednesdays at One, I felt the strangeness of my fiction redrawing my own life, as if the filtration of experience and ideas flowed in both directions. I recently got to hold an Advance Reader Copy, and now that the fiction exists in a three-dimensional form, and I can put it down on a table or into someone else’s hands, it at last feels separate from my being. But it is unmistakably generated from the DNA of my life, and the kernels of experience that gave it life.
I imagine I will always have a certain curiosity about the fictional events in my novel that found their way into my reality—that strange transference between art and life. And while my detachment from my husband eventually resolved with some good, hard conversations, I’m still not sure how it related to my book, only that it did. Maybe it’s enough to recognize that all of our stories—real and imagined—are connected in mysterious ways that no person or piece of writing can possibly explain.
Wednesdays at One by Sandra A. Miller is available now via Zibby Books.