What fears do you share with the characters in your novel? What fears or phobias do you give her that are not part of your life but that you want to explore? Today, debut novelist, Julie Christine Johnson shares with us a real life fear that worked its way into her novel, and how she — and her main character — have triumphed.
Share your story in the comments and please welcome Julie to WFW!
Facing Fears In Writing And In Life
by Julie Christine Johnson
Late May 1999. Inside a prop plane on the tarmac of a Midwest regional airport. We’re not moving. The roaring engines prevent conversation, but fifteen other passengers and I shift in our seats, glance at our watches. The door is sealed tight and the air in the steel tube is thick and hot.
Skin flushes fingers go numb chest constricts stomach collapses. A battery acid wave of panic cascades through me. My every thought is a scream: Get me off this plane. Open the doors. I have to get out. But I remain silent, biting the inside of my lip until I taste blood. Seconds before I race for the exit to keep my head from spinning off my neck, the plane moves forward.
Somehow I get home, and when I do, I cancel a trip to Europe. Problem is, traveling is my job. I’m Associate Director of Study Abroad Programs at a Big Ten University. And I’m not sure I can ever get on an airplane again.
I’ve been claustrophobic as far back as I can recall, which would be to the early 70s and a straw bale maze I clawed my way through, screaming, until I found an exit. I’ve walked up twenty flights of stairs to avoid an elevator. But until May 1999, I’d never had trouble flying. I’d been around the world, studying, teaching, working.
I didn’t set out to saddle Lia, the protagonist in my debut novel In Another Life, with my phobia, but when I trapped her in a corridor of an ancient cathedral, I felt panic rising within me and I poured it into her. Finding a sister claustrophobic in my character became a way to stand outside my own anxiety and watch someone else survive, and even find redemption through, my greatest nightmare.
As readers, fiction often allows us to explore the most unimaginable of our fears and feel relief that someone is able to articulate what we cannot, what we dare not. As writers, we are challenged to offer readers a sense of empathy for our characters, even if they don’t always agree with the choices those characters make along the way. Creating believable vulnerabilities that aren’t dependent upon plot, but which are the very essence of a character herself, invites readers beneath her skin, into her very soul.
My stories often take me into emotional spaces I never intended to go. As I write my way through, I’m able to imbue my characters with strengths I don’t possess or burden them with faults I’m glad I don’t have to claim. I am not my characters, but each possesses a thread of my spirit.
In the months that followed the panic on the tarmac, I got my wings back. I was given a prescription for Ativan to take before boarding a plane. I found behavioral coping mechanisms: meditation, crossword puzzles, coloring books. But never was there a flight without some episode of claustrophobic panic that made me wonder if this was it, this was when I’d finally lose my mind.
Last summer, I spent a blissful three weeks in the southwest of Ireland, attending a poetry workshop and doing some follow-up research and writing on my second novel (The Crows of Beara: Ashland Creek Press, September 2017). The trip home was the first in sixteen years that I felt not the slightest twinge of claustrophobia. I don’t know what changed, what made this trip different; I was just happy that for once, my demons remained silent. My Ativan remained unopened in my carry on. I worked on a crossword puzzle and then, somewhere over the North Atlantic, I fell asleep.
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” —Virginia Woolf
Julie Christine Johnson is the author of the novels In Another Life (February 2016, Sourcebooks Landmark) and The Crows of Beara (September 2017, Ashland Creek Press). Her short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, includingEmerge Literary Journal, Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt, the anthologiesStories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss and featured on the flash fiction podcast, No Extra Words. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and Psychology and a Master’s in International Affairs.
A runner, hiker, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state with her husband. In Another Life is her first novel.