The truth in the fiction – Cathy Zane

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By Cathy Zane

As I started telling people about my book, Better Than This, a frequent question I was asked was whether it was autobiographical. The short – and I thought clear – answer at the time was it wasn’t.  While my protagonist, Sarah, and I shared the common history of childhood exposure to domestic abuse, her story was not my story. We both suffered sequelae but coped in different ways. And the plot of the book was purely fictional, so much so that many details and storylines changed as I followed the characters through the writing of it.♥

But a person’s life experiences always inform their writing. The initial inspiration for the book was an experience I had when I was young of being seen and valued in a way that I hadn’t felt with my parents. I have returned to those memoires, often in darker times of my life, to help bring me back to myself and to see myself through that person’s eyes. It is a strategy I’ve often used as a therapist and it was what kept showing up as the theme for a story many years ago.

While I was aware of these purposeful truths as part of my narrative, I was unprepared for the inadvertent ones. One of the characters that emerged as I wrote the book was that of Sarah’s mother, who has a small but significant role in the story. Her fate was very different than my own mother, but her experiences were similar, something I didn’t think about as I was writing.

I remember it being a difficult part of the book to compose, but it wasn’t until after it was completed that I saw the parallels, specifically that both Sarah’s mother and my own had lost their creative selves in the midst of trying to survive the abuse they were facing at the hands of their husbands. Sarah’s mother had stopped painting while my mother had stopped playing the piano and cello.

Much as Sarah’s empathy for her own mother grew in the book as the result of her insights, so too did mine for my own mother. I recognized the losses she suffered more acutely than I had prior to writing the book. I sensed the hopelessness she must have felt; her long-standing depression throughout my childhood was a foregone conclusion. Her resilience also shone through in her ability to survive and create a happier life once my father was gone.

Some amazing truths emerged from my fiction, suggesting shades of gray when it comes to answering the question of a novel being autobiographical. Clearly, true aspects of my life experiences were woven throughout the fictional tapestry and in the process, which brought deeper insights into myself and the other very real people in my life. That is the power of writing; it always holds the promise to take us in new and unexpected directions and understand our narrative in a different way.

Reading holds that promise too. We find ourselves in a story and feel less alone. We learn and grow alongside the protagonist. We understand another in our life in a different way. Fiction is a fabrication, the imagination at work. And yet the real bleeds through and changes the writer and reader in the process.

Cathy Zane spent her childhood on the beaches of St. Petersburg, Florida and attended Nursing School at the University of Florida. She moved west to San Francisco a week after graduation and worked in Labor and Delivery for 15 years before returning to graduate school to pursue a second career as a psychotherapist. Since completing her graduate degree in 1999, she has worked extensively with children, teens and their families. Better Than This is her debut novel.

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