Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Fictionography": Finding Ourselves Through Our Fiction

By Lisa McKay, author of My Hands Came Away Red

There is one question I get asked more than any other by people who’ve read my first novel, my hands came away red – “how much of it is true, how much of this is your story?”

In the beginning I tried to be very precise in my answer.

“I did go on a short-term mission trip during high school,” I’d tell people, “and pretty much everything about Boot Camp was true to life, but I went to the Philippines, not Indonesia. And we didn’t get caught up in a massacre, thankfully. And the narrator, Cori, is braver and more robust than I think I would have been under those circumstances.”

But I soon gave up on precision and owned the novel as fictionography.

Fictionography is a word I came up with (though I may not be the first) to capture what the book was to me as I was writing it – a good deal of autobiography unfettered by fiction.

When I decided at eighteen to write a book about a mission team gone horribly wrong, I knew some of what would happen to these characters. What I didn't know was how they would react and cope when the world they thought they understood was rocked so violently. How do you begin to find hope again after something like that? And how has hope changed?

I never dreamed that it would take me twelve years to begin to answer those questions, or that the story would be so profoundly influenced by my own life during that time – for the book wasn't the only place I encountered these issues. After training as a forensic psychologist, my various jobs have included counseling murderers, debriefing police officers after they were unable to save babies trapped in burning cars, reviewing hundreds of case files on children's deaths, conducting risk assessments of child sex offenders, and running workshops on traumatic stress for humanitarian workers on the front-lines of disaster and conflict all over the world. Among other things, my career so far has been a whirlwind tour of some of the worst experiences life has to offer.

Many people say you should write what you know, but I felt driven to write Hands more by what I didn't know than what I did, and the story itself became a fictional vehicle for me to search for some sort of peace with my very autobiographical struggles around understanding suffering and violence. Along the way, writing my way into this story when I couldn't see the way out was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes terrifying, and always difficult. I did sometimes wonder whether my personal sanity wouldn't have been better served by writing romance novels instead of a story set in the middle of a virtual civil war in Indonesia. But looking back now, I think that as I labored to write Hands while grappling with professional roles that mandated me to help those profoundly challenged by their own traumas, several life lessons were being ingrained.

I learned some about sitting with tough questions in life, staring them down honestly, and respecting the fact that there are no easy answers that satisfy, and sometimes no answers at all that satisfy completely.

I learned a lot about the temptation to let the magnitude of suffering and evil apparent in this world overwhelm, and ultimately paralyze.

I learned a little about the responsibility we have to choose hope in the face of all that – even when it doesn't seem to make any earthly sense.

And I was wowed by the power of writing fiction to grant me entrée into different voices and perspectives and allow me to get down and dirty with tough questions about life – to voice my own frustrations, doubts, struggles, and hopes.

I wish that I could say that with the completion of the novel came the completion of the questions. But alas, no. My life seems to be very much a work in progress. The questions continue. The learning continues. The writing continues – although sometimes slowly. Truth be told, it sometimes seems that the living of the “ography” is getting in the way of the writing the “fiction”. But when I’ve found myself this past year getting tied up in knots about the difficulties juggling a full time job, traveling around the world, getting married, and trying to write a new book I’ve had to pause and remind myself that in this season of my life the “ography” is really sort of the main point. And, God willing, that “ography” will lead to some more fiction a little further down this track.

Lisa McKay is an Australian forensic psychologist. She is currently living in Los Angeles and working as the Director of Training and Education Services for the Headington Institute, which provides psychological and spiritual support services to humanitarian workers around the world. You can visit her website at: www.lisamckaywriting.com


  1. What an awesome vocation you have. I love to watch forensic shows (the real ones) to see how they find the truth of what has happened. Your type of work is so needed today, as criminals have gotten so clever. Yes, it can be gruesome, but necessary. Your book would be something I would love to read.

  2. I got a pre release copy at ICRS and read it right away. I recognized TMI in it because my children have gone there.

  3. I would love to read your book also



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