I’ll never forget the day I trotted out the first pages of my story, All the Dancing Birds, only to be met with howls of disbelief from my writer’s group. “Nice writing, Auburn, but the viewpoint is wrong.” “You can’t possibly write from the viewpoint of someone who has Alzheimer’s disease!” “How can you put words into the head of a person who has nothing there?” my group asked with grave concern. “How are you going to portray a decline into Alzheimer’s and keep it going?” “It’s going to have to be from a different viewpoint.” “Sure, your character might have some thoughts at the beginning, but how will you keep this up as she’s deteriorating?” These were all valid, thoughtful statements and questions from this collection of well-grounded women highly schooled in the fine art of fiction.
I was embarrassed not to have a ready answer to their serious questions and concerns. I only knew that I’d observed my husband’s parents, both of whom suffered from Alzheimer’s-related dimentia, and saw first-hand their imaginative thought — even if it was off-based from what most would consider proper reality. I’d also observed my young neighbor who was thrown into early-onset Alzheimer’s following a heart attack at the age of 45. He maintained an active, vibrant mind in spite of his growing inability to articulate and communicate. Even toward the end when he was tossed between moments of reality and times of vivid fantasy, he never stopped thinking.
That’s what I wanted to write of — that off-kilter world that inhabits the thoughts of one beset by Alzheimer’s. It’s a crummy disease that sometimes takes over a decade before it finally finishes its miserable work. I wanted to honor the bravery of those who must live within the walls of its confinement.
During my extensive research and observation of the disease I learned that, indeed, although the brain is overcome with plaques and tangles and sticky stuff which gums up the works of normal thought, Alzheimer’s doesn’t stop one from thinking. The thoughts may be distorted … the words diminished … but the mind continues to have active processes even if the thoughts are not grounded in reality. A doctor would explain this much better. I’m just a writer who decided to tell the story of a woman fighting to keep the legacy of her life and family history alive.
I gently explained to my writer’s group that I was writing a work of fiction, and as such, I was allowing my writerly imagination to take over where all common sense should have otherwise prevailed. I asked them to suspend their preconceived notions about Alzheimer’s until I was finished with my story. They agreed, and kindly suffered me like the fool I surely was. I could almost hear them muttering, “Writing about Alzheimer’s from the inside-out indeed!” Yet, each time we met and I handed over more pages for their comment, I could see them slowly being won over.
The amazing part is that I wasn’t the one to convince them. No! It was my lovely, spunky, red wine-drinking heroine, Lillie Claire Glidden, who persuaded the hearts of my critics. She introduced herself with modest Southern charm, then knocked their socks off with her bawdy behavior, and finally stole their hearts with her fragile sense of mortality.
She did the same with me!
I discovered Lillie Claire right along with my group. We laughed over her. Cried with her. Lent her compassion for her troubles. I allowed Lillie Claire a life of dignity all the way to the end, when I had to let her go. As with most characters of fiction, she was a composite person — a portion drawn from experience, a dollop of pure fantasy, a generous amount of down-and-dirty research. Placing myself in the center of her mind was a challenge from the start. But Lillie Claire and I worked it out. She’d tug at me until I portrayed her in the right light. Until I had the right words to show her as she presented herself to me. Then she’d bump me on toward the next scene. She kept me busy. Writing from her viewpoint, she was present in every scene, her hand in every word.
Of course, my group still argued that I should have used an omniscient voice — or maybe I should have told the story from the viewpoint of Lillie Claire’s children — or even that of her caregiver. But I stubbornly held to the belief that Lillie Claire’s was the only proper voice for this story. It was her story and I insisted she be the one to tell it.
And that she did! She was an illogical voice who told her story with a defiant glass of red wine in one hand, and all her falling-down dreams in the other. She began her disease with sticky notes and bravery. She ended it singing Janis Joplin’s Mercedez Benz song. In between, she threw plates at the wall, wrote poignant letters to her children, and danced with the birds in her backyard. I fell in love with Lillie Claire and I miss her terribly. The story — Lillie’s story — went on to win a significant manuscript award, and now waits for just the right agent and editor team to bring it to the forefront.
While I send off query letters and wait for that one special agent to fall in love with All the Dancing Birds, I’m already off to another illogical voice. Another character who’s managing to surprise me with her thoughts and whims, and uncommonalities. I have a new imaginary friend now, but I’ll always feel special to have been graced during a small period of my writing life with my dear companion, Lillie Claire.