Ten years ago after reading a student research paper on hoarding, I was struck by the corrosive effect this form of mental illness can have on families and loved ones. I was so moved by the paper that I was left with the sense that someday this would become the foundation piece for a character in one of my novels, (Traveling Light, 2013, Forge/Macmillan). I’d always encouraged students to pick a topic that had a “charge” to it, meaning enough interest and “juice” to propel them through writing a 15 page, double-spaced research paper complete with MLA. At the time, little did I know how seriously one of my students would take it.
Apparently my student’s mother was a hoarder. “Stuff” had driven off the woman’s husband and two daughters since the growing hoard had (literally) pushed family members out of the house. Her mother’s mountain of Christmas decorations, doll collections, unopened mail and packages, plus boxes filled with sundry items packed the house, leaving nowhere to sit, sleep or eat. Clothes with price tags were piled to the ceiling, filling hallways, staircases and common living areas. As she interviewed her mother, (I encourage primary, case-study research) it dawned on her that her mother’s “stuff” was more important than the well-being and happiness of those who loved her. The record of my student’s anguish came through the pages despite her trying to keep the project objective, as well a sociology research paper should be.
This experience taught me that material for writing can come from anywhere (the old “Bloom Where You’re Planted” adage) and that students are a wealth of life experience. Such information and ideas can trigger storylines, character formation and dialog. The old wisdom of Write What You Know can also apply to People Whom You’ve Known.
The premier of the popular TV show, “Hoarders” sparked memories of that student’s paper. I too watched in abject horror at the conditions in which these individuals lived. I was even more riveted by the hoarders reactions to their families’ grief, anger and pain. Just like my student’s paper so many years ago, it became clear that “stuff” had taken on a proportion more important than the physical and emotional well-being of loved ones. I found family reactions, in some cases, even more compelling than the squalor, the packed rooms, and the filth. And it was at this juncture point that I knew I had to develop “stuff” as a character.In the case of Traveling Light, Roger’s “stuff” takes on the guise of his lover, consuming his affection and devotion as it edges Paula (the main character) out of her husband’s bed and life. It’s at this juncture point that Paula is faced with the realization that she must act. And while it might be too late for Roger and her marriage, Paula has to decide if she’s got “juice” enough to make one more run for it to save her own life.