Theory of Inspiration

Melissa was my roomie at the Big Sur Writing Workshop last year. I loved her post here about inspiration and influences. A lot.

Wayward Rhapsodies

Lately, I’ve happened upon several instances of writers being asked, “What inspired you to write your book?” or “Where do you get all your ideas?” There seems to be this consensus that if you write a novel, you have to be inspired directly by something. However, the glamorous answers of dreams and train rides don’t apply to every writer. Often, it’s hard to pinpoint one exact thing or time when inspiration struck, which makes for an underwhelming origin story. Many a writer must bemoan recounting the inspiration of a book because, invariable, this question of inspiration comes up every single time I’ve seen a writer asked questions by his or her fans.

For me, being asked, “what inspired you?” is an absolutely terrifying prospect. My answer, right now anyway, is, “what doesn’t?” Okay, so rhetorical questions are rude, but it seems unfair to claim one specific thing inspired me to write one other…

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The Journey From Leaving Christianity To Attending Seminary

Loved the honesty of this.

Helps To Write

A reader of my blog recently asked a good question that I want to answer with a post.  They wrote:

Reading through your blog, we seem to have some of the same struggles and attitudes about what is generally passed off as Christianity. I see you have just started seminary, and so I have to ask whether your about page is due for an update. You have probably answered this in your past posts, but am I curious how you went from falling away to starting seminary.

First, the easy question.  Yes, I should update the about me page.  It’s been a long time and could definitely use an update.  Thanks for pointing that out.

Now for the big question: How did I go from falling away to starting seminary?  I decided to leave the church and faith back around 2007 or 2008 (I don’t remember specifically), though the frustration…

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Character Survey: Jackie Lea Sommers

editchristmasBefore I write a novel, I fill out the following survey questions about my main characters.  The first set of questions comes from Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  The second set are from this Yingle Yangle post.  Since people want to know more about me, I thought I’d fill them out for myself.  (Gosh, it feels so egotistical, but this is what you guys asked for.)

P.S. I feel like a teenager filling out questionnaires on Myspace.

• What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?

Jackie Lea Sommers.  My nicknames are Jack, Jach, Jav (pronounced yawv).  A lot of people DO actually call me Jackie Lea or JLS.

• What is your character’s hair color? Eye color?

I’m dishwater blonde with blue eyes.  Although I dyed my hair this winter, so right now it’s fading from red to strawberry blonde.

• What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?

Very pale, almost non-existent eyebrows.  Which I hate.

• Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did he get them?

I am missing the tips of two fingers and six toes.  Yep, for real!  I was born that way, although I usually tell more dramatic lies, such as my mother chopped them off, I was in a lawn mower accident, etc.

• Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?

My dad Tom, my mom Ronda, my sister Kristin, and my brother Kevin are all amazing and hilarious.  Some of my very best friends are Eir, Ashley, and Des (Des was my roomie for six years!).  I wish I were friends with Theo James, the actor who plays Four in the upcoming Divergent movie.  I have had to grieve the fact that it is highly unlikely I will ever get the chance to make out with him.

• Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?


• Where does your character go when he’s angry?

Nap time!

• What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?

Hell has been the biggest fear of my life, although since ERP, this has settled down considerably.  

• Does she have a secret?

I do.  Thanks for asking.

• What makes your character laugh out loud?

My co-workers!

• When has your character been in love? Had a broken heart?

I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in love.  I want to be!  My heart has been broken countless times– I count this as writing fuel.

Then dig deeper by asking more unconventional questions:

• What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?

Fridge looks pretty empty; I need to venture out into the -22 degrees windchill weather to get some groceries.  Bedroom floor, nightstand … BOOKS!  (There are usually books on every surface in this apartment.)

• Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?

Barefoot right now!  I wear dress flats to work, TOMS everywhere else, winter boots when I can get away with it.

• When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?

Cinnamon toast.  I’d LOVE those days when I’d wake up on a school day, go downstairs, and Dad would be making cinnamon-sugar toast for us!

• Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?

I’m not much of a hoarder, except for mementos, like notes and letters that people have given to me.  Even books I can more easily part with– I take a bag to Half-Price Books every so often and get a little cash for the ones that aren’t worthy to stay on my bookshelves.

• It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If he’s eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?

Honestly?  Just waking up, lol!

• What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?

I intensely remember when my mom explained to me how she knew I loved God.  I’d struggled with it for three years, and she changed my life with that explanation.

• Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?

Probably dinner or a play/musical with a friend!

NEXT SURVEY (by the way, my answers for my characters are usually a bit longer!):

  1. What one thing do you want more than anything else?
    To love God and people well, to be a successful writer.
  1. What would you do if you got it?
    Be joyful.
  1. What did you learn from your parents’ mistakes?
    I don’t drink alcohol at all.  Not ever.
  1. What would you spend your last $10 on? Something indulgent, something practical?
    A journal and a pen, and I’d start frantically writing.
  1. What (or whom) do you blame?
  1. What do you not tell anyone?
    Very little.  As a blogger for mental illness awareness, I’m a pretty open book!
  1. What do you not admit to yourself?
    I’m not sure of this one!  I sometimes think I’m going to be single forever, but I don’t like to spend time with that thought, so I’ll go with that.
  1. What is your biggest regret?
    Not doing ERP sooner.
  1. What is the worst thing you ever did? (It’s not always the same as the biggest regret).
    I can be very cruel with my words when I want to be.
  1. What should you care about, but don’t?
    What people think about me.
  1. What do people say about you?
    “She’s crazy!”  Don’t worry– they’re not referring to OCD, just everything else I do.
  1. What do will the character’s last thought will be? (For obvious reasons it’s hard to phrase this as a direction question).
    Jesus, take me home.
  1. What is your earliest memory?
    I remember spilling Cheerios on the floor when I was only about two and then, thinking I’d get in trouble, I began to frantically eat the evidence.  This is the only super early memory I have.
  1. What is your prejudice?
    I have a prejudice against certain Christian ministries.  That’s probably really bad, right?
  1. What relationship has upset you most?
    There was this boy.  I thought something was going to happen between us.  Then he moved away and dropped out of my life (and everyone else’s) really suddenly.  You can read about it in my story Lights All Around.
  2. What about high school or college upset you most?
    I was shoulder-deep in OCD; it messed with my relationships.
  1. What about your job upsets you the most?
    I actually love my job.  A lot.  Go Eagles!
  1. What do you best?
    I’m creative.
  1. What will happen after you die?
  1. What things do you know the least about?
    Fashion, television, sports, cooking.

The Long Journey … to the Starting Line

"Cross That Line" by xLadyDaisyx on deviantArt

“Cross That Line” by xLadyDaisyx on deviantArt

It is SO HARD for OCD sufferers to be correctly diagnosed and then find the right treatment and a good cognitive-behavioral therapist.  In fact, it takes an average of 14-17 years for someone to access effective treatment.

That stat stings my heart.  I feel it deeply because of my own personal struggle.

I developed a sudden onset of OCD at the age of 7.  I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was 22.  I started ERP (exposure and response prevention) therapy at 27.  That’s twenty years, folks– fifteen just till diagnosis alone.

Growing up, I just assumed that I “thought too much”– was an “overthinker” and especially sensitive to issues of morality. I didn’t understand that other people were also undergoing the same doubts as I was but were able to move past them with ease.  I, on the other hand, would get trapped.  The exit door to my brain was stuck shut, so all my thoughts just milled and churned and generated intense anxiety.  I didn’t know that others even had the same thoughts as I did, nor did I realize how it would be possible to let such thoughts come and go.

In childhood, I cried all the time.  In fact, I cried every single night for three years in a row.  I never told my parents about this.  I was so scared that they wouldn’t be able to “fix” me that I preferred to just rest in my own sadness, still clinging to the hope that *someday* I could be fixed.  As long as no one told me it was impossible, it still felt possible, and even thought I was terrifically sad, I kept that hope as my lifeline.

High school was a beast.  I got straight A’s (OCD drove me to perfectionism) and graduated at the top of my class.  I was a class clown, and I had some amazing friends.  But I battled intense spiritual doubts and lived in great fear.  My tenth grade year was one of the hardest of my whole life.  Only those closest to me knew it.

My doubts intensified in college.  They escalated to a whole new level.  Thankfully, I had a solid support system in my new friends (people who remain my support system to this day!).  And though they couldn’t understand what I was going through, they loved me.

After undergrad, things fell apart.  In a nutshell, I lost my grip on reality– my doubts had grown so large and out of control that I no longer knew if I could trust my friends or my own human experience.  Finally, for the first time in my lifesomeone used the words mental illness with me.  It felt shocking.

I was encouraged to meet with a therapist (unfortunately, a talk therapist– not effective for OCD), who also got me in to meet with a psychiatrist, and I was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  A diagnosis fifteen years in the making.

I spent about a year with that first talk therapist, and it was more damaging than anything else.  I finally “escaped” and never again set foot in that clinic.  Meanwhile, I was an SSRI lab rat, trying out a slew of various medications to treat my OCD.  I eventually went back to talk therapy– this time to a much better therapist, who was a true blessing, although she still didn’t truly understand OCD, and so my therapy included a lot of reassurances.  In other words, this kind, amazing woman who loved me was just reinforcing my compulsions.  Not good.  I also took a break from trying out medications after one stole all my energy and made me rapidly gain weight.  I was overweight for the first time in my life– all due to a medication– and have struggled with my weight ever since.

Five years after that initial diagnosis, my psychiatrist was out of ideas.  Literally.  She asked me what I thought we should do next.  I, of course, had no clue.  She referred me to an OCD specialist.

This incredible man– Dr. Suck Won Kim– changed my life.  He got me onto the right medication (almost immediately) and essentially required that I begin ERP, even giving me the name and contact information for the therapist who would ultimately allow me to bottle up my OCD and put a stopper in it.  Dr. Chris Donahue, to whom I’m forever indebted.

Twelve weeks was all it took.  In one sense.  In another, it took twenty years.

My life was a mix of depression, anxiety, compulsions, “bad” thoughts, and wrongness, and then twelve weeks later, I felt the burden of OCD lift from my shoulders.  I was giddy with freedom.  Five years later, I still am.

I hear from OCD sufferers every week who are in their 50’s, 60’s, or even older, who are still seeking appropriate treatment.  This absolutely breaks my heart.

On the flip side, I’ve had the incredible experience of meeting Maddie, 11, and her incredible parents, who leapt into action almost immediately and got her into ERP within months of her OCD onset.  In the same year, she developed OCD, was diagnosed, and was treated.  Marvelous!

That’s one of the reasons I blog about OCD.  To help people to understand earlier what they are dealing with and to encourage them to seek appropriate treatment (ERP, with or without medication).  It still just boggles my mind that in 2013, mental health practitioners still don’t know that ERP is the answer.  People get passed around from talk therapist to talk therapist, when the solution should be so ready, so available.

Tumblr & Asks & Anonymity

It was a quiet roll-out, but back in October 2013, I joined Tumblr and linked my blog up.  If Tumblr is more your style, you can find me at

Lots of you are probably thinking, “Huh?  What’s Tumblr?  Why should I care?  What’s in it for me?”

Here’s why I think you might be interested:
* It has an “ASK” feature where you can ask me anything.  More importantly, you can ask me anything anonymously, if you want.  I hear from a lot of blog readers via email who bravely share their stories with me (and I’m so grateful and humbled by your trust), but I imagine there are others who are too afraid to attach their names to their stories.  Feel free to use this feature all you want, friends.  The second reason this feature is so important is this: if you share your story or ask your question on a public forum (instead of privately through email), others can benefit.  Just as you’ve learned since kindergarten: if you are wondering, someone else surely is wondering the same thing.

* My Tumblr page will have additional content– not from me, but content from around the internet that I find fascinating.  You might too.  Or not.  🙂

So, there you have it!


One of those pre-birthday posts where I whine about being single

Soon, I will be thirty-two years old.  Wowza.  How in the world did that happen?  I mean, theoretically I understand that every twenty-four hours the earth does a pirouette around the sun and eventually that adds up to a long dance.

But still.

Usually every time January 17th rolls around I re-evaluate the year that just flew by, and I usually feel pretty bummed about all that I haven’t accomplished.  This year, I’m trying to celebrate all the joyous events that came about in 2013: it was another year of OCD being under my heel, I got my first book deal, I won the Katherine Paterson Prize, I started blogging for the OCD Foundation.  That’s exciting stuff!

Still single.  Always single.

I know thirty-two is not that old, but please remember that I both went to and now work for a Christian college.  Do you know what that means?  “Ring by Spring” is the [only half-joking] tagline, and all these little virgins are running around dying to have sex.  Again, I’m only half joking.

I’ve watched nearly all of my college friends get married.  I am the only unmarried roommate (of eight) from my Moyer Hall days, the only unmarried roommate (of something like 12-14 [it was like a revolving door]) of my Lodge days.  I have watched high school freshmen grow through their high school years, graduate, come to Northwestern, fall in love, and get married under my nose.  I blink, and they who were once children are wearing white and saying vows.

It’s okay.  Tonight it’s okay, at least.

It helps to have a book deal.  It almost feels like an excuse.  (This is the first Christmas in a long while I didn’t get asked if I had a boyfriend … we talked about the book deal instead.  PRAISE GOD.)  I know I don’t need to have an “excuse” for not being in a relationship … but sometimes it feels that way.  Just being honest.

In the nearly eleven years since college, I have learned vicariously through my friends just how difficult marriage is.  (Like, really, really hard.)  I’ve watched friends go through difficulties, separations, divorces that shatter my heart.  I am glad I didn’t marry young.  Not that it is wrong to marry young, but I’m such a very, very different person now than I was in college.  And I’m more emotionally stable, slower to anger, quicker to administer grace.

Anyway, to summarize this, I wish I was in love.  Heck, I’d settle for just having a crush on someone who wasn’t a fictional character.  But I’m also okay (tonight, at least) and not wasting my singleness.

jackie is single

The Dreadful O of OCD

My friend Janet over at OCDtalk recently blogged about how, so often, all people know of obsessive-compulsive disorder are the visible compulsions, as opposed to the invisible obsessions.  And back in November, The Atlantic also posted about the debilitating nature of obsessions.

As I’ve said before, “If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not OCD.”

OCD begins with obsessions.  Compulsions are actually just a monstrous side effect of OCD.

Source: deviantART "Torture" by eWKn

Source: deviantART
“Torture” by eWKn

Compulsive hand-washing is hard to hide.  Hoarding, definitely.  Even repetitive reassurance-seeking and confession (compulsions of choice for a Pure-O) are easy to notice once someone points it out to you.

But it’s harder to see the obsessions that are driving them.

Imagine the deep horror of constantly imagining you’ll hurt someone you love.  Or the intense mind-screw of questioning a part of your identity that you’ve always gripped tightly.  Or feeling as guilty as a rapist, a pedophile, or a murderer … when you haven’t even left your room.  You know that wrong feeling that you sometimes get to which you can never find the words to describe it except for that it’s just wrong?  How’d you like to feel that every waking moment?  Obsessions come hand-in-hand with such intense anxiety, horror, and guilt that obsessive-compulsives feel they cannot bear them.  Hence, so many compulsions.  And, devastatingly, suicides.

That, my friends, is why I get upset when people say things like, “I’m a little OCD; my handwriting has to be perfect” or “If my socks don’t match, it bugs me so bad.  I think I’ve got a touch of OCD.”  It feels like someone is comparing their hangnail to your amputation.  Does that make sense?

So many people in the OCD community have not yet found their voice, and that prompts me to be even louder.  I know no one likes the person who is so easily offended.  Heck, those people generally annoy me too!  But I’m reacting on behalf of a broken, abused, tortured community who– this is heartbreaking– believes themselves worthy of only brokenness, abuse, and torture.

So I choose to be loud about it.

Thanks for understanding– or trying to.