It’s every writer’s fantasy to quit their day job to write full-time. But the reality is that most of us have to hang on to those steady paychecks, at least until we have a couple of published books under our belts. I spent five years writing in the evenings, in my pjs with a cat on my lap, after my husband and two children went to bed. I’m absolutely thrilled that my debut novel, Her Family Secret is now published. But I’m still holding on to my day job in the School of Social Work at a local university.
I joined the Social Work department over a decade ago, as the coordinator of a research study looking at depression in people recovering from opioid addiction. Clients of a methadone clinic enrolled in the study and committed to come in for monthly interviews with me over the course of a year and a half. During the eighteen months I saw each study participant, I got to know them pretty well. In between research interviews and questionnaires, I heard about their kids’ birthday parties, I talked to them about their jobs, and because I kept a candy bowl on my desk, I even knew if they preferred Snickers bars or SweeTarts!
Maybe it was the writer in me, but even more than the accounts of their day-to-day lives, I was fascinated to understand the “backstories” of the people I was interviewing. To understand how they came to be in this place in their lives. There is a stigma associated with drug use, and when we see people struggling with addiction in the news, we’re usually only presented with what’s visible on the surface. We don’t always remember that people have long and complicated backstories that brought them to a particular moment in time.
Throughout my conversations at the methadone clinic, I heard many of these backstories—many accounts of adversity, struggle, and hardship. The study participants told me about growing up in precarious living situations—in dangerous neighborhoods, in poverty, and with multiple family members who had also battled addiction. Many of the research participants had been using opioids for their entire adult lives, and many continued to struggle with addiction.
It’s no coincidence that the novels I write involve the kinds adversity I see every day in social work—stories of people knocked down again and again by hard times. And it’s no coincidence that my characters have complicated and compelling backstories that brought them to the moment you encounter them in my books. In Her Family Secret, one of my characters struggles with mental health issues and the other is scarred by a painful childhood. My second novel (to be published in August 2021) is about two characters trying to deal with grief and overcome painful losses. And in my third novel, a young woman has to face the fallout of her mother’s battle with opioid addiction. All three of these books address heavy topics, yet, these are not sad stories.
My characters follow their dreams, they work at healing from painful pasts, and in every one of my books, they fall in love! They face adversity with humor, and they end up stronger for it.
One of the main tenets of social work is to practice from a strengths-based perspective. When working to help and empower people, social workers predominantly focus on the strength of people, communities, and their environments. They ask what resources people have to overcome challenges and help them through hard times. Do they have friends and family to support them, communities to rely on, education or skills they’ve developed? And even more importantly than external factors, what internal fortitude do they possess to help them meet a challenging moment?
A strengths-based perspective is concerned with a person’s inherent assets, and not their problems and dysfunctions. The list of barriers the clients of the methadone clinic faced was long, and if they’d focused their energies only on the hardships, they could have easily ended up hopeless and defeated. Yet, time and time again, they refused to those barriers define them, or limit them. They showed up every day, worked hard on their recovery, and strove to create a better life for their families.
This strengths-based perspective is a concept I’ve leaned into in my writing. I am not interested in telling stories of problems and dysfunction. Instead, I tell stories of strength, of resilience, of overcoming adversity. My characters, just like my research participants at the methadone clinic, may be knocked down again and again by hard times. But they will always pick themselves up and keep going. And in the end, they’ll end up not just surviving, but thriving.
(c) Melissa Wiesner
About Her Family Secret:
Outside the white timber beach house, wildflowers dance in the ocean breeze and waves brush against the chalky cliffs. Inside, a woman holds a faded photograph in her shaking hands. Her life is about to change forever…
June Westwood is left reeling the moment she learns the father she never knew has died. Now she’ll never meet him, and worse, the truth about why he abandoned her as a child will be buried forever. Bundling her two young daughters into the car, June escapes her crumbling marriage and heads to the secluded beach house her father has left her in Wishing Cove, Washington.
With a wraparound porch and surrounding wild meadows, her father’s hideaway leaves June breathless. But it’s his oil paintings decorating every wall that surprise her most. How could someone see and paint other people so beautifully, but reject those closest to him? And why is every drawer in her father’s workshop locked? June hopes her new neighbor—her father’s handsome apprentice, complete in paint-spattered overalls, Caleb—will provide the answers. But Caleb won’t talk about the past.
Then, hidden in her father’s workshop, June discovers a box of newspaper clippings that reveal why her father left years ago—and uncovers Caleb’s own devastating secret…
An emotional page-turner about new beginnings and the healing power of love. Fans of Diane Chamberlain, Kerry Lonsdale and Kerry Fisher will devour this fabulous debut from award-winning author Melissa Wiesner.