What Doesn’t Kill Us
Cindy wanted me to come here today and talk about how to use the pain and suffering you’ve experienced throughout your life without ripping your heart out with each word you write. I imagine there is a reason she wants this subject discussed, I’m just not sure she’s going to like the answer.
Or, if you can, you really shouldn’t.
There is an adage that has become a mantra to me when I sit down to write—whether it be things that are sad, things that are humorous or things that enrage me—“If you don’t cry writing it, they won’t cry reading it.” It has to hurt, for it has to be real. I don’t know how to make it real without bringing the pain. I wish I did.
But not really.
For there is a silver lining in all of this. Sometimes the only good that comes from the heartbreaks I’ve experienced—that we’ve experienced—is that it is great fodder for fiction. Okay, maybe it’s not exactly a silver lining… maybe a tin one?
There are, however, ways to make it a bit easier to use your pain and trauma:
Give it time. Oldest cliché in the world? “Time heals all wounds.” This is, of course, bullshit, but it does dull the pain, it does allow you to get perspective. You want your story to be universal, yeah? You want everyone to feel what the character feels. When you write things too close to the bone, they are still yours. This reminds me of another adage that always runs through my mind: “Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.”
I know that sounds harsh, but think about it. When you are new to heartbreak, when you are new to trauma, doesn’t writing feel like catharsis? That’s good. For your diary. For your memoir. Not so much for your fiction. There are certain things you will do with fiction when it’s too new. Believe me, I know, I’ve done them all. You will try and “fix it,” usually with overly simply solutions. Also, you will wallow. Without the mellow of time the pain is everything and you will not see the big picture, from there melodrama sets in.
The second thing that makes it easier is to use the pain not so much to tell one story, but to tighten and strengthen a muscle every writer needs: Empathy. It seems to me, to be a good writer, you need to have an understanding of the human condition. Sadly, the human condition is very often pain and suffering (and healing! We can’t forget the healing!).
And this is where we come to the last adage, the oldest adage in the writing handbook—“Write what you know.” I used to hate that saying. I didn’t want to write only the things that I knew, I wanted to write about people who lived in places I’ve never even visited, who had adventures I’d never have. But, in time, I realized that what that adage means is more precisely: Write what you know to be true. Write what you feel.
You do that, no matter how it hurts, and you will make your readers feel. You do that, you will help yourself heal, you might even help heal others.
Almost like it was worth it. Almost.
“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
― Anaïs Nin
Tamela J. Ritter was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, her debut novel From These Ashes was published in March 2013 by Battered Suitcase Press. She now lives and works in Haymarket, Va. You can find her on Twitter or on Facebook.