It can be difficult to write about some things, and some of us are drawn to writing about difficult things, but that doesn’t mean we need to suffer for our art. Here are five things to remember when you decide to write something that, one way or another, evokes intense emotions.
Come up for air (or Netflix), but remember to go back in.
I write dark shit. An entire collection about loss and grief, and a novel about a polygamist commune that practices systemic child abuse. I had different personal stakes in each book, and some of my research into predominant polygamist cults would literally leave me nauseous and exhausted. There were times I just had to put it down, go on a walk, or take a night off and binge watch The Office. I would wait until I just couldn’t take it anymore, but I wish someone had told me to quit just before that point. Over time, I’ve learned to be more aware of how I am feeling as I research and write, and to leave it when I started getting to that point of utter despair, but not there yet. I think coming up for air before you are choking makes it less scary to dive back in the next day.
Remember your responsibility.
We live in a world that values compartmentalization (see: work/life balance). As if when I sit down to write, I am in a vacuum and only use my experiences and knowledge in a calculating way to better my craft. But I recently watched interviews with Ernest Gaines and Toni Morrison and was struck that they both talked about being acutely aware of their responsibility to real people, in both cases people from their past, when they wrote. Gaines has made it his personal mission to return to the plantation where he grew up and reclaim and care for the unmarked graves of his family. When writing about difficult topics, no matter what they be, think of this responsibility as a mooring. When I was writing about suicide, I thought of all my loved ones who have suffered dearly as a result of suicide. I wanted to represent their pain, but also the complexity of that kind of grief. When I was writing about polygamy, it was difficult in a different way. I wanted to reveal some of the potential for violence embedded into the religion, but I also wanted to show the characters not from a point of view of pity, but as people with agency who believed in their culture, like the people I met during my research—I felt to do otherwise would do an injustice to my subject. Staying focused on these real-world connections and experiences helped me when I would hit a difficult point in my writing.
Look to loved ones for their experience, and their support.
If you are writing nonfiction about an experience that others close to you shared, ask them about their experience too. They may have a totally different account than yours, reminding you that the truth is subjective, and everyone has their own version of what happened. Don’t look at this as a weakness, but rather an invitation to explore the complexity and polygonic nature of your subject. My husband and I have very different memories of our shared experience of his father’s suicide. None of them conflict, but they do point to appropriately different experiences. He was in the midst of the nightmare, and I was more a witness to it. Writing or thinking about the event or subject from different points of view might help you to understand it more. And talking with others gives you the opportunity to let them know you are diving into some difficult territory, and might need a little extra support.
Be aware of the effects of PTSD, so you can recognize them for what they are, and move through them.
After my father-in-law’s suicide, which was an event shrouded in mystery with many odd details, when I tried to explain to people what had happened my throat would literally close. As I talked, my inner monologue would say, “They don’t believe you.” It wasn’t until later when I read about trauma and writing that I learned how normal this experience is. And yet, I don’t think it’s a reason to quit writing. Instead, take breaths, take a walk. Think about writing sentence by sentence. When I finally wrote an essay about that experience, I wrote it in fragmented form, writing just one bit at a time. I would write just small concrete memories, one line at a time, over days. Later, I arranged them all in a way that to me felt like an accurate reflection of the experience. And then I hid it away for the longest time, until I was ready to enter into the dialogue that I knew the piece would start. It’s important to acknowledge that whatever your process is, however long it takes you, is fine.
Believe in the importance of what you are doing, and know that it might help others.
Ever since I read Beverly Clearly’s Ramona as a kid, I’ve believed in the value of the private readerly connection one can have with a text that is talking about that thing no one talks about. In my case, I wanted to write about grief and loss in terms that surpassed clichés and to uncover some of the nuances of the experience. I believed, and hope I’m right, that someday someone might read this book and feel a kinship with the sentiments it expresses and perhaps even feel less lonely in their own experiences. Similarly, I hope in writing about polygamy I draw attention not only to communities fraught with very real problems but also to the people whose lives are affected profoundly by their belief system. This hope that writing is a beacon in the night, or mechanism for change, acted as a buoy for me when the writing got tough.
I think all of the above are important, because it’s important to take care of yourself. But also I hope these tips give you courage to tackle that thing you’ve been avoiding writing about because writing difficult topics can in fact be a way to take care of yourself. Not shying away from something because it’s painful or challenging can be a way to turn something hard into something manageable, a way to create a narrative around a traumatic event (a story that you can live with), and even a conduit for healing.
Sadie Hoagland is the author of American Grief in Four Stages, a collection of stories that explore the inability of our culture to communicate grief, or sympathy, outside of cliché. Her novel, Strange Children, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. She has a PhD in fiction from the University of Utah and an MA in Creative Writing/Fiction from UC Davis. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alice Blue Review, The Black Herald, Mikrokosmos Journal, South Dakota Review, Sakura Review, Grist Journal, Oyez Review, Passages North, Five Points, The Fabulist, South Carolina Review and elsewhere. She is a former editor of Quarterly West, and currently teaches fiction at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where she also lives with her family, and they do their best to eat beignets whenever they can. You can visit Sadie online at sadiehoagland.com.