Friday, October 10, 2014

Distance

Ask any writer, and they'll tell you the same thing:  writing can be a very emotional process.  I frequently hear even fiction writers lament writing difficult scenes for their characters.  These stresses only become compounded when you write them about your own self.

Today's post is about ways of distancing yourself from the hurt to begin getting those scenes out when you are ready.  Please note that dealing with trauma is not easy and it is not always advisable to do so on your own.  Before trying to deal with very difficult memories, I suggest that you have a plan for dealing with those memories, be it a group of friends you can call and talk to, plans to do something fun and relaxing for yourself, or even, in some circumstances, additional meetings with a therapist.

Distance works two ways.  When you are writing something for the first time, increasing the distance between you and the subject can allow you to approach the topic and still feel psychologically safe.  After you've gotten the difficult topic out, or when you just want to deepen the impact that any other of your pieces may have, you can work on decreasing the distance between the reader and the subject.

Here are some simple tactics you can use to approach both issues.

To increase the distance between yourself and your subject:

  1. Consider writing in the third person.  This simple technique allows you to step outside yourself a little bit, and sometimes that's just enough to do what you need to do.
  2. Consider using imagery to buffer the emotional violence from yourself.  Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl" is an excellent example of imagery used to mitigate violence as Ozick consistently uses images of flowers and butterflies to soften the horror of a Nazi concentration camp while still endowing it with a sense of revulsion at the jarring disparity of the metaphor and image.
  3. Consider telling.  Yes, when you get to a point that you want to share your story, you will want to flesh out your story and do more showing than telling.  But when you are first setting out the rough outlines, sometimes telling is a big enough step.  Later, when you feel safer, you can go back and show.
Once you've gotten through the initial telling, you can now decrease the distance between the topic and the reader.  You may feel that this step is not necessary, but, especially if you are trying to help others gain understanding and empathy toward a situation or topic that may not be common.  Decreasing psychological distance helps the reader get into the head of the character and gain vicarious experience and understanding.

These first techniques are the most common in decreasing psychological distance:
  1. Write in the first person.
  2. Write in the present tense.
  3. Write in the moment.  Use dialogue and don't gloss over actions.
  4. Describe the physical sensations of the feelings your character has (shortness of breath, sweaty palms, etc.).
These last techniques are ones I find helpful:
  1. Tap the common emotions.  Not everyone has faced your problem, but everyone has likely felt fear.  By describing your fear well and pairing that feeling with your problem, you can open the gate for empathy between your reader and yourself.
  2. Make the world smaller.  While there may be many links to other topics, narrowing the field will help the reader focus on that moment.
  3. Use your flashbacks well.  Flashbacks, like metaphor, link two things that don't necessarily go together. You can use that link to increase the emotional impact of an event by pairing it with another similar or more significant one from another point in time.
Best wishes on your writing!

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