Friday, October 10, 2014


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!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Life Is Beautiful

Recently, I've heard a bunch of people start talking about how their story is "supposed" to go, and I want to examine that idea and how it relates to the life writer.

First off, while many people would say that there's no "supposed to" in writing, I would say that it depends.  Sometimes there is indeed a way a story should be written.  Such times include:

  • Writing in a recognized format: an editorial, essay, or poem.
  • Writing to a specific genre:  mystery, romance, bildungs roman.
  • Writing for a specific audience:  children, specialized groups.
In these cases, clear expectations for the form exist.  A story meant for these purposes most likely needs to conform to those expectations in order to achieve the success the author likely hopes for.

But most of us are writing for our families.  What then?  Why do so many of us labor on "supposed to"?

In my mind, the answer to that question revolves around a few basic ideas, all of which focus on our own expectations:
  1. We have an expectation of what our audience (family, friends, etc.) can handle.  We often try to keep back information not only out of fear of hurting someone but also out of fear of coloring their perceptions of the imperfect people that we commonly have known.
    1. PRO:  Yes, you can't take it back once it's out, so a little caution here can prevent a lot of heartache.
    2. CON:  The struggles of the past often validate and instruct those with similar experiences.  Not sharing or whitewashing may, on the lower end of consequence, merely appear like white lies, while at the higher level of consequence, may seem to invalidate those who struggled with the same situation or person.
  2. We have expectations of how a story should go.
    1. PRO:  Looking at other successful works can greatly enhance the readability and understandability of your story.  We are programmed to recognize tropes, and fitting your story to a trope makes it more accessible to others.  Similarly, looking at the style of others may help you tell your story in a more entrancing way.  Using other works as a guide can help you develop a depth and skill in your writing to which little else can compare.
    2. CON:  We miss the possibilities of our own stories and underestimate their value.  We have a tendency to push a story into one trope instead of considering how it might be others.  Does the grappling with your faith make a tragedy as faith is lost or an unsolved mystery that still continues?  Is the story of your marriage a happily ever after romance that ends at the wedding or an adventure that continues into unknown territory?  Pigeonholing your story deprives you of the richness of evaluating your real experiences for the depth and complexity they may have.
  3. We have expectations for how our life should work.
    1. PRO:  We have goals, and that keeps us pushing forward in life.  We often write our stories in light of these goals, which often provide the conflict and the impetus for action.
    2. CON:  We tend to ignore parts of the story that we didn't see coming, that we feel didn't turn out as well as could be, or that we don't think should have happened.  As I love to say in science, the most telling data is that data that doesn't come out as expected.  How else would we have come to understand gravity, super conductors, plastics, or antibiotics? All of these things existed before (or the laws that create them existed), but none of them were harnessed until someone paid attention to something that seemingly made no sense.  Those ways that life twists in unexpected directions may make the most interesting and most telling life stories.