Friday, April 11, 2014

Writing about Tough Topics: When It Gets Personal in Your Story, How Do You Keep Going?

Michael, a writer from the New England area, took my workshop on book-structuring techniques last year.  He recently emailed me about his memoir-in-progress and asked a very good question. 

Did I have any tips on writing about very serious topics?  Such as abuse, combat, or any subject that makes the writer go back to memories of past pain and trauma.

Memoir writers face this question head-on.  But novelists may also draw from real-life experiences, processed into fictional scenes as they draft their manuscript:  one student in my classes is writing about a drowning in her novel that pulls memories and senses from her brother's death at a young age.  Another has crafted an excellent main character based on her mother's difficult life.

What about nonfiction writers?  Because nonfiction now includes stories--most nonfiction books today are humanized by illustrations of the theories and methods--most deal with this question as well. 

If the body is somatic, translating emotion into cellular experiences, we will process trauma as we write.  Writing about a business bankruptcy during the 1980s recession made me literally ill.  But the writing was wonderful catharsis, bringing deep healing, as well as being an unexpected gift to readers who felt shame at their own financial failures.

Nevertheless, it can be tough going. 

A sincere writer like Michael, who wants to bring both light and dark into his or her work, must deal with this tangle of emotions and memories.  But how?

Writing Two Kinds of Truth
As we write, two kinds of truth emerge.  Each will have a different effect on our psyche.  Each of us may tend to include or ignore one of these kinds of truth whenever trauma is connected with it.

As a newspaper writer for years, I was comfortable with factual truth.  The who, what, when, where of any situation seemed easy to write.  Emotional truth, or the meaning behind the facts, was harder.  Luckily, journalists weren't required to go there.  But when I began writing books, this "inner story" formed a base for the facts, and I had to learn to include it. 

Memory will contain both, but we may not access both.  And we wonder what's really truth, perhaps, since memory of facts vary from person to person, as does emotional take-away.

We may recall the facts of a situation and block the emotional meaning for many years; or the reverse.  It really depends on our wiring.  And how much processing is needed.  A great discussion of this duality is in Patricia Hampl's I Could Tell You Stories, one of my favorite books on the process of writing memories, whether true or fictionalized. 
For me, the emotional effect of my business failure, the shame and fear and anger of it, was very easy to recall.  The facts were harder.  Others may write baldly about the loss of a parent, but take months or longer to get to the meaning, how this loss changed them. 

Which are you? 

Inner story writers are comfortable processing the feelings and inner workings of a trauma; they may have gone through years of therapy and forgiven those who harmed them, or themselves if they caused harm.  Their writing will often emerge more ethereal or conceptual.  Talking "about" the past experience, and its effects now, is easier than actually describing what happened.  Readers may not track the details of the event with this kind of writing.   

Outer story writers have good reporter skills:  they know the facts.  They write dramatically, almost like a news report, but while readers can follow the specifics, they often note a feeling of emotional distance, as if the writer is not present in the room.  

Merging the Two Stories
An effective next step is to merge the two stories, the two kinds of truth, to provide both healing for the writer and a full experience for the reader.  But how exactly is this done?

We're fortunate that writing as a healing element has been studied for decades.  Researchers on the therapeutic effect of writing include James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal and many other books, and Louise DeSalvo, author of Writing as a Way of Healing.

DeSalvo states that three elements, when included in the process of writing about trauma, create a kind of alchemy that transforms both writer and reader:

1.  the outer facts--including sensory details--of what happened
2.  how you felt or thought about it when it happened
3.  how you feel or think about it now, and what difference you notice in yourself

In classes, I've taught these three elements as stepping-stones into safely writing about trauma.  Writers choose one stepping-stone to enter their story.  Maybe they write first about how different they are now, then ease into telling the details of what happened in the past.  Another might start with the facts then learn to expand into meaning--how am I different?  what did I feel then?  how can I show that on the page?

When prompted to include all three elements, the writing takes a leap up in quality and effectiveness. 

Pennebaker and other researchers have documented this:  improvement in physical symptoms, including immune system function, is not uncommon.

However Long It Takes--Cultivating Compassion for Self
This synergy on the page takes time.   I've been working with one writer for three years; he suffered terrible abuse as a child and has used the "facts" approach until the past few months, when he began to write about the trauma's effect on his life.  I took longer--almost seven years--to move from writing just the meaning to including the facts about my business failure. 

Compassion comes when we realize there is no rush. 

I leaned on good therapists, good friends.  I got help.  I began letting myself write "outside the story" on days when I had no stomach for writing the tough stuff. I wrote about what happened a year later or a month prior.  I wrote about the main colors in my office, the foods I loved to eat back then, my good times.  It helped take the pressure off, helped me keep writing. 

I used morning pages, a technique from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way  to pour forth stream-of-consciousness writing every day and peel back the layers of resistance to my own story. 

Bless this resistance, if you can.  Recognize it as a natural inner gatekeeper that is protecting you from the harm of detoxing too quickly.  Allow yourself the time you need, and get the help you need.  The story will wait for you.