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Writing Life: Write What You “NOOOooo!”

June 5, 2010

Sometimes, for all our planning and good intentions and even plentiful inspiration, the writing doesn’t get done, because we’re frankly too battered by the rest of life.  Our goal some days is simply getting from sunrise to sunset without making headlines involving public nudity, violence, and/or screaming.  We all have those days.  Sometimes we have two or three or sixty of them in a row.

Have you considered, though, that the times when you’re too devastated, stressed, humiliated or grieving to write may be some of the best times to plant yourself in a chair and crank out your daily 500?  If you doubt this, you may want to hop back to 1990 and talk with a clinically depressed and unemployed single mom named Jo, whose mother was dying of multiple sclerosis.

If you’re a savvy writer, when life hands you lemons, you make bestsellers.  Writing when you’re stressed is not only therapeutic, but it can also be some of your sharpest work if you approach it correctly.  Here are three suggestions for getting your fear, embarrassment, rage, self-doubt, and despair out of your brain and onto the page in a way that may just give you something to be happy about later down the road.

Honesty.

The first and most important rule when writing about the Bad Stuff is this: write about what’s really bothering you, not what you think ought to be bothering you.  Don’t write about oil spills and animal cruelty and political corruption just because those are the things you most wish you could fix in the world.  As they say in acting, make the strong choice; make the dangerous choice. Not dangerous to the world; dangerous to you.

How do you know when you’ve picked the right topic?  Because it will make you so miserable even to think about that you’ll feel it in your gut.  Literally.  It’s the one topic that has the power to put you off your breakfast in half a second flat.  How is this a good thing?  Because behind that initial revulsion is a window into a problem that you, better than anyone, will be able to stab in the heart.

It’s possible that a Big Issue does create this kind of visceral reaction in you.  If so, go for it.  But consider probing more deeply.  Perhaps it’s something smaller: the subtle betrayal you just endured at a party.  Your dismay at finding hair on your back.  Your reptilian downstairs neighbors’ refusal to understand the sleep needs of humans.  Don’t worry if it’s something you think others won’t care about.  If it’s keeping you up nights, you can make someone else care.

I’ll step up to the plate and give my current example: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  For me, SIDS is nothing remotely resembling a public service announcement.  For me it is the intimate, daily, helpless, sublimated horror that only a first-time mother of a five-month-old can feel.  Something so shattering for me to imagine that just reading a magazine article on the subject can make my palms damp.  Do you have something like that?

Specificity.

The second key to writing with power about your pain is specificity.  A generic mention of a dead child is enough to make a new mother sweat, for certain.  But what about the 80-year-old bachelor who chases kids off his lawn?  Can you reach him, too?  Is it worth it to try?  If so, the devil is in the details.

Ask yourself, “What is it about this experience/concept/memory that makes me the most uncomfortable?”  Play it through in your head.  Make mental (or physical) note of the details that you flinch away from in horror when they occur to you.  Some examples.

Instead of: “The young boy’s legs were shattered.”  George R. R. Martin in A Game of Thrones writes: “Under the blanket, his legs bent in ways that made Jon sick.”

Instead of:  “The room was suddenly full of noisy children.”  Aldous Huxley in Brave New World writes: “Squealing and chattering, they entered.  In a moment, it seemed, the ward was maggoty with them.”

My favorite example of all, though, comes from Stephen King’s Misery, and sadly I don’t have a copy at hand.  The scene is the infamous amputation of Paul Sheldon’s foot, and it has lingered in my mind for the fifteen years since I last read it.  What makes me remember the scene is not the gore and horror of it, but the grief.  As Annie Wilkes is carrying Sheldon’s foot away, he catches a glimpse of the scar on the sole that came from stepping on a piece of broken glass at the beach when he was a child.  With that one detail, King elevates a moment of slasher-movie violence into something intensely personal that has stuck with me for a decade and a half.

Of course, you can discover these kinds of details without personal experience — I have reason to believe Stephen King has never endured an amputation — but it’s a lot easier if you’ve been there.

Restraint.

This is the hardest one, and without a good writing group you may never know for sure if you’ve accomplished it.  But here’s an example.  Think of two scenes from movies or television: one in which the character is openly weeping, and the other in which the character is fighting tears.  Which scene is most likely to make your own eyes a little misty?  Chances are, the scene where the character is crying much less than he ought to be is the one that will make you go the additional distance for him.  If you want to make your readers feel your rage, your grief, or your mortification, it helps to make them think it was their idea.

Many powerful moments in fiction are ruined by overkill.  The line between drama and melodrama is wherever your audience chooses to draw it, but you  may want to err on the side of caution.  There’s something classy about minimalism, and that goes for scenes of heartbreak and humiliation as well.  This is why you need to zero in on the most potent details.  You only get so many words before your reader sees what you’re doing and armors himself against it, and so those few words really need to pack a sucker punch.

Write devastating scenes as though you’re performing surgery.  Get in, slice with precision, and get out.  It may feel abrupt to you, but if you’ve done your job right, your reader will take all the time he needs to soak up what you’ve done.  He’ll put the book down in his lap and stare blankly at the wall for a minute.  He may even take a little walk to clear his head.  (We can dream, can’t we?)

Keeping these three principles in mind, it may be possible for you to take your very reason for not writing and turn it into some of the best writing you’ve ever done.  You may not have a full-fledged story in mind to go with your catharsic scene, but the exercise keeps your creative muscles limber until you’re in a better mood.  I’d be willing to bet, too, that the scene finds its way into a story months or years down the road, and that it raises that story to an entirely new level.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2010 12:12 pm

    Nice post on putting the “daily grind” in perspective. Reminded me of the season ending of the mystery-drama Castle where Beckett had to keep a stiff face while Castle walked off to spend the summer with another woman.

  2. Justin Whitney permalink
    June 5, 2010 3:56 pm

    Wow, you have no idea just how perfect your timing is with this post. Thank you!!

    One note about going to the edge of emotion and not a step beyond… When I was singing I had the privilege of working with a nationally renowned choral director. He would often tell us to step up to the edge of the precipice, then allow the audience to go the rest of the way. In other words, no tears. Our job was to feel the music so deeply that we wanted to cry, then hold it there. Crying was the job of our audience.

  3. June 7, 2010 1:24 pm

    Restraint. Definitely. It can be really hard to do though. From my experience with roleplaying online. Even though I know the person I’m rping with gets all the subtext as well as I do, there’s this urge to have the characters talk it out. Even though it’s better — more emotional, more fun — not to. You feel _smart_ when you get underlying emotions and subtext.

    And a lot of us geeks like letting people know how smart we are. Which applies a little more to the roleplaying situation than a writerly one.

    But from the writer’s perspective, you have to resist the urge of pointing and saying ‘Look! Look what I did there!’

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