A writer wrote to me recently with a really great question. She wants to write a story that draws from a difficult chapter in her life, but wonders if the possible closure is worth the tough memories and negative emotions it will stir up.
In her own words:
I have an idea for a story that I would like to write. However, the story draws on my experiences from a rough time in my past, and I anticipate it could be emotionally draining for me to write this story. But I also feel and perhaps hope that writing about this could help me find some closure for some stuff. Do you advise writing a story that would unleash some tough memories and negative emotions if the end product could be a great novel?
I’ve made no secret about the fact that I wrote the latter part of Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe and all of Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp while going through the most difficult period of my life. I’ve blogged previously about how to keep writing when the s*** hits the fan, but there’s another component to powering through too, about leaning into those difficult feelings and channeling them into your work.
Naturally, twelve-year-old Jacob Wonderbar does not go through a divorce or anything remotely comparable to anything I experienced considering he hasn’t even had his first kiss yet, and he doesn’t become a depressed malcontent (nor, thankfully did I).
But as I was writing I nevertheless poured many of the emotions I was feeling into the novel in ways where only I really know they’re there. (Well. You know too now that you’re reading this).
There’s a moment in Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp where Jacob goes back in time and sees himself, two years younger, just after his father had moved away from home never to be seen again. Twelve-year-old Jacob is struck by how incredibly sad his younger self looks, and he wants to go reassure him that things will get better and that he has a lot to look forward to.
There was a lot of me in that scene. Even in the course of writing a wacky space adventure, I was still channeling myself into the novel. We all do, whether we’re writing precisely about what we’ve gone through or not.
I think there is incredible power in revisiting the painful moments in our past and getting them onto paper, some way, somehow. When I was going through my divorce everyone under the sun encouraged me to keep a journal to get my thoughts out, and I resisted for the longest time. I was spending all of my free time writing Jacob Wonderbar, the last thing I wanted to do was write still more on top of that.
But when I finally took it up for a brief time I was struck by how powerful it is. There’s just something about getting those thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper that clarifies, expels, soothes, and calms.
There’s some science to this too. There are scientists out there who see some benefit in the painful bout of mind-spinning that can follow a traumatic event:
Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.
Writing is a way of channeling and focusing this rumination in the way that organizes your complex thoughts and channels them into order and a narrative. By taking these feelings and forcing them to make sense on the page, we are also identifying, describing, and understanding the things that are causing us pain.
Now, that’s not to say that diving into a dark pool doesn’t have its consequences, and if you feel yourself getting pulled under you absolutely need to reach for a life preserver or get out of the pool.
But I tend to think that this is one of the most important reasons to write. No matter what genre we’re writing in, whether we’re writing raw memoir or wacky kids adventures, we’re ultimately trying to make sense of the world and of ourselves.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: La Bohémienne endormie by Henri Rousseau
Bryan Russell says
maine character says
Exactly so. Eric Clapton has said, "Songwriting is my therapy," and we all saw how he turned tragedy into a song that reached many.
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er- fraught heart and bids it break.
Absolutely – and I think it is just as you say, that the catharsis doesn't even have to be that you are experiencing the same situations or emotions as those in your novel. I've always felt that emotionally-charged scenes were the easiest to write, and I think this is partly because it provides an outlet for my own emotional energy, even if the emotions themselves are not a direct match. Those emotionally-charged scenes are some of my most satisfying and best work.
Amen, brother! As a therapist, I often encourage the kiddos I work with to write. I do get resistance (cause that sounds like more homework), but I'm a true believer in the process and the healing that can go a long with it.
Also, there are studies that show that people who write out their "stuff" are often healthier (mental or otherwise) for it.
D.G. Hudson says
Writing out the emotions can be like telling a friend who doesn't judge. You've stated the best advice I know, outside of paying a therapist.
Keep in mind, you don't have to use the writing, it can be discarded.
Margo Rowder says
Lovely post, Nathan. Fully agreed. Thanks again for sharing. 🙂
Humpty Dumpty says
Writing is most definitely a way to let out bottled-up emotions to aid in the healing process. It's a way of dealing with grief and trauma so it doesn't eat away at our souls.
For your reader Nathan…
By all means you should write about the difficult period in your life, and yes, it will be painful some of the time. I know because I have done it. Three years ago I wrote a book that was part-memoir. It detailed the years I have lived in Mexico and part of my life story involved the death of my first child. Should I include this I wondered… how could I not I concluded. I spent a l-o-n-g time on the scene and felt "cleansed" when I had finished. When the book got published many people commented on how it had touched them. But one woman actually came to where I work and with tears running down her face, she told me that I had written her exact thoughts. She said that when her child died she couldn't form a cohesive picture of her grief, let alone articulate it. I never saw her again but knowing that my book helped her in this way was so satisfying. Sorry to be so long-winded but I urge you – go the whole way with your story.
Kristin Laughtin says
I think writing is all about making people feel and think–both the reader and the writer. It's about making the reader feel something about a situation they've never experienced, and that requires tapping into those emotions that are human and universal. We might not all know what it's like to get a divorce, but we all know sadness. We can all connect to feelings of fear and anxiety and abandonment. Delving in and applying those emotions to fictional situations will make them read all the more real, helping the reader connect more powerfully to the story.
I find that this kind of writing–channeling emotions into plot points that aren't exact mirrors of my own experience–make for better catharsis as well. I like genre fiction because it doesn't present exact copies of our world; that makes the parallels I do find all the more meaningful. Similarly, channeling my emotions about a situation I've experienced into a different fictional scenario provides me enough distance to analyze and work through those emotions without being so different that they are no longer applicable.
P.S. I hope things have gotten/continue to get better for you.
Neil Larkins says
Writing as Catharsis: It's the ONLY way I can write…and it drives me freakin' nuts.
Shell Flower says
Totally. It's what gets me through the day. I wrote a dystopian novel based on my evil corporate job and it helped me get up and go to work. Delving into writing about deeper emotional issues might be tough, but it's writing what you know and it may end up the best writing you ever do. If not, it's still a way to process that stuff, so it's a win/win sitch, either way.
Mirka Breen says
Writers put themselves into their stories one way or another. We are no different from other artists.
I'm glad Jacob helped Nathan in your time of need, and glad he didn't go through a divorce. Yet. He’s got so much other stuff to get done…
Vicki Orians says
I often tell people that if it wasn't for books – reading and writing – I would be a depressed, emotional mess. I find that writing helps me to sort through my thoughts and emotions and helps bring me out on the other side. It's so therapeutic!
Other Lisa says
Love this post, especially the musings on the possible advantages of depression — I really do think this is true, that situational depression is trying to get us to look at the "why's" in our life — and that our society's headlong rush to medicate ourselves out of these moods really is counterproductive in the long run.
Thanks for this post, Nathan!
My protag. battles with anger and depression.
I battle with depression (which thank God is much improved.)
And anger is one factor in depression.
I repress my anger. My protag does, too, I guess, because his anger explodes from time to time. Mine doesn't explode–not as dramatically as his, anyway.
What I'm saying is, I think my WIP has been helpful for me in dealing with this stuff. My protag is like a support group!
verification: 45 andVDoi
Sounds like the beginning of a novel! [You figure it out!]
Heidi C. Vlach says
I've read that after a traumatic event, it can be theraputic to relive the event in a controlled way. PTSD victims sometimes find violent video games helpful, because they can reenact gunfire and explosions in a more distanced, fictional way. Writing about a traumatic event and refining it into a story? Sounds like it might fit the bill, too.
Neil Vogler says
The pen is mightier than the therapist.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. You brought up some strong points and some food for thought.
Thanks for sharing this Nathan. It's hard to be honest about difficult emotions and I think the catharsis of writing is underestimated.
Kat Sheridan says
If you check my timeline on Facebook you'll find a quote in my banner from Lisa Brackmann, aka OtherLisa. It's there because I think it's one of the wisest things I've ever heard, and it was just an offhand comment she made on another forum. It says "Take risks. Think deeply. Care about what you write. Have the ego and non-gendered balls to think that your work is important. Write what moves you, what entertains you and sometimes, what pains you. Dig into the places in yourself that hurt the most and see what you find. Sometimes that's where your book is hiding."
People say you should write what you know. I say you should write what scares you. And if what you know–what you've experienced–and what scares you are both the same, so much the better.
Big hug to you for being so open, and for getting through a rough period in life, and then coming out of it with so much grace!!
I love both of your books for many reasons, and now I have one more.
For me this was a very powerful post. I recommended it to my writing friends. I also gave the link to your blog and mentioned it in my own blog post today at vzbyram.com. I didn't quote from it or paraphrase anything, just said they could check it for themselves.
I think I will print out your post and read it a bunch more times. Thank you so much for opening up about this topic.
Oh Nathan, I am so sorry. I was out most of the last 14 months with cancer treatments and I never knew. Sometimes, like with a big illness or upset, you HAVE to take a break. It's a hard call.
What I have done in the past in is write it down and put it away (the hard stuff) for as long as it takes (including forever) to be able to process it (the s..t). Oddly, there comes a time when it may be possible.
Most of all, I was so happy for you in your marriage and my heartfelt wishes are also genuine in this loss. I wish you much life and love ahead.
There is a great post. It's profound and wise.
And I agree: I think this is one of the reasons we are drawn to be creative, it helps us heal.
I also think that emotional pain, as difficult as it is, leaves us a gift. It deepens us, and that comes out in our writing. I think you not only worked through something while writing the third Jacob book, but you made it a better book because of what you were going through and learning.
I hope you're going through a different time in your life now, though, and things are getting better! 🙂
Totally agree it's good "medicine" to write as therapy. Maybe not for 100% of people, but I would think most. It certainly helped me immensely as I went through a second grieving period since I hadn't "let it all out" the first time. Writing was the single most helpful thing I did to work through the issues involved in losing someone dear.
Peter Dudley says
Yup. Just make sure, if you're journaling it: keep it safe from those who might regret having sneaked a peek.
As to the "a little of what we're going through in all we write," I find that that's less and less true the more fiction I write. While there is inescapably some part of the author in everything ever written, the more I write the farther afield I range into emotions I've not yet necessarily worn, but which I can virtually try on through the characters in my stories.
So yes, writing can in one fashion help us make sense of the world we're struggling through. In another sense, however, it can help us try to make sense of the world others are struggling through.
And then there's…gosh, what's her name?
Kentish Janner says
Absolutely right, Nathan! I remember seeing your other posts touching on the pain of your divorce; it was clearly a hellish time for you and I'm so glad that you not only came through it but that writing the Jacob Wunderbar series helped.
I've had a similar dilemma with my own work-in-progress, and dealt with the topic in my blog (https://wendychristo.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/when-writing-what-you-know-is-what-youd.html.) Sometimes the guilt can be the hardest thing to get past – particularly if you're one of those people who were brought up to 'keep your problems to yourself.' In which case, thank god for writers who aren't afraid to bleed onto the page – because their works are often the gateway to cathartic release for readers too.