Okay, so that title is a *little* misleading. I’m not talking about actual blood. Unless you’re like me and tend to have random nosebleeds. Not good for your keyboard. No, the hurt I’m referring to is more emotional than physical. But how so?
You’ve no doubt come across the adage to ‘write what you know’ and likely the opposing viewpoint that this is limiting to your narrative.
However, I’m going to give you a different take on this. Write what you feel. Here’s some overshare for you: I use writing as a coping mechanism to keep my brain from talking me into killing myself. Sometimes that nastiness bleeds over into my writing. Characters suffer and suffer horribly. Mostly because they are a stand-in for myself. I won’t get into the psychology of it. My doctors are aware and even encourage it. Why?
Because it gets those emotions out of my system. It allows me some space from it to look at it rationally.
Now, I know most of you are going ‘what the flying frick Bran, this isn’t what I followed you for.’ But let me show you how this coping skill of mine can help you be a better writer; by showing you how to face those parts of yourself.
Writing What You Feel
A lot of ‘write what you know’ advice focuses on events, places, and people in your life. And yes there is a wealth of material to be gained from your experiences through life; material I highly suggest you mine and refine for use.
Writers who are intimately familiar with their subject produce more knowing, more confident and, as a result, stronger results. — Should We Write What We Know? BY BEN YAGODA
I have worked in construction most of my life. Though that might be difficult to tell from what I write. I don’t write about construction or anything associated with it. But, I do use some of my experiences from my former job. Working outside year round in all kinds of weather, dealing with sexual harassment, watching someone die in an accident, millionaire homeowners who wouldn’t piss on me if I was on fire. But more than that, I use the emotions those experiences elicited in my writing; the exhaustion, frustration, horror, and anger to name a few.
Instead of letting those feelings sit and fester, I wrote about them. I wrote about characters dealing with the same emotions even if it wasn’t the same situation.
When you write what you feel you are looking for those instances when something really spoke to or affected you. Something that made you passionate. You don’t have to just channel negative emotions, positive experiences are just as effective. Though it helps to have some sort of distance from the event, at least in my experience. You need to be able to look at it objectively and pull out the emotions without causing yourself undo stress.
Let me show you how. Once again this is probably oversharing, but being open and honest is the main part of this process.
Three Steps to Writing What You Feel
As William Trevor once said, “There is an element of autobiography in all fiction that is pain or distress, or pleasure, is based on the author’s own.” We all write ourselves into our characters. It’s only when we start fearing that inner editor that we can end up with flat prose, cardboard characters, and a boring plot. But sometimes that inner editor is our own fear at facing something painful.
I recently started a short story. It’s to be a freebie for my street team and features a pair of side characters from The Jeweled Dagger. It was supposed to have been a quick easy write up of around 5k words. I got about 1500 in and realized the main character Séraphin was grappling with something deeply personal to me. Something I myself have not fully dealt with; reconciling my religious upbringing with my sexuality and gender identity. All progress halted. I simply couldn’t write any further without having to face my own emotions on the matter.
Step One: Take time to explore the event/situation in your mind.
(Note: some experiences are too painful to explore alone, take care of yourself first and foremost).
I spent several days thinking about the situation. I know I have a deep faith in what I was taught growing up. I also know who I am now, but the shame, resentment, and trepidation don’t just go away overnight. Séraphin faces a similar conundrum. His faith in his country or the pull to fully be himself. This lead to the next step:
Step Two: Let yourself feel.
This is probably the hardest part of the exercise, allowing yourself to face full on those emotions and accept them. It is going to hurt. I’m not too proud to admit that tears have been involved. But this is where that fearsome inner editor can be challenged, that voice saying ‘no one wants to hear this’ can be silenced. Your experiences and emotions are valid and real and have every right to make it onto the page.
As for me, this led to the realization that I cannot have it both ways. Either I conform and shutter away a huge part of myself or I leave behind what I grew up believing and find a new way. I spent time analyzing my feelings and then looking at how it related to Séraphin’s situation. This gave me what I needed to continue writing, which is the next step.
Step Three: Write it all out.
Sometimes this can be as difficult as part two. Writing is letting go, it’s a form of bloodletting, a draining of our psyche rather than our veins. It is scary and painful and glorious all at once. Let it be. Let yourself cry while you write out the pain. Let yourself shiver in your chair while you detail the fear. Grin from ear to ear as you relate the joy. Most of all feel.
I let Seraphin have his doubt, shame, and resentment. I let him feel what I felt and reach his own decision (I’m not giving that away, sorry).
So now a short story that suddenly became too personal has helped me deal with my own insecurities and has that much more emotional punch now. Honestly, every single story you write should have at least something like this in it. If you’re not passionate about your story, no matter what genre or length, readers notice.
2 thoughts on “Blood on the Keyboard: Writing When it Hurts”
Thank you for this. I end up doing things like this a lot – there’s so many stories that I never end up finishing because I realize how personal they’re becoming to me and it takes so much effort to face what I’m writing about head-on. It’s nice to see that I’m not the only one and there is a way to get through it.
It may not be a fool proof way, but it’s certainly helped me and I hope it does the same for you. A lot of people don’t realize just how much we bare to the world in our stories.