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