One of the most common questions I get asked by other writers is how to write about things that are hard to write about. Topics like past trauma or difficult family relationships or things about which we’re embarrassed.
In this video, I talk about how I trick myself into doing it, and also about why it’s important we write about these topics that evoke so much fear. There’s so much more I wanted to say on this topic, and I feel like I’ve skimmed the surface, but I can revisit it another time.
Click below to view the video on YouTube or keep reading for the transcript.
WRITING ABOUT HARD STUFF
Good afternoon or morning or evening or whatever time it is, wherever you are in the world. Today I’m going to talk about writing about
the hard stuff. And there is stuff that’s hard to write about, whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, memoir, personal essays, or even just a blog post – sometimes, they’re
the hardest of all.
Things can be hard to write about because they take us to places that are deeply personal or private. Sometimes, it’s writing about things that are quite traumatic and bring back painful memories. Sometimes it’s writing things we’re embarrassed about, or ashamed of. Times when we’ve failed, for example. Regrets we have.
Sometimes things are hard to write about because they involve people we love who perhaps don’t want to be written about. Or about people we don’t want to hurt, but
who may be hurt if we write the truth about something that happened that involved them and we feel like we’re being disloyal to them.
So things can be hard to write about for a number of reasons. And not just real life events but fiction, too.
I’ve written about difficult stuff on my blog and I’ve written personal essays, and I’ve written child abuse in my novels, but, and this will sound ridiculous to some, far and away, the hardest scenes I’ve ever written were the fictional sex scenes in my second novel. Because for me, that’s when I felt most exposed, like I was writing porn or something.
I actually had to leave home and go to my daughter’s and close the door, and psyche myself into it, telling myself that I didn’t have to show a soul if I didn’t want to. I could just file it away in the bowels of my computer, never to be read by anybody.
The thing is, once I started writing it, and the more I wrote it, the easier it got. And I actually had a lot of fun writing it.
So there are a million reasons to avoid writing about things that are hard to write about, in any genre of writing. But I will say this: once you’ve done it, you won’t regret it.
And I’ll also say this: I think it’s important that we do write about these things.
As writers, it’s part of our job description. To be honest in our writing. To dig with our pen, to write to the very core of what makes us human. To go where others fear to go. Anyone can write about pleasant things. But it takes courage to be honest, to dig deep, get to the heart, the core of a scene. To get to the truth. And being a writer means being as truthful as you can. And that takes courage.
If you’re writing memoir, people don’t just want to know about the nice times and the happy days. They want to read about the tough times, the sad times, too. That’s what people will relate to.
Those non-instagrammable moments, the stuff people pretend didn’t happen, the secrets they try to keep hidden. They’re the life changing moments, the significant events, those secrets we try to keep. And they are often the things that move your reader, that reach them. They may have had a similar experience themselves, and this might be the first time they’re reading something they relate to, and finally
they don’t feel so alone anymore. And that’s what you want to do for your reader.
How many times have you picked up a book and read and thought, Wow! Somebody else knows how I feel. And you felt a connection to another, a character or an author because of what they’d written. And you felt understood. Because why else do we write? So we can understand ourselves, and understand other people. And so the reader can feel understood too.
And there’s another important reason for writing these moments down: It’s important for ourselves.
If we’ve had an experience that’s hard to write about it, there’s a reason for that. And if we try to keep it hidden and keep it a secret, it holds a power over us. It starts to occupy a bigger part of our brain and mind than it deserves, and that affects our life. But once we’ve put it in black and white on a page, it helps our brains process it, and there is a neurophysiological basis for this, which I won’t go into here, except to say that writing about it, putting it into words, into black and white letters on a page, shifts it from that really emotional part of the brain to another part of the brain that’s more rational, more clinical, less emotional, more distant. And if we can do that, we can we see these events more rationally, think of them like we think of all our other memories, that’s an incredibly powerful therapeutic tool we have literally at our fingertips.
So, when we first write something on a page it might feel scary, make our hearts thump and our breath come faster as we write. But once we’ve done it, that’s an accomplishment, in finishing it, in getting it onto the page, for having the courage to go there and be honest.
And when we re-read those words in black and white on the screen, that really emotional place becomes less scary. It loses a lot of that initial emotion and fear, just from writing it down. And each time we reread those words, each time we edit them, more of that fear and emotion dissipates, and we begin to see the event more distantly, more rationally.
I speak from experience here, as I’ve written about difficult periods of my life and now when I re-read those pieces I feel like I’m reading about something I saw when I walked the dogs or what I ate for breakfast. It no longer gives me palpitations.
So writing those traumatic or embarrassing events down, takes away the power they held over you. But all that emotion is still there on the page, in all the details you recorded, so your reader will feel it.
So it’s really important to be able to write into difficult places, and I think as writers this is part of what we must do. Have the courage to go there and have the courage to write about things that other people are too frightened to write about. As Elizabeth Gilbert said: ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’ That’s the definition of courage.
Now there are a couple of tricks I use when I’m writing about things I’m too scared to write about. My favourite, and I use this all the time, it’s to tell myself that no one else is going to read it. And it’s actually true because I’m the one in control of who I show my work to. So I can keep it hidden in my computer somewhere, and unless someone hacks into my computer and holds me to ransom, over my titillating sex scene.
The point is, you don’t have to show anyone. You can delete it or hide, but you probably won’t want to.
But telling yourself no one is going to see it, is actually very liberating. It means, you can write whatever you like. All the stuff you don’t want anyone to know about. All your secrets, your fantasies, your dreams. All those thoughts you don’t want to necessarily admit to thinking. So leave the house if you want, get in a little metaphorical cocoon, make sure no one can read over your shoulder, and type whatever it is that you’re too embarrassed to show anyone. And I bet it will be really good.
If you’re still embarrassed or can’t face it straight away, don’t delete it, just put it away until you’re ready to return to it.
Another trick I use is to write it in third person, as if I’m writing about someone else. This is where fiction works well, even if it’s memoir or your own personal experience.
I often use the prompt: One day, somebody should tell the story of … And off I go. I find that 3rd person distance, that almost all-knowing omniscience, is helpful, at least in the early stages, before I can put it in first person.
Sometimes, I procrastinate when I have to write a scene I don’t want to write. I’ll procrastinate, even in the writing, I’ll circle around it for a while, describing the setting, all the backstory. Sometimes, I don’t even realise I’m avoiding writing it.
Once I do realise, that’s when I just get in my cocoon and say, Just do it, Louise. Just dive in. Remember no one has to see it.
So there are some ways to trick yourself into writing about things you’d rather not write about. I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s scary and that it’s fear of embarrassing ourselves, a fear of being judged by others that’s holding us back. And that’s what we have to overcome.
Sometimes there’s nothing else for it other than saying, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I have to do this and if they really don’t like it they can bugger off.
The big thing to remember is that the more honest we can be in our writing, the better our writing will be. People smell inauthenticity a mile off.
And honest writing is good writing. The more honest you can be, the more it will speak to your reader, because basically all of us humans, we are all the same. We all have the same needs and desires, the same feelings. What’s important to you, will more than likely be important to your reader. If you feel it, your reader will likely feel it, too. And that’s the important thing. That’s what good writing is, it communicates between people, and bonds us, and being honest is the way to do that.
So I’ll end this little lesson there and I look forward to seeing you again another time, with another writing tip. If you have anything that you’d like me to answer or to talk about, please feel free to write it in the comments or message me
privately and I’ll see what I can do.
Okay, until we meet again.