Writing what matters
If you write, you’ve doubtless heard the old adage “write what you know”. It is one of the most solid pieces of advice in writing that you will get; however, it is also the single most misunderstood and misinterpreted phrase. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean you should write about your life; it doesn’t mean you should limit your fiction to your own experience, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should shy away from topics or characters which are thoroughly different from your experience. “Write what you know” is about emotion. It’s about empathy and seeing other people’s point of view, yes, but it’s also about your emotions.
Stories are basically about emotions; yes, they often have intelligent plots and raise subversive questions, but in the end, they make most of their points emotionally, because that is the way they have the most impact. If you want to make sure your stories impact your reader, you are going to have to delve in your deepest emotions, the ones that matter most to you, the ones that are at the core of your very being. That usually means confronting the things that are difficult for you to look at and deal with in your life, with the things that you’ve kept hidden at the bottom of yourself forever. Most of the time, though not always, this means tackling bad experiences and their aftermath, and though it’s never easy, it’s always liberating and leads to truly compelling writing.
Getting in touch with your emotions
So how do you know what to write about? How do you know what truly matters to you? Well, that’s simple, and it’s not. It’s simple, because you know. Deep down, you know what makes you emotional, what makes you angry beyond all reason, what makes you go off board; if it makes you more emotional or angry than most people around you, then it’s something that truly matters to you and you alone, and you know you’ve touched one of your chords. The trick is to find a calm moment to try and identify these feelings, to look back at your behavior and see what provoked it, to see what it is exactly in your life, and in your experience that compares to whatever it was that triggered the emotion, and you’ll have something that truly matters to you. What it really takes is introspection. Most people will spend a lot of their life running from their strongest emotions, their deepest hurt, afraid that they are not able to face them. Truly looking at oneself in the mirror is not for the faint of heart; but then again, neither is writing. Besides, true introspection is one of the essentials you must master to learn empathy and character creation. So why do most people run from these feelings? The answer is simple: fear.
Defeating fear and self-censorship
The main reason that most people hesitate to write what is truly preoccupying to them is that they are afraid. One of the first things they are afraid of is that if they put the feelings into words, it makes them real. This fear is one of the hardest to deal with, because it is often subconscious. It’s irrational, too; the fact that you have these feelings makes them real, not the fact that you write them down or talk about them. When you do write about them, you finally allow yourself to start making peace with those feelings; it doesn’t make them more or less real, but it does make you more likely to accept them, and yourself, in the process.
Another common fear is what others will think if they find out that this is what you have in your heart. This one is both easier and harder to deal with than the other types of fear. The truth is, no matter what you write, your friends and family will look at your stories and try to find all sorts of reflections of your life in them. They will interpret and analyze and wonder, and the only thing you can do to prevent them from doing it is not write at all. You’ll be surprised at the number of things they think you’ve taken from your life, or the characters they think you’ve modeled after them. So, if they’re going to do it anyway, why not write down the things that really matter to you? Your answer will be the same then as it has always been: it’s fiction!
There is also a more insidious fear, which is that of what lies afterwards when you finally let go of these feelings. Sometimes, we feel so bad for so long that it’s hard to imagine that there is life beyond the hurt, and you may be afraid that if you let go of the hurt, you will have nothing left of who you are. Well, that simply isn’t true. While it is true that some experiences leave us changed forever, you are still someone after they’ve happened, if maybe not exactly the same person that you were before. But isn’t it possible that this new person that you are is bigger, stronger and better for having been through those experiences?
These experiences, these feelings, are part of who you are. Learning to embrace and accept them is essential to learn to embrace and accept yourself. You will never be at your creative best as long as you do not do this. Besides, you might as well; you’re stuck with you for the rest of your life, so why not be happy?
Writing to get through a bad experience
Some things happen in life that are truly horrible, make no sense, and are completely unfair. That’s life, and it happens to everyone, to varying degrees. These things can sometimes cause great wounds in the mind and spirit, wounds that we have to learn to heal because though sometimes time helps, it doesn’t always do the trick all by itself. Many things can help, and writing is one of them. Besides which, writing about a bad experience doesn’t just help you, but it can help others, too, who have gone through similar experiences. After all, statistically speaking, if it’s happened to you, chances are high that it’s happened to many other people in different ways.
How to make writing truly therapeutic
There are many ways to write about things that make us feel emotional, about things that have really hurt us in our lives; one way heals, and one way keeps the wound open and makes it fester. First of all, when something bad happens, give yourself a little time to grieve before you write about it. It’s no use if the wound is too fresh; you need to let the dust settle first. Second, although our first impulse is going to be writing about what happened, that is a mistake. Writing about the events only bring them to memory, and makes us go through them again; you can end up making things worse than they were this way. What you have left from those events, what you have to deal with now, is the emotional aftermath; that is what you need to write about, because that is what you need to make sense of. What is done is done, and what has happened has happened, and it’s over now; but you still carry the wounds of that time, and those are what you need to tend to.
Acceptance is a hard stage to reach, because we need to face our anger and pain. It’s also hard because it can feel like because we finally accept what happened, it makes it ok. Well, it doesn’t. What happened was wrong, but it happened, and no amount of anger can change that. That is what you need to accept. It happened. Writing out the events is tempting, but mostly it stirs up anger and pain, and it brings us backwards in the grieving process. If this happens, try to find a way to keep yourself grounded in the present. Talk to a trusted loved one. Step away from your writing for a while. Take a bath. Eat some cake. And before you tackle your writing again, ask yourself if you’re really writing about the emotional aftermath, or if you’re rehashing what happened and trying to make sense of it. Remember: it might never make sense because life simply doesn’t make sense sometimes, and there’s no use dwelling on it.
So if you’re not supposed to re-live the events, how do you write about your emotions, then?
Use your characters
I’ve found that the best way to write about pain and hurt is through your characters. Your characters are usually strong and resilient; they have reserves of strength that make them able to get through the difficulties of the plot. They are the best way you can deal with your pain; give it to them. Give them the things that went wrong in your life, the things you are hoping to get through. Break them, and then make them go through the story. They may be able to say the things you can’t; they will certainly have the flaws you don’t like in yourself because of what happened. But in writing them through your story, you will also discover the strength they have because of what happened. How it improved their character and made them stronger, greater, kinder, more generous and altruistic. When you see how loved they can be despite their flaws and their wounds, when you see how they took what life dealt to them and used it to become better people, you will realize that you can do the same as well; in fact, you probably have done the same, since you are able to write these characters! By taking them through the emotional journey they need to reach acceptance, you can get there yourself, and the best part about being a writer is you can do it as many times, with as many characters and as many different situations as you need.