A peculiar thing can happen when you think of yourself as a writer. It has nothing to do with whether you've been published, or whether you write fiction or non-fiction. It has nothing to do with what others think of your writing…if you've even shown it to anyone.
This peculiar thing will improve your writing by making it more real because, as writers say ad infinitum, you will be writing what you know. It's about writing the unpleasant, the unhappy, even the terrible experiences of your life, the benefits of which are at least two-fold.
Firstly, many who write their experiences are helped to actually feel their feelings and think their thoughts by the very process of writing them down. It helps a great deal to name feelings and express thoughts, thus making them more concrete than they might be when they're crazily spinning around in your head. This is part of what happens when you write in a journal or diary. The process also helps us become more objective about our struggles, thus equipping us to better deal with them.
Secondly, writing your experience enriches your writing, which is something of a positive Catch-22. In order for writing to be believable it has to be based in reality, and since you're the one writing it, it needs to be based in your reality. Yes, imagination has a huge part to play in writing fiction, but the words and characters must still feel real to the reader. It's your job to make them real, warts and all. In sickness and in health; for richer, for poorer; for better and for worse. Since your life and your readers' lives are real, you have to make your characters' lives real, too.
So, you need to pay attention to the details of your life, and here I'm talking about the sickness, poorer and worse parts. The peculiar part of this is that you need to pay attention while you are sick, broke, devastated, grieving. Remembering is useful to some extent, but if you're a writer it's a good idea to think as a writer while you're lying in bed feeling wretched with the flu or when you're crying your eyes out or storming around after being fired or dumped. I am not suggesting you do this all the time, because it's definitely important to be human during hard times -- feel your shock, sadness and anger; take care of the aches, pains and nausea. But when you can during those hard times, also think like a writer.
When you're sick with a cold, how do your nose and throat feel? Start with "itchy" and "scratchy," sure, but keep going. Does your throat hurt so much you almost weep every time you swallow? How about the sneezes and coughing that rock you over and over? Then there are the aches and pains of the flu or, certainly, of more serious diseases. Here's an example.
I was recently sick for several days with a strange flu-cold thing. I lay in bed and sat in a chair for days, feeling lousy enough to be there but not bad enough to use my scant energy to clean up, get dressed and drive to Emerg. I probably would have fainted long before I got there, anyway. The point is that on Day 3, after I'd been feeling sorry for myself in direct proportion to how wretched I felt, I remembered that I'm a writer. My brain was beginning to function again, even if my body wasn't. So I reached over for the pen and paper I always keep on my night table and started to brainstorm words and phrases to describe how I felt. The list is not brilliant or necessarily original, but it was a start:
- wrung-out dishcloth
- tired old flag, drooping in a windless sky
- uncooperative arms, refusing/unable to hold up a phone for more than two minutes
- how can bones ache? Mine surely do.
- Unbidden sighs and grunts escape her lips after just one short trip to the kitchen.
- open-mouthed breathing
- too limp and foggy to even listen to the radio
Writing those few words and phrases helped pull me forward a bit because writing helped me objectify my experience somewhat. I don't know if I'll ever use any of those descriptions, but making the list sharpened my dull mind slightly and also gave me the idea for this post, so it's already been useful twice. And I'll have the descriptions if I ever do need them for a scene in a book or story.
There's something grounding in immersing myself in a feeling and experience in order to translate it into words. Another example of using writing to deal with difficult experiences and, by extension, using the difficult experience to inform my writing, came several years ago when my step-son died. It was horrific and shocking. I seriously don't know how we got through. Only a few weeks after his death, I was closeted away in my room, unable to stand being around people, especially if they were happy or doing the ordinary things of daily life. Too raw, too exhausted on every level. As I lay there, aching and angry, the thought floated in that it might help me to write what I was feeling and thinking. Goodness knows I'd written enough journal entries through the years to know how helpful it can be.
So, I found a notebook and pen and began to write out my misery, wishing only to relieve some of the agony of our loss. It did help a little, and after a while, the writer in me patted me gently on the arm and suggested I continue writing my experience because it might help someone else down the road. Again, goodness knows, I'd done a lot of that sort of writing, too, and it had been helpful to others. So, as I wrote and wrote, crying, even smiling with some memories, the process helped pull me along a bit further, gently reminding me of the nature of life and of hope. And somewhere in there, my inner writer knew that by being in my feelings and delving for words to express them, I was also enriching myself and my future work.
To be honest, when I realized that, I felt a little like I was betraying my grief, my love for Daniel. So I wrote about that, too. Yet I also knew how fortunate I was to have some way to be in and to express my terrible grief. In those horrible days, I didn't care much about helping others in some distant day, but the awareness of that possibility lay within me just the same. That day of writing my grief was a strange one that felt like I was in the past, present and future all at the same time.
The early days of grief are a vacant,
Shock turns me into a zombie, incapable of lucid thought and simple tasks.
Grief renders me senseless, and I become wooden, too stunned to function.
Then you come along – all of you – and you gently hold my wooden form and pass me, hand to hand, moment by moment – a baton in a death-born relay race.
You pass me along gently, moving me through time until I can do it once again for myself.
Has it helped me since those terrible first months and years to have written my grief? Absolutely. Will I use any of that writing in other material? I have no idea. In any event, whether writing out my sickness or my sorrow, I am reminded by doing so that finding the words and putting them together is a huge part of who I am. And so I keep it real by using that process for my own good and, hopefully, for the good of others through my writing.
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