sketch of Jesus, based on medieval altar piece in London’s Tate Gallery, www.carolineallen.com
I just received an interesting e-mail from a client. How do we write with authenticity and integrity when to do so draws up so much pain? When writing the truth is so traumatizing it shuts us down? One of the greatest writers’ blocks I’ve seen in my clients, even when they’re writing fiction, is the real pain of writing about a difficult past, an alcoholic parent, and abusive stepmother, mental illness in the family, abuse. Then there are those who’ve suffered war, floods, holocausts, genocides — an individual trying to write about an entire bruised culture can find the sheer weight of it devastating.
Even if you’re writing fiction, these situations from your past are epic and will inform your writing. There’s no way around it. It’s your story. More than likely one of your characters will suffer what you suffered. The idea is that your soul wants to explore it, tell the truth about it, reveal it to others so that it might be transformed.
My client’s e-mail came just as I finished the final revision on Earth. I’ve been working with a fabulous coach, and throughout the novel where I was pulling punches, he recommended going deeper. I don’t think he did this to be a healer, but because it made the book better, more marketable. The truth, however painful, will sell your book. Your truth resonates on a universal level and many people will be transformed by reading it. I believe that deeply. I know a couple of writers having difficulty finding agents or publications to take their work, and I believe it’s because these people are glossing over the deep, meaty truths, because they find them too painful to write about.
It took a few months to revise Earth, not because of the amount of writing required, but because of the emotional consequences. I had night terrors, daytime freak outs, and right now I’m using voice software because my repetitive strain injury has acted up in a way that hasn’t happened in years. In other words, I’m not just in emotional pain, I’m also in physical pain. Oh the glamour of being a novelist!
Still, I don’t just want to focus on the difficulties. After working through the novel this final time, I feel happier than I’ve been in a very long time. Lighter. People keep saying: wow, you look great. I want to make sure I express the benefits of doing work that’s this difficult. I feel like I’ve reached a breakthrough that I could’ve never reached any other way.
One scene triggered me in particular. My teenage protagonist Pearl is beaten up — this happened to me in real life when I was 18 and even revealing that here feels like too much. I’d already written and rewritten the scene a few times in the past year. I had fictionalized it and made the perpetrator a stepfather, instead of a boyfriend. In the scene, as the fight is happening, the stepfather morphs, and in Pearl’s traumatized state, he transforms into several different men she’s known throughout her life. There is violence and morphing and madness and fighting and violence and the shape shifting of this one man into several men all in this one scene.
I thought that this morphing was a deep fiction that I’d concocted to go with the theme of the novel. But after I finished, all manner of hauntings filled my apartment and me. I spent two nights with my head swimming in extremely crazy ways. I realized what I’d written wasn’t actually fiction, that when I was a teenager and this happened, some madness took me over and led me to a sort of psychological break, where I felt every man was beating me up.
If I had not visited and revisited that scene with authenticity and integrity, would I ever have clarified that for myself? A massive healing is happening as a consequence. I just allow that healing to come up and out and be released, just as I allowed myself to just write that scene and be uncomfortable for two days. I think part of the process is simply to allow ourselves to write and feel like crap. It’s okay. You feel like shit anyway concerning that abuse — it’s just pushed down and out of sight. When you write it, you are simply bringing what already exists to the surface.
Still, if you’re going to write about very serious trauma, I would strongly suggest having a therapist. Writing can and does retraumatize. Take very good care of yourself during the writing process. There is some good advice about writing about trauma in Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. She looks at the painful process of writers like Tim O’Brien, the short story author who’s a Vietnam vet. My favorite piece of his is “The Things They Carried”.
We are all seeking to live our life to the fullest, to manifest the power we know we have in our souls. Sometimes the path to that power requires slaying seriously scary monsters. Sometimes that path is an exhausting walk through devastated countryside, a walk that can take years. But it’s an epic path, it’s fighting the good fight, and I would not trade the path I’m on for all the googahs the world promises. I’m not trading my soul for googahs. Ever.
I’m a writing coach. Contact me for a free initial consultation. www.artofstorytellingonline.com. CarolineAllen@aol.com.