Write Through This:
Strategies for Writing About Real-Life Conflict and Tragedy

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The first time I ran across the Garrison Keillor aphorism “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material” it immediately resonated with me because it so succinctly summarized how I feel about being a writer.

The upside of being a writer is that it’s impossible to ever be bored. You can write about washing dishes, or standing in line, or watching paint dry. It’s all material.

Another perk is that the best material is often found in the downs of life’s ups and downs. Being a writer means you can actually take perverse pleasure in all the hellish experiences of your life—the vacation disasters, the bad breakups, the medical crises—because as bad as they are to get through at the time, you know they’re going to make a good story later. But while some things quickly go from nightmare to comedic gold—like the trip where the airline lost my luggage and I ended up at a hostel that was straight out of Dickens—other subjects can be trickier to handle.

Your job with the boss and co-workers you can’t stand (think: The Office) might be a rich source of material, but everyone knows that writing about work might get you fired. Writing about family and friends is another touchy subject—as much as you might like to relate the wacky hijinks that ensued at this year’s family reunion, even lighthearted teasing has the potential to hurt feelings. So while writing about your dysfunctional family might seem like a great idea in theory, contemplating the potential repercussions can be enough to cause an epic case of writer’s block.

For other events, it’s not the consequences of what you might write that cause the block, but your own reluctance to revisit a painful event. The loss of a loved one, the battle with a life-threatening illness, the lifelong dream that didn’t pan out—all of these events beg to be written about, but at the same time can be so distressing to revisit that you perpetually avoid doing so.

And while we writers know that risky or heartbreaking material can be the most worthwhile to write about—and the most interesting to read about—if we can only get over our blocks, compounding the dilemma is not knowing how to approach these momentous events. Because the things that touch each of us most deeply are often the same things that impact others, many of these topics (e.g. birth, love, death) have been written about ad nauseum. As such, it can be all too easy to slip into clichés, and it’s not an insignificant concern that you’ll end up sounding cheesy when you’re aiming for profound.

While a straightforward personal essay or memoir might seem like the logical way to approach real-life material, if that’s not working for you, why not switch things up and try something different? Here are some suggestions for approaching difficult topics:

Use a pseudonym. Writing under a fictitious name might be for you if your primary concern is the potential consequences of having your writing connected with your everyday self. This approach is popular with academic bloggers who want to connect with other teachers/professors, but don’t necessarily want their students (or employers) reading their blogs. If you’re serious about keeping your identity under wraps, in addition to changing your name, you’ll also want to leave out (or change) other identifying details: names of other people, cities, schools, places of work, etc. The downfall of this approach is that it can be unsatisfying for readers: the more you leave out, the more difficult it becomes for readers to understand what you’re talking about and connect with your experience.

Keep a journal. A private journal is a good option if fears of repercussions are preventing you from being as honest and open as you’d like to be. Do what you need to so that you can write without censoring yourself: buy yourself an old-school diary with a lock, write “Private! Keep Out!” on your notebook, or password-protect your Word document. Don’t worry that you’re wasting time by “simply” keeping a journal. Natalie Goldberg advises beginning writers to fill notebooks for two years before trying to publish, and while you may be beyond this stage, there’s nothing preventing you from “just” journaling about this particular topic, while still working on other projects for publication. Later, your journal may form the basis of a personal essay or memoir. Or, it may become a project in itself—many writers have published excerpts from their notebooks or written books on the writing process based on their journals. What you write now can always be used later.

Wait. While some people have the gift to write about a traumatic event while it’s happening, not everyone is so self-possessed. When you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, the last thing you may want to do is sit down and craft a narrative arc. If you’re afraid you’ll forget important details if you don’t write them down right away, a dayplanner is a low-stress way to keep track of events—you can annotate existing reminders and tuck in accumulated ephemera to create a reference you can look back to when you are up to writing about it. Another reason to wait is that sometimes time is needed for context and perspective. Most childhood memoirs aren’t written until the writers have some life experience behind them (Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy, for example, was published when she was 36). A memoir written too soon—without the experience to sympathize with the viewpoints of others in your story—may come off as narcissistic and shallow. Simply being observant and waiting for the pieces of your story to click into place in the short term can result in a story with more depth and nuance in the long run.

Try another medium. Sometimes you know what you want to say—but the words aren’t coming together. Working visually rather than verbally engages a different part of your brain and may make it easier to tell the story you want to tell. You don’t need to be an artist. You can draw, paint, take photographs, collage pictures from magazines… whatever works for you. Comic strips are a natural medium for writers since they bridge writing and drawing, and are amenable to simple drawing styles (see xkcd, for example). Working visually is also an alternative to consider if privacy is one of your concerns. Karen Walrond initially kept a journal-style blog to document her daughter’s adoption and first years of life, but was uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her daughter as she got older. Instead of giving up blogging entirely, she started a photoblog. By posting photos, she was able to continue documenting her life and family in a way that was comfortable for her. As time passed, written commentary crept back into her posts, and the latest incarnation of her blog incorporates both text and photos (which demonstrates that comfort levels can change over time—so listen to yourself and be willing to adapt).

Write in installments. Beginning to write about a life-changing experience can be daunting, but there’s no reason you have to do it all at once. Another alternative is to write your story as a serial—in the vein of comic strips and soap operas—adding a little bit to the story with each installment. Despite Wired declaring blogs so 2004, they are well-suited to this kind of writing. If you blog you’ll probably also end up with an audience, particularly if you commit to a schedule (weekdays, three days a week). This may sound scary at first, but the feedback an audience provides can be a great incentive to keep writing through the hard parts—a big bonus if you’ve had a tendency to give up rather than pushing through when the writing got tough. If a blog seems like too much of a blank canvas, you might try Twitter (you’re limited to 140 characters per post) or join the 100 Words challenge (write exactly 100 words each day)—or set up your own parameters.

Alternate topics. There’s also no rule that you have to stick with the difficult topic exclusively until you finish with it. Give yourself a breather: write about it, then write about something else. These things might be closely related or more loosely tied. Maud Newton‘s blog is primarily about books and writing, but she has been researching her family history and occasionally posts photos and family stories. Anderson Cooper’s memoir Dispatches from the Edge intersperses his own personal tragedies (the deaths of his father and brother) with the tragedies he has witnessed as a reporter. Interspersing personal drama with more prosaic material can also prevent a memoir from becoming too syrupy—and perhaps attract a wider audience. For example, you might alternate revisiting your grandmother’s favorite recipes with your memories of helping her cook, creating something that would appeal equally to people who like to cook and those who are interested in your grandma’s life story.

Beginning at the beginning. Instead of jumping right into the dramatic event, go back—way back—and write up to it. When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband, Hugh, was dying, she wrote Two-Part Invention. The book starts with their different childhoods, then how they met, and progresses through the various stages of their marriage, until she gets to Hugh’s illness. Saving the drama to the end not only eases the writer into it, but has the benefit of creating added poignancy for the reader. If you’re writing about a death, in particular, taking time to build up to the loss gives your readers a chance to get to know your beloved family member so that when you do get to the sad part, they will share your grief—in other words, instead of thinking, “I’m sad for you,” they’ll actually be sad. This recent newspaper story isn’t a first-person account, but uses this technique very well.

Write a song or poem. With poetry and lyrics, you can focus on impressions rather than details—a good option if what’s important is capturing the emotion of the event rather than preserving a step-by-step account. It’s also a good way of dealing with an event that might come off as overly sappy or cliched if you document it exactly as it happened. This approach also allows for readers/listeners to have their own different interpretations of the event depicted. For example, the Spirit of the West song “Goodbye Grace” is actually about band member Geoffrey Kelly’s son who was born prematurely—the “Grace” of the song is a hospital, not a person. However, unless you’ve heard him tell the story, you might have a completely different interpretation of the song, the chorus of which goes: “Goodbye Grace / There are no words I’d rather say / Than goodbye Grace / Never want to see your face again.”

Take an informative approach. Taking a more neutral (journalistic/academic) position may help you to be able to write about a challenging topic. Instead of focusing just on your own personal experience, take the pressure off by seeking out the accounts of others who shared a mutual experience (as with a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane) or who have had similar experiences (as with an illness or loss of a family member). Poet Anna Evans recently had a series of medical issues that she thinks were precipitated by the kind of birth control pills she was taking. Evans is working on a memoir about her experiences, but is also soliciting the experiences of others who have had similar problems.

Fictionalize. Although true stories are the trend du jour, fiction can be just as (if not more) compelling. Inserting a narrator between you and your story can make your story easier to write; it enables you to distance yourself from your own pain and see the story from different points of view. Fictionalizing also allows you to fill in details that are unknown or that you can’t remember without resorting to the dreaded fake memoir, and can lessen many of the concerns that writing non-fiction raises (offending people, potential backlash, etc.). For example, after summering at a law firm, Jeremy Blachman wrote Anonymous Lawyer from the perspective of a hiring partner, rather than a memoir from the perspective of a law student. (Ironically, however, before Anonymous Lawyer was a book, it was a blog that many people believed was non-fiction.)

These alternate approaches can work simply as exercises to get the words flowing—or you may find that what results turns out better than the project you originally envisioned. Ultimately, the approach you take will depend on your purpose for writing and who you’re writing for, as well as what your concerns are with writing about the topic in question.

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