Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Writing About Painful Memories
When my son was three years old, he burned his foot on the motor of our ATV. Specialty doctors treated the 3rd degree burn with a painful skin graft, and the wound took several months to heal.
As parents, we wish we could absorb our child's pain and anguish. Each time I changed my son's bandages, I experienced shame and guilt. How could I have let my son wear sandals that day? What kind of parent was I? These are strong emotions, and I still struggle with them.
As writers, we have a unique outlet for painful memories. How do we channel that emotion? For me, it came out in story form. It wasn't intentional, it just happened. One of the characters in my story sustained severe burns in a California wild fire, and my main character was at fault.
I related to how my main character felt--horror, regret, shame. I related to how he wished he could go back in time and erase that event from their history. I related to his desire to make things better for the burn survivor. The fictional event was different from our real-life event, but the emotions were the same.
I'm not qualified to give advice on this subject, but I can offer my thoughts. When we write about a painful memory, here are things we can consider:
Pain Level--There's no denying that there are some memories too painful to write about.
Time--I wasn't ready to write about the event soon after it happened. I was too caught up in the current situation. I didn't even journalize it. With time, the emotions were less raw, but still strong. Time tempered the severity, but not the impact of the event itself. We can write about the subjects that trouble us, and hopefully this will aid in the healing process.
Healing--Has any healing taken place? If so, it seems to me that it's a good time to write about it. The writing will take us deeper into the pain, and then help bring us out. My hope is that my experience brought authenticity to the manuscript.
Let it Come--I didn't set out to write a burn story. My plan wasn't to dump all that baggage into a manuscript. It just happened naturally, and to me, it seems this is the best way. If we set out to write a fictional account of a painful event, maybe we don't have enough space or clarity to make it readable for others.
Hope--For me, the timing was right because my son's injury was healed and almost forgotten by him. By then we'd connected with other burn survivors from the Grossman Burn Center. We knew that life goes on after a severe burn, and that there are other families out there who help each other. This gave me perspective.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King wrote this:
"You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being...You should use them in your work."
The scar on my son's foot is light and barely visible. Same with the scar on this mother's heart. But it is there. Writing about a painful experience, even in a blog post such as this, is one way to turn a negative into a positive.
Have you ever written about a painful experience? Was it in fiction, nonfiction, or in a journal? Did it help you sort it all out? What else should we consider when doing this? I'd love to hear your thoughts.