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.
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Great subject Julie. It reminded me of an outstanding piece written in the January/February 2012 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Unfortunately, it's only available in the print copy, so I can't provide a link to the actual article. You can buy the issue, I think, here:ReplyDelete
It is written by author Melissa Madenski about her writing experience following the sudden death of her husband. Other than being extremely moving (it definitely left me red-eyed), it's perhaps the best explanation I've ever read about the internalization and subsequent interpretation of grief and painful memories. And I'm a counselor by education, so I've read a lot of them. :)
Can't recommend it enough to anyone trying to sort through hard emotion. Particularly those who are struggling to write and do it.
As for your son's burn, I'm sorry you all had to endure that. My brother was severely burned when we were children. I witnessed it. He went through numerous rounds of skin grafts. I kept him company when my parents had to put iodine on them (They still do that, I wonder?) I got in fights when kids would tease him about his scars. I vowed to not tell mom when he'd take off his compression-velcro-thingy (it itched like hell, according to him). It shaped our childhood in so many ways.
He and I talk about it. Not lots, but we talk about it. However, I don't think I could ever put it into words. Some things never really heal, and I think writing about it all these years later would trivialize it somehow. It would seem too much like me trying assess the impact of the event on my own life, and not about how it has shaped my brother. Which is all I ever really cared about. Him.
I do think writing about it can offer something to others trying to deal with similar things (see the article I recommended), so I definitely encourage it if you are able. Think you've offered some wonderful tips on how to know if it's time.
One of the reasons I wrote my book was to exorcise demons that had been plaguing me & my dreams for 30 years. Once I wrote that pivotal scene, my nightmares stopped & I haven't dreamt about it since. I only wish I'd done it years ago. Could have saved myself a lot of turmoil.ReplyDelete
Wow, Julie, way to make me emotional! I never knew that story. But I have read your book, and I can see it. Writing does bring healing, and makes for an authentic read for others. Words are medicine. Hey - I like that! :DReplyDelete
Good one, Lisa.Delete
Great post Julie, really. Honestly I think I channel a lot of different painful experiences whenever I'm writing a character breakdown or moment of realization. There have been so many times I wish I could erase or get a "do over" but couldn't -- it's a bad feeling but you're right. . . it's one we can use in our writing!ReplyDelete
I deal with my pain of loss by populating my stories with people who are gone so I can bring them back to life. It is healing for me because I spend heart time with them and I am reminded how much I love them.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, guys.ReplyDelete
I'm just coming to grips with this very same issue myself. I found out recently one of my ex-boyfirends passed away. I'm grieving, even though his death was three years ago, I only found out a couple of weeks ago. The memories I have are killing me. I did write a 6k short story about that time we were together, it didn't come out the way I wanted it to, but I have to remember, not all writing can be what we want. For now it's fine. It's out of my system and down on paper. Maybe I'll go back to it some day and rewrite it, but for now it's buried deep in a word.doc in a file I never look at.ReplyDelete
Whether it's intentional or not (there have been instances of both) I do write about real pain. I find it helps me to put it behind me and move on.
Aww, I feel for you and your 3yo, even though it happened a long time ago... maybe because my youngest son is 3 now.ReplyDelete
And yeah, I've written from painful experiences, but I haven't written yet about my most painful experience (my parents' divorce) yet because I think I still haven't quite healed after a few years. But I think I will write about it someday, though--not about the divorce specifically but about how I felt when everything happened, and as you say, translate it to a MC or something like that.
Thanks for the lovely post!
My daughter is writing a book about some painful experiences and I'm very impressed with her talent. I told her she might be able to inspire or help others who are going through similar situations.ReplyDelete
Your stories are beautiful, and it's amazing to read about how you interpreted them (and in some cases, aren't ready to).ReplyDelete
Wonderful post! Thank you so much for it! :) I like to channel some of my feelings into my stories as well, whether it be painful experiences or just other types of experiences. Doesn't mean that everything you read about my characters feeling is all me letting out emotions, but there is a good number of it.ReplyDelete
Like my main characters feelings about her dad and his back issues. They reflect my own feelings about my father and his problems. I haven't written that particular scene yet, but I will make sure it is in there since that is so important to me. I think it's great to add things like that, because you're taking from your own knowledge and experiences of things, and that is what gives your story life. It makes the story all that much more human and real to the readers.
The opposite actually happened to me - I wrote about a difficult time for a character and then that same kind of thing happened in the life of someone very close to me. Creepy feeling!ReplyDelete
You're so right about those scars on our hearts - they'll always be there!
Writing painful memories is one of the best healing practices there can be. When we face our pain we can let it go. When we write it into our stories, it brings humanness to our writing. I love Stephen King on writing. We are all human. We've all experienced. It brings authenticity to our writing.ReplyDelete
Thanks for a great post!
Interesting post in light of my current wip. Thanks for this, Julie.ReplyDelete
Great post, Julie. Sometimes I draw on a painful memory to write about something painful that I never experienced. Sorrow, sadness, rejection, hurt feelings, loss, physical pain, mental anguish...the circumstances are different, but the pain is the same. We all can touch on each one.ReplyDelete
You are a great mom!
I think in every story I write elements of my pain enter into the story and compared to some I've had a pretty good life. The past creeps into my themes and I don't mind.ReplyDelete
I read Stephen King's On Writing but since lost it. He has so much great advice to offer. And yes, I do smatter some of my bad experiences into my books and character flaws. Makes them seem much more real to me and hopefully the reader will agree.ReplyDelete
I have written about my painful divorce in stories, terrifying encounters I had with my ex, and things that have happened to my children. Nothing autobiographical, but the emotions are there. I think it's part of how we work through a situation we felt horrible about at the time.ReplyDelete
I remember thinking, years ago, that I hoped I never got my life all sorted out, because I wouldn't have anything left to write about. Until recently I spent years writing 'around' my personal painful trials, which was therapeutic, but only to a point. I'm with you, Julie, writing about painful situations that are actually the types of pain we've personally experienced is not only therapeutic but powerful. Thanks for an important reminder.ReplyDelete
I couldn't agree more! A lot of what I experience in life comes through in my writing. In my latest book, To Ride A Puca, the main character falls from her horse and breaks her ankle, which happened to me. Having been through it definitely added a lot to the book for me.ReplyDelete
Ouch! That must have been horrible for both of you. I think it helps all writers to write about painful memories at some point. I've written a few therapy poems some subtle some not so subtle.ReplyDelete
I'm loving this discussion. Thanks so much!ReplyDelete
Such a great post, and I totally agree. When I'm writing those emotional scenes, I always use my own internal memories and feelings to drive the character and show how this impacts them.ReplyDelete
Hey Julie! Thanks for your sweet comment on my new project.ReplyDelete
Wow, thank God your son's injury wasn't worse. Only once did I experience that kind of fear when my daughter was about 9 months old and had a fever so high it hurt my skin to touch her. Everything turned out ok but wow that emotion is so overwhelming, the body can't help but weep. It's un-containable. Writing is theraputic that way for me. When emotion seems too much---writing about it eases the pain.
I've definitely used my past emotional experiences with my characters and find that I take note of every raw emotion for that reason. That's what it's all about, anyway, right? Making readers feel.
I can so identify with this. I wrote my book, Fearless, around the panic attacks I had in 2007. I wanted people to know they did not have to live with fear for the rest of their lives. Today I am completely free, and part of that came when I wrote about it. But it was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and also the most rewarding.A great post that I so appreciate!ReplyDelete
I think the deepest emotions come from our own pasts. We all have wounds, and I think it helps us to use that pain as a way for us to let go, too.ReplyDelete
Great post, Julie!
I have written all kinds of painful memories in different forms and it's wonderful. It's one of the perks of being a writer! I feel sorry for people who don't try this as an outlet because it's free therapy for all. Glad the burn is better. Our children's injuries and illnesses are always harder on us.ReplyDelete
The difference between my writing today and my writing a decade ago is that I'm no longer write to explain WHAT HAPPENED or HOW I FELT.ReplyDelete
My experience informs my writing... And writing today lifts that experience to something greater.
Life gives us the material of which to write...painful experiences and all. I have written about painful experiences but mostly in my private journals. I do think one knows in his/her heart when the time is right to share with the world, because ultimately our stories are meant to be shared. Our stories connect us... writer's story igniting the story within the reader.ReplyDelete
Guys, your comments were you beautiful and heartfelt. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences.ReplyDelete
Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)ReplyDelete
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