Writing About Difficult Subjects
Guest Post by Diana M. Raab
Writing memoir can be viewed as a sort of literary alchemy. It is one way to transform your unpleasant past into an art form. This exercise can be cathartic, painful and confusing, things to be aware of before setting down this path. Many people believe they have a story but have trouble deciding whether to write about it. I say, if the story feels like a knot in your stomach, then it is something you should write about regardless of whether it is for publication or not. There is this internal yanking and a feeling you cannot go to your grave leaving this story untold. That’s pretty much how I felt when writing my two memoirs, Regina’s Closet and Healing With Words.
When you finally decide to tell your story, you should know that it may not be easy getting down to the emotional truth of your subject matter. Sometimes it’s much easier to skirt the deep dark traumas of our past and write about the glossy and lighter events which shaped us.
Writing about trauma can be life-changing for both you and your reader. My advice is to be brave and it will pay off. Your first draft should be raw and long. Remember to be simple in your thoughts. Tell the truth and be straightforward. You can edit in subsequent drafts. If you have endured difficult times, the good news is that you survived them long enough to be able to write about them. I’ve done some reading on how other writers have coped with writing about difficult subjects. Most suggest that you don’t throw yourself a pity party on the page, but that you write the facts and leave the reader to make their own decisions. In general, readers don’t like the narrative to whine. It is a turn-off and not necessary to be effective. There is also nothing wrong with letting the reader feel uncomfortable. In fact, if they are, they might be inspired to write their own painful story. This would be a plus for everyone involved.
Many people continue to be haunted by the pains from their childhood and writing has a tendency to set them free from the shackles. Some might try to write their memoir in the third person in an attempt to remove or distance themselves from the story, but more often than not, this does not work because the immediacy is lost when not written in the first person voice.
Some people ask how they can protect themselves and remain ‘sane,’ while writing their painful story. My answer varies depending upon the person. Psycho herapy might be the answer for you or having someone trustworthy you can talk to on a regular basis, whether it’s an editor or dear friend. It’s good to have someone to call in time of need, just for inspiration or prodding along to tell you that you ‘can do it.’ Some people lean towards writing groups for support, although I have never found them helpful for myself personally.
Art Spiegelman, the author of the graphic memoir, The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, says to protect himself from the pain of his past, he wears a bicycle helmet so that when he hits his head against the wall it doesn’t hurt so much. This reminds me of a seminar I once took at the University of the Iowa where Jonis Agee had us all wear masks while crafting fiction. This was a great way to become someone else.
In summary, if a subject is scary or dangerous the best thing to do is just write and deal with the post-traumatic stress situation. Sometimes when you write what you remember about an event, it is one way of separating yourself from it. In a way, you gain a sense of control over your old memory.
Diana Raab is a memoirist, essayist, poet and author of seven books and editor of two essays collections, including the latest, Writers and Their Notebooks (2010) with an introduction by Phillip Lopate. She is a journaling advocate and teaches in UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and in various conferences around the country. Her forthcoming book, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey is forthcoming from Loving Healing Press in June 2010. Visit Diana Raab.