Let’s face it guys, pain is a part of life. Why hide it? Why pretend it doesn’t exist? Instead, make it work for you. Use it to enhance, to pull the reader in, to make them feel what you feel (as in the case of memoir) or what your character feels (as in the case of fiction).
I’m going to focus on writing pain in memoir. This can be hard to do. You may have to relive it. You may cry at the computer. Shake a fist at the unseen foe of your past.
I’ve been known splash tears on the keyboard and make the monitor to waver and blur because of them. But I work through it. A quick swipe of the hand or blow with a tissue works—Always keep a box handy by the computer for such writing emergencies.
Just do it. Write it.
Don’t think about it.
Don’t think about what others will think.
And by all means don’t question whether you should be writing it. Just open that vein of buried pain and let it bleed onto your Microsoft document or whatever program you’re using. Think afterwards. For now let it flow onto the page.
I’m going to shut up while you pull something up from the depths of your core and write it out without thinking about it. Its okay if junk is the first thing that comes up. That’s what editing is for and you can do that later.
Did you do it?
Did you find some gems in all the muck?
Did it make you cry? Will it make your readers cry?
If so, you’ve the beginning of a masterpiece. And I have to point out here that writing is largely subjective. So really, your masterpiece may not be another’s idea of a masterpiece and that’s okay. Part of why we write painful memoir is to heal.
One thing that I have found is the pieces that make me cry are often the ones I remember—though there are some I remember for their intellect – either in writing or in character. But that’s beside the point; let’s get back to the subject of pain, shall we?
So you’ve got your rough draft.
What can you get rid of? Wheedle out the meaningless.
Are Aunt Martha’s shoes meaningless to the story? They may or may not be – I’ve a feeling you’ll know on the second read through. For example, in my short excerpt entitle “Pieces of Me” (published in the 2013 Petigru Review) from the memoir with the same title, I examined my psychotherapist’s shoes after telling her that I couldn’t find my happy place.
She nods, writes something on the legal pad resting on her crossed legs. Her pants are brown, sturdy. The shoes are men’s, brown slip-ons made of what once must have been fine leather. They are worn and scuffed.
“I couldn’t find the shore….” my voice drifts off as I recall the failed experience.
It seems somehow humorous now. Yet, even I can’t find a wry smile. Find a happy place, find a happy place, find a happy place . . .
In this excerpt, the shoes played a role by showing the character of the psychotherapist, her work ethic, priorities, etc. They also revealed the client’s (me) feelings. She’d rather focus on the shoes. There’s a sense of despondency that leaves the reader well aware that the answers for PTSD are not readily clear or easily healed.
Alright, you’ve got the depth of the story. Put it in order.
Yes, sometimes the memories and the thoughts initially come out jumbled. That’s okay too. You can fix that. Edit the order of the memories. Ask friends, family, people who would know and can fill in the blanks. Then tweak your masterpiece in progress again.
After that, edit it again for good measure.
Now walk away from it.
“What?” you say. “Walk away from it?” I know, I know, it’s a masterpiece. You’re amazed that you were able to put this painful memory into a piece that could work for you and others. It’s hard to walk away from it. Trust me. This is for your own good. Sit on the piece for a while. Don’t look at it. Don’t touch it, at least for a few days.
Stephen King in his best-selling novel, On Writing, suggests waiting for six weeks before looking at it again. Why? Because after a break from it we can read it with fresh eyes catching mistakes we’ve made that were unable to be caught the first time around.
Six days or six weeks later, pull it out and edit again.
Looks good, doesn’t it? Of course it does. You’ve got some great raw material here. Some depth. Some pain. Little aspects of intelligence. Minor revelations of character through detailed descriptions in the piece, such as the shaking hand, the tattoos, or in my case, the scuffed and worn shoes. Oops.
Did I fail to mention the need for detail?
Well, if you haven’t put in the little details then by all means do so now. Remember the details can make or break a piece. There is nothing worse than reading something and wondering where they are or what he/she looks like. Annoying, very annoying.
Put us there. Make us feel it, let us live it alongside of you.
Yee ha! You’re done. Or are you? Nope. Not if you’re a smart writer.
Now you need to have the piece edited by your peers.
What do they think? This is where SCWW (The South Carolina Writer’s Workshop) comes in or another writing group if you prefer. You need to show them, not your mother who will say, “It’s lovely Darling, why don’t you quit your job and write for the rest of your life. You could make millions.” Let other writers edit your work, catch your errors in setting, your character flaws, your grammatical errors, and so on. At this point, you need to acknowledge you’re not perfect. Let’s face it. There are no perfect writers. Writing takes work and the experience can be as painful as the writing. But you can do it. You’re tough.
So get it out there!
Send it out for submissions and contests, put it in the book length memoir or just keep it for family if you want. It’s your piece. You decide what you want to do with it.