Friday, October 3, 2014

3 Steps To Write Off Your Emotional Baggage

Write it off. See what I did there? Hahaha.

It's not funny, is it?

A few weeks ago the other Scriptors and I were supposed to be talking about whether we do or do not write sex scenes. I didn't actually know the answer to the question. I'm a relatively new writer myself. Confession: I haven't actually finished anything.  I've written some catchy flash fiction, a few gripping short stories, and some large chunks of half-digested post-apocalyptic novel. But sex scenes? Truthfully, I haven't decided yet. But I believed I could still sit down and write an honest, truthful answer to the question anyway. At the least, I could show my thought processes.

I ended up in tears.

I cut what I wrote, begged off the question, and chose to save my answer for another day, a time when my Issues wouldn't take away from my colleagues' clever, well-though-out, and varied answers.

So I thought I'd wait. For a spotlight. Cuz, I mean, clearly, there's nothing more fun than having a spotlight shone on your Issues, right?

Everybody has issues, don't they? They sell classy little air-freshener night lights for the bathroom: know why? Because you've got your grown ups who are afraid of the dark. There are a dozen apps in the Appstore with the sole purpose of making distracting noises that will drown out your thoughts, fears, and worries as you are trying to get to sleep. Medication for depression, anxiety, and various mental disorders are at an all-time high.

Look, I'm not saying it's a bad thing. People are getting help. They're doing something about it. Mental illness is slowing losing its social stigma. It's okay to be broken.

It's okay to be broken.


When I was unpacking my answer to the above tricky little question, I found multiple layers of baggage. Emotional abuse. Religion. Guilt. Adolescence. Confusion. Love. Things that had burned my soul for better or worse, and by sitting down to write, I had accidentally peeled off the scab that had been covering a bloody wound. You can't put scabs back on. I had to let the thing bleed for awhile before it could be stopped up again.

And when you write, even fiction, you're going to be pulling that scab off again and again and again. Why? Because writing isn't good unless you're putting pieces of your soul into it. It won't ring true. Your readers won't care. As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

So what can we do? As writers, how can we deal with this job hazard of opening up old wounds in order to make good art?

1)  Watch for the signs

You might not know ahead of time that something is going to hurt. I was caught by surprise when answering a simple question about writing technique had me in tears and reevaluating my whole life. Try to be aware of how you feel while you are writing. Sounds simple, but so often we put ourselves into our characters lives and allow ourselves to feel their feelings rather than our own. That's good. That means you're doing it write. (hehe. Sorry. Doing it write. Darn again. Doing it right. There we go.)

But when you are done writing, take a moment to evaluate your feelings. You okay? Did the trauma that your characters went through affect you personally? If so, is it just a natural writer's mood swing, or could you be chipping away at something that you've pushed down, something that needs to heal?

2) Get it out

If you decide that there's something deeper going on, find a healthy way to observe those feelings. If there's someone you can trust, try talking it out. You need someone who is a good listener, who is non-judgmental, who won't tell you that your feelings are wrong, and won't try to fix them for you. Tall order. Not everyone has a friend like that. If you do have a friend like that, go write them a love letter or send them a bar of chocolate. Yes, right now. It's okay, the rest of the article will wait until you get back.

If you do not have a friend like that, write your feelings out in a blank book that can be hidden somewhere reliably secret or in a secure location on your hard drive. You need it to be secure so you can be totally honest. When you have wounds, some of the feelings that come out are going to reflect your true feelings, and some of them are going to be reactionary. You might find hatred, bitterness, violence, or sexual feelings that you feel aren't healthy. You might have feelings of love for someone that doesn't fit with your life, or that will hurt someone else. You might want to express feelings about hurting yourself, or hurting someone else. You need to get them out. Burn the paper afterwards if it's something that could really get you in trouble.

Don't hold onto the feelings. Sometimes writing things down makes them more real and you can fixate on them. Don't do that. Write them down with the intention of purging them. Write them out and out and out and out until they are gone then let them go. Repeat as necessary.

3) Take Action

After you've gotten the feelings out, replace them with something positive. Take a long walk outside. Play tag with a kid. Beat your spouse at Candyland. Or Risk, if you're really brave. Listen to music that makes you feel alive. Look at the stars. Swim. Eat pasta. Break bread with someone you love or someone that makes you laugh. Hug. Have some reallyreally good sex. Write a list of things that are still good about the world, of things that have improved in our generation.

Feel better. And then go back to writing. Tear the scabs off again, as gently and firmly as possible. Did you know that while scabs are good for keeping germs out (protecting us from further harm) skin actually heals better without them? I only learned that this past year. My whole life I thought you needed scabs to heal. Well, you don't. Rip them off, throw some powerful germ killer on there, then let your wounds breathe. Feels good to hurt sometimes.


I'm not a psychologist. I'm not even old enough to be wise. If you're hurting, please get help from a professional. Talk to a doctor or a therapist or a non-oppressive spiritual leader of your choice. If you're thinking about hurting yourself, tell somebody ASAP. The world would be less without you.

We need your smile. We need your art. Thank you.

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