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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #24: Use your pain

Do you ever feel like you're just going through the motions with your writing?  Does it seem like you're pushing your characters around like pawns on a chessboard, but you're not really connecting with them?  Well, if they're not real to you, they won't be real to your readers.  And if you're just going through the motions, your readers can tell.

So where do you look for the raw material that you can hone into a story that feels completely real?  In the end, the only place you can go is inside yourself.  Everything else is second-hand.  If it's not your emotion, how do you know whether it's true?

When I wanted my readers to feel Faye's pain at being ostracized for her race, I thought back to my years as a teenager in the 1970s South.  I knew in my head what she would have experienced, but how could I bring that experience into my heart?  Well, everyone has their own memories of feeling ostracized and embarrassed and wounded during their growing-up years.  (You can tell me you were Prom Queen and you never lost a boyfriend and you always wore the right clothes and you always said the right things, and you can tell me that your life was so perfect that you are not carrying those wounds around with you.  You can tell me, but I won't believe you.)

Overlaying my own hard memories atop Faye's experiences gave me the emotional depth that I needed for her character.  In a later book, she believes that she has lost Joe forever.  He survives, but others in that book do not.  The survivors suffer monumental losses, and Faye herself steps right up to that abyss and stares down into its depths.  You have to have loved somebody and truly feared losing them to write scenes like that.  If we're honest, most of us have felt that fear.  If we're honest, we can write about it.

Some of us have soft spots so tender that we really can't write about them.  I don't think you'll ever see me write about the suffering or death of a child.  When one book's plot required a very young character to die, I could only fool myself into writing it by making the victim over eighteen.  Even so, I got a phone call from a horrified friend yelling, "I can't believe you killed that child!!!!"  I don't like to read the scene where his mother learns of his death, and I wrote the thing.

Writing stories that ring emotionally true is not easy, but there is no better way to reach out of the pages and connect with your readers.  Perhaps there is no other way at all.


  1. Oh, baby. I'm sitting here, all welled up. The longer I live, the more certain I am that people become whole and real ONLY after they've plunged into the abyss a few times. Whether or not they ever climb back out almost seems to be immaterial. Without the benefit of the dark, there is no light. Writers cannot write around this truth. There's no faking it. I've seen less experienced writers try ... and fail every time. What an interesting topic tonight. Thanks.

  2. Without the benefit of the dark, there is no light...yes. That's true.

    Art is all about communicating what it means to be human. Sometimes being human is just hard. Being able to put it into words is a gift to your readers and to yourself.

  3. It took me 25 years before I could write about the death of my father, and the first time I did, all I could write was a list. The list became a poem, the poem became a short story, the short story became a novel. I hope, in some small way, it will help others deal with their own pain.