“If the sore spot is not fatal, if it does not grow and block something, you can use its power for many years, until the heart resorbs it.” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life.
We all experience pain and hurt in our lives. We get angry. We get sad. We feel shame, and grief, and guilt, and fear. Often we want to move on, get past it, do anything but talk about it.
But these are the exact feelings we need to write.
These moments that we don’t want to confront can often bring about our best writing. Negative feelings can hold our most vivid memories. They push us to tell the truth, to finally show instead of tell, to let the stories stand for themselves.
Here are some tips for going back to those sore spots—and mining them for all they’re worth:
1. Just Go There:
Grab your laptop or your journal. Go where you’re comfortable and distraction-free. Set aside a defined period of time—say 30 minutes or an hour. Devote that time to a particular negative memory. Just sit and face it.
Start small. Don’t try to write everything about your mother’s illness. Write that one specific scene. Don’t write that you were always angry at your brother. Write about that one fight—you know the one.
What did you see and smell? What were you wearing? What did you say? Give specific details, all the bits and pieces. Don’t worry about how it comes out or what you’ll do with it later. Just write it out.
Maybe in this first session, you won’t write a word. Or maybe you’ll write 15 pages. It doesn’t matter. Do it, then set another time to do it again.
2. Revisit the Scene:
To write the pain, you have to revisit it. But sometimes those blocks and protections you’ve built are hard to break down.
Try some prompts to bring back the emotions:
Look at old pictures from that time period. Listen to music—even if a song isn’t directly connected, its style and tones can speak to the deep feelings within you. If you live nearby, revisit the site of the incident. Keep your notebook with you always, ready to catch whatever may come.
3. Don’t Take Shortcuts:
Focus on showing instead of telling. Don’t avoid the pain with these common shortcuts:
- Cliches that explain your emotions. Anyone can cry a river. Only you can see that muddy riverbank through your tears.
- Stepping out of the story to qualify, to summarize, to try to explain. Instead, let yourself go to the scene—and then stay there.
- Slapping a Band-Aid on it. Just because a situation was messy doesn’t mean you need to clean it up or force a resolution on it. Challenge yourself to let the story be, to share it fully. Even if there was a resolution, write the negative emotions and memories on their own. Don’t give a solution or a new perspective prematurely, or inauthentically.
4. Take a Break:
Go easy on yourself. If the pain is too intense, take a break. Go for a walk. Go to a baseball game. Have coffee with a friend. Seek the people and activities that make you feel most secure.
Balance these breaks with the writing. But don’t use this to avoid the memories. Use it to help you keep going.
If you’re really struggling, consider professional help. Talking with a counselor or a trusted friend can help you heal. And it can actually strengthen your writing—if it helps you recognize things at a deeper level, then you’ll be all the more truthful in your piece.
5. Integrate It:
After you’ve gotten a good start, consider what you can do with these writings.
If you write creative nonfiction or memoir, think how these experiences could fit within or redirect your overall work.
If you write fiction, incorporate (or steal) some of the vivid details. Use your pain to help you write the hurts that your characters face.
If you write straight nonfiction or trade books, you may or may not have a place within your work to share these personal experiences. Either way, strive to craft your nonfiction with the same level of honesty and specificity.
You’re especially close to this type of writing. So it’s all the more important to get another set of eyes on your piece—someone trustworthy who has an outside perspective, who can help you see the strong points and connections, and who can kindly point out where you need to push and develop further.
Of course, some painful memories may be too sensitive to share, at least right now. That’s okay. Writing your negative emotions and experiences is personally significant. It can bring new perspective and healing. It can strengthen the way you write—with great detail, depth, and honesty.
Linda H. Dolan is a Write to Sell Your Book Expert Team Editor. She writes creative nonfiction and health journalism. Her current book project focuses on a genetic heart disease in her family.