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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

From Grief to Gold

Turning Bad Memories into Good Writing

You pen the most heartbreaking scene of your entire novel, sure your story will move readers to tears. When you’re done, you read back over what you've just written… and not only is it totally lacking depth, it’s so overwritten that it’s comical. The only tears anyone will be shedding are tears of laughter.

You’re devastated. You need to be able to write sad stuff, and you want to write it well. But how does one do so? This article will show you ways to utilize your own misfortunes in order to make your writing more believable.

Every one of us has lived through some sort of difficulty in our lives. It is normal to want to put memories of these times behind you, never to be revisited. But bear in mind that these events have shaped who you are. Furthermore, there are ways to tap into your misfortunes and use them to your advantage.

You can take yesterday’s tragedy and turn it into today’s inspiration!

First, you need a recollection to draw upon. This could be:

• Loss of a spouse, family member, or pet
• Bullying, harmful teasing, or other painful childhood memories
• Loss of a job, your health, or even of a sense of safety
• Any difficult times from your life

You may wish to compile a list of these so that you can refer to them for writing purposes. (If you are new to this type of memory-tapping, be sure to start with a benign recollection. You can work your way up to more difficult memories later.)

Now let the magic begin! You’ll be surprised by how truly simple this is.

Sit somewhere comfortable with pen and paper in hand, or at your computer with your fingers on the keys. Think of a scene in your story that needs to be written, or perhaps rewritten. Now select a memory that contains the mix emotions you want to portray. Close your eyes. Take a deep, relaxing breath.

Keep in mind that this memory can no longer hurt you; in fact it can help you, so don’t be afraid. Put yourself back in time, back into your own shoes (or someone else’s!) and let the recollection run through your head like a movie. Allow yourself to really feel what occurred.

Now, open your eyes and immediately start writing the scene for your story. Don’t worry about errors, just let the emotion pour out. If necessary, slip back into your memory for a refresher. When you are done, read back over what you have written. You might be surprised; the depth of your grief has been translated into depth in your writing.

Let me give you an example of how this technique worked for me. Several years ago I needed to write the separation scene of my two main characters. I was very attached to them. They loved each other. I had hoped (along with them) that they would spend the rest of their lives together. But it wasn’t to be. After writing a lovely day for them that included their first kiss, I put on a very sad song. I closed my eyes and thought about a time in my life when I had been permanently separated from one I loved dearly. I thought about what it would have been like had I been given the chance to say goodbye. And then I wrote that goodbye, with all the tenderness and sorrow that would have been mine if I’d had the chance.

There is a bonus to this kind of writing exercise – you may notice your own grief easing.

Baroness Karen Von Blixen-Finecke lost her father to suicide when she was only nine. Her marriage ended in divorce, she suffered lifelong health problems, and the love of her life died when his biplane crashed. Her beloved coffee plantation failed and she was forced to return to the land of her birth. It was only then that she began writing. She adopted the pen name Izek Dinesen; Out of Africa is considered by many to be her most acclaimed work. I think she said it best:

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.
Now, go tell your story. The world is ready for it… and so are you!

Suzette Saxton is a freelance writer with both fiction and nonfiction publishing credits. Besides writing for the QueryTracker Blog, she loves to write books for children of all ages.


disorderly said...

Suzette, this is such good advice. Melancholy music, in particular, can evoke strong emotions in me, and I often find myself writing scenes in my head while driving (not really a good idea) because something sad just played on the radio.

However, from experience may I add a warning that "immersive writing" can be emotionally draining. At the end of a scene written this way, I often find myself "brain dead" and physically tense. (And woe betide the unwary individual who interrupts me or speaks to me immediately afterward. ;-) )

The technique can help a writer produce powerful scenes at which he or she marvels later, and it can be used for joy and other emotions, as well. (After writing one love scene, I had to go take a cold shower. ;-) ) Writers just need to be aware they may require a recovery period afterward. :-)

Suzette Saxton said...

Excellent point, Disorderly. I'm so glad you brought this up. Thank you for your insightful comments. :)

Lady Glamis said...

What a great post!

Some of my best writing came about after some really hard times. I look back on those writings with warmth in my heart. What a great way to turn something bad into something good. We truly can learn from our grief.

Christine Fonseca said...

WOW, WOW, WOW....You have done it again. GREAT POST!!!

Suzette Saxton said...

Thanks so much, Lady Glamis and Christine! I always love reading your comments because you are both upbeat and positive. You've made my day. :)

Wiggy said...

Wow. That really hit home. It is amazing how such difficulties can turn into the perfect source for tapping creative writing. And it is so true. I write about a character who is so poor that she eats off of the plates of strangers while waiting tables. Where did I come up with that idea??? When I was first married and waiting tables, there was a two week period where we were too broke to buy food. I was starving and would eat off of the plates of my customers as I carried their used dishes to the dishwashing room. The food was fantastic! Leftover crab legs, shrimp scampi, steak...

Suzette Saxton said...

Thanks, Wiggy, for sharing that.