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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Using Life's Disasters to Add Authenticity to Your Writing

Not where you planned to spend your night...
Bad things – sometimes terrible things – happen to us all. While they’re happening, we’re focused on surviving them.

After you manage to do that, for better or worse, you’ve learned something new about the human condition. And if there’s one thing writers do well, it’s share how hard it is to be human.

I have this little voice inside that I call The Writer. When something really awful happens, it’s the part of me that’s yelling “Oh man, you can totally use this in your stories!” Don’t get me wrong, a lot of times panic and horror mostly overwhelm the Voice, but for me, it’s always there.

Whether you have a mouthy The Writer voice or not, after you survive the emergency, disaster, or tragedy, you’re going to have to process it. Most people do that by talking with others, but as a writer, you may also want to…well, write about it. Whether you’re journaling in the first person or incorporating your experience into a character’s journey, if you do a good job of sharing what you went through, including your struggle to find meaning in it all, that will resonate with your readers.

There's nothing like reading something that makes you think, "Wow, the author really knows what she's talking about. That's exactly what it's like!"

The loudest I ever remember my The Writer voice being was during college, when my long-term boyfriend got into a fistfight with his identical twin brother. Everyone had been drinking. My boyfriend took the keys away from his twin’s girlfriend, and his twin took offense. Hence, the fistfight.

That was the first (though certainly not the last) time in my life that I was genuinely hysterical. Most of me was freaking out, trying to decide how to intervene, but in my head The Writer starts jumping up and down and shrieking, “Wow, this hysteria thing is fascinating. You’re laughing and crying and feeling like you’re half-outside your body. We have got to remember this so we can use it in our writing!”

So now when I have an hysterical character, he or she gets to be hysterical in full the-writer-has-experienced-it Technicolor.

Another example:

A couple of weeks ago, I got out of bed, put in my contacts, and promptly started to go blind.

Over the next few hours, my surroundings appeared to be filling with more and more smoke, which nobody else could see. I changed my contacts. That didn’t work, so I got online, Googled it, and concluded I must be getting a migraine. I’ve never had one with hazy or cloudy vision before, but the magical Internet assured me that such things happen. I’d had both my eyes and my physical health checked the previous month and I’d come through with flying colors, so a migraine made the most sense.

The problem was that over the next few hours, everything became so hazy that I couldn’t see myself in the mirror, which is not normal for a migraine. ("Ocular migraines" only occur in one eye, and the blindness passes in an hour or less.) I went back on Google and (with great difficulty, at 300% magnification) searched some more. If you’re going blind and it isn’t a migraine, the warnings on the internet are dire. As in, permanent blindness. And death.

Terrified, I broke down sobbing and called my mother to take me to the ER.

Though the storyteller in me would love to give you all the gory details about my visits (plural) to the ER (I was misdiagnosed the first time I went), that isn’t really the point here. My point is that I now know all about multiple conditions that can cause sudden cloudy and blurry vision, as well as blindness. I know how the ER handles emergencies like this. (They make you read an eye chart. Which is very difficult when you are blind.) I know what kinds of medications they recommend (antibiotic eye drops if the surface of the eye is involved), what kinds of specialists you’re supposed to see (ophthalmologists if the eye is involved; neurologists if the brain is involved), what it’s like to get a CAT scan (pretty cool), what it’s like to feel like your eyeballs are on fire (very not cool), and what it’s like to get your corneas dyed so the doctor can look for abrasions. I also learned that sometimes when you go blind, everything doesn’t go black. It goes white.

And soon, unfortunately, I will learn how much all of that stuff costs.

If you’re wondering what the final diagnosis was…turns out I had managed to chemically burn both of my corneas. How did I pull that off? Over the past 15 or 20 years, I have always washed my contact lens cases in the dishwasher. I got a new dishwasher, and apparently it didn’t wash all the detergent out of my lens case. I put the lenses in the lens case, they soaked up the detergent, I put them in my eyes, and…voila, chemical burns. Interestingly, it didn’t hurt a bit. The pain came later, after I’d removed my lenses. The theory is that blinking sloughed off the burned part of the cornea over the next few hours, which eventually resulted in dead-of-night second-trip-to-the-emergency-room agony.

Fortunately, I have fully recovered from the experience (typically corneal abrasions resolve themselves in 24 - 72 hours), and I can see and read and drive (and write) again.

But now my characters can experience all of these things realistically. Likewise, your characters can experience the types of disasters you have. Sure, we had to go through something miserable to learn what we did, but since we had to go through it…we might as well figure out how to get a story out of it!**

** After we survived The Great Scorched Eyeball Incident, my mom said, “I bet you’ll at least get a blog post out of this.” She clearly knows me – and The Writer – well! 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook


Elizabeth McKenzie said...

Wow, that sounds crazy. I used to work for an eye doctor and saw a lot of corneal abrasions, but none, to my knowledge of dishwasher detergent. I never heard of anyone putting their contact case in the dishwasher, but that's not the point. It's true, learning firsthand always makes a story more realistic. That's what's called, write what you know. Good story about your experience, you had me on the edge of my seat.

jmarierundquist said...

Experiencing adversity is a GREAT writer tool. I remember writing my first novel and there was a scene involving paramedics, a ride in an ambulance, and the hospital. Lo and behold, I found myself in that position and I remember talking to the paramedics in the truck about how I was totally jazzed to use the experience in my material. Best learning part of that experience was the extremely calm and in-control actions and words of the paramedics.

As sorry as I am about your recent migraine-vision problems, I am equally in line with you and how it has the upside of adding authenticity to your writing. :D

Stephanie McGee said...

Oh, man, have I been there with the eye-related ER trips. Scratched my cornea freshman year in college an went through some of the same tests to figure out why my eye was hurting and I couldn't see. We writers definitely have to draw on every experience we've ever had to extrapolate reactions and add authenticity to our writing. (Maybe someday I'll write a contemporary that will actually get published and it might have a hospital scene or two. Seen too many of those in my life.)

Peaches Ledwidge said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees stories while facing tragic circumstances.

After the panic, anger, hurt, sadness, then comes the story.

Robin McCormack said...

Oh my! I would have never thought of putting lens case in the dw. Read this to hubby and he wants to know if you bought a bosch dishwasher? They are remarkably quiet, but inefficient.

I've been tempted to use latest family drama in a story, but just can't bring myself to do it. Think I prefer dreaming up imaginative scenarios. They are less painful.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Hm, don't know why this didn't post the first time I tried...

Robin, you may tell hubby that he nailed it -- yes, it was a Bosch. I wanted quiet and I got burnt eyeballs!

Jo said...

My son got his upper lip split open when it was hit in a hockey game. I spent my time in the ER with him alternating between compassionate hugs and comments, and making notes, asking the staff questions ("What is that thing called?", "Why did you do that?", "What would you do if?") and peeping around at others to note their experiences.
Writers have to be monsters sometimes :)

Rachel N said...

I'm literally blogging for survival at the moment. I'm writing for no other reason than I just don't know what else to do. I guess there is some benefit, I just can't see what it is right now.