Writing Easy When The Subject Matter Is Hard

NOTE: I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because there might not be an original thought under the sun, but there’s definitely original and stolen ways to say them!

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Recently a friend who read FREAK OF NURTURE asked me to tell her “how I did it.”

“Did what?” I asked with a sliver of defensiveness, thinking she might mean “how did you make so make dubious decisions which led to so many of the stories of the book?”

Silly me.

What she really meant was “how did you write about all the shitty stuff that happened to you in many of the stories of the book.”

Slightly different question.

Unfortunately I’m not sure I know the answer to the latter any more than do I the former, but perhaps I have a few tricks. Or maybe they’re tips. I’m not really so tricky like that .

 Kelli’s Surefire Might Work But Might Not Work Tips for Writing About

Bad Stuff That Happened To You Without Losing Your Mind Further, More, or Completely

#1—REMEMBER PTSD IS A REAL THING. Yup, it’s got a DSM code and everything and the government spends money studying it so you know it’s got to be legit. Respect the power of words, and how crafting and creating narratives can mess with your head.

Seriously, I know from PTSD. I was a nun.

Seriously, I was a nun. So I know from PSTD, on both the giving and receiving end.

#2—COMMIT TO CREATING BEYOND YOUR COMFORT LEVEL. If something bad happened to you and you want to turn it into art, that’s amazing. And the end result might also be amazing. But it’s not necessarily going to be easy to get there (see tip #1) and so you have decide that creating something is more important than feeling good, or even okay.

#3—CONSIDER IF YOUR LIFE IS STABLE ENOUGH TO ATTEMPT A HARD PROJECT. If you just broke up with your boyfriend and had to move back into your parent’s basement which they had been using to house their rare incontinent ferret collection, maybe it’s not the time to start your memoir about your time in a abusive commune/ hostage stand off / religious cult. Or maybe it is, what the hell do I know. Point is, consider your current situation before you tackle your past situations.

ME, I PREFER TO LIVE WITH MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND'S CAT WHO WOULD RATHER STICK HER HEAD IN AN EMPTY CASE OF DIET MOUNTAIN DEW TO AVOID LOOKING AT ME.

ME, I PREFER TO LIVE WITH MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND’S CAT WHO WOULD RATHER STICK HER HEAD IN AN EMPTY CASE OF DIET MOUNTAIN DEW THAN LOOK AT ME.

#4—BE AWARE THAT NOT ALL HORRIBLE THINGS ARE INHERENTLY INTERESTING. Include all the horrible details in your first draft, if that works for your process. But since this isn’t your journal, commit to writing many drafts before your work will be publishable. And yes, that includes on tumblr and your blog.

Not even your livejournal. Or my livejournal. Because it's no longer 2005

Not even your livejournal. Or my livejournal. Because it’s no longer 2005

#5—WORK WITH AN EDITOR YOU TRUST. Ideally someone who has suffered more than you, otherwise you might want to punch them in the head.

#6—DO YOUR HARDEST WORK IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHER PEOPLE. That might be at a coffeeshop, or at a friend’s house, or a co-working place you rent by the day or the month. Or home with your room-mates around. You won’t necessarily want or need someone holding your hand, but it’s good to have humans around to remind you that you’re basically okay or at least still alive and breathing.

#7—KEEP IN TOUCH WITH HOW YOU’RE USING SUBSTANCES. In the past I would have said “don’t be an ass, staying up all night drinking whiskey and pecking away at the computer won’t turn you into Hemingway, it will just turn you into an alcoholic.” And I would say generally that’s true. But I know there are some people who tackle their demons equipped with weed or alcohol and it works for them.

#8—HAVE DEADLINES. Deadlines that someone other than you knows about.

#9–WORK SOMEPLACE PRETTY. Or if it feels better to you, someplace really really ugly, some place that matches the mood of what you’re writing. Just be aware of the physical environment.

#10—CREATE OUT OF ORDER. I wrote the first draft of Pudding Day (the one person show about the death of my first partner, which ultimately became a chapter in Freak of Nurture) in chronological order. It felt like losing her all over again. When a few years later my second partner Cheryl died, I realized I needed to mix it up a little, so I wrote about her death first, then our meeting, then her illness. I spent more time editing, but less time managing my own emotional upheaval. Mostly.

#11—ACKNOWLEDGE THAT NOT EVERYONE IS YOUR ENEMY. I know I know, that sounds like an asshole thing to say to someone trying to write about hard shit. But let’s say you’re crafting an essay about how a huge boulder fell on you for Huge Rocks Today Magazine. You can write about your own injuries, and how mean the doctor in the emergency room was to you, what you learned, what you didn’t learn, how mad you are that you stood underneath the boulder, or even how much you hate the person who tricked you into standing underneath the boulder. But if you spend 500 words on how stupid the boulder is, tedium ensues. Many stories and situations have a boulder, don’t give too much time to yours or you lose the reader.

#12—YOU CAN WRITE LIKE HELL ABOUT SOMETHING THAT HURT LIKE HELL and still sometimes people won’t get it. But you created something, so guess what, you win.

PS Kelli will be reading from FREAK OF NURTURE in New York on September 25th at the VP Reading Series, and in Philadelphia on September 26th at William Way Center.  Or come watch Kelli and Red Durkin as they record their CDs (Kelli’s will be called Trigger Warning) on October 11th in Bushwich, BK.

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