Writing About What Hurts: how to manage your emotions throughout a project

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By Julie Tyler

Some of us may hesitate to write about painful experiences, because it means we’ll have to relive the worst times in our lives.

But in this third installment of Writing About What Hurts, I offer 7 ways to manage the pain of reliving past experiences. I’ve tried ’em, and believe me, they work!

#1 – Give yourself permission to express yourself fully 

Raise your voice above the racket of modern life and validate your words. Self-validation is a hard to master, especially after experiencing pain and/or trauma, and especially if you did not receive support from others during and after your ordeal.

Validating your own words becomes easier with conscious practice, however. Before you begin writing about what hurts, scribble out a purpose statement for your project. Make a list of the worst aspects of your experience, and then write a paragraph exploring why you plan to relive painful experiences. Write another paragraph listing a few ways your project can stand out, on a literary level, from other publications that are similar.

Refer to this statement periodically as you see your project through to completion. That way, your own words serve as your primary source of motivation. You’ll need them when doubt rears its head.

#2 – Surround yourself with supporters

At the same time that you validate your own words and rely on them to motivate you, it always helps to build an external system of support, as I’ve written in the Find Your People series, and as our contributor Bri Spicer has written in “Don’t Swallow the Story You Need To Write.”  Your supporters should celebrate your writing endeavors and be on your side with regard to your painful experience.

As with any writing, you never want to do more harm than good. Your writing buddies can help you face your past experiences AND troubleshoot passages, so that your project stays true to your vision.

And of course avoid people who seek to silence, shame, or invalidate you, with such hateful advice as “Get over it and leave it in the past.”

#3 – Characterize your voice in writing.

Once you’ve completed the emotional work of #1 and #2, your next step should be an intellectual one: brainstorming the right narrative voice to express your words. Whether you write about your experiences in first-person or third-person, write a fictionalized account or a straight-up memoir, or adopt a serious or comedic tone, it’s important to identify the right voice for reaching your intended audience.

In so doing, you’ll probably find that the effort of making thoughtful artistic choices helps to mitigate negative feelings you have about your project’s subject matter.

#4 – Avoid comparing your level of hurt to others’

At the same time that you want your project to stand out from other publications on a literary level, you don’t want to start comparing your experiences and hurts to others’. Doing so only creates a recipe for NOT following through with your project idea, as in, “Well, look at what’s happening to so-and-so. My stuff isn’t significant enough to write about” or “Well so-and-so wrote a nice tame story. Mine’s too graphic to write about.” Your experience, if told well, is worthy of becoming a story and doing good work in the world.

This tip goes back to #1, validating your own voice. Remember to get out your purpose statement and reacquaint yourself with the power and purpose behind your own words.

#5 – Be fair when characterizing others and yourself

Every story has at least one hero and one villain. We’re often better at identifying how others have been villains in our stories, before we admit that we’ve probably been villains ourselves. Before you put pen to paper, ask yourself, “What was my own role in the pain I experienced? What mistakes did I make?” and answer honestly.

Warning: this is very hard and hurts a lot, sometimes more than the original experience. I’ve got several pages of notes attesting to these facts. But no matter what direction your story takes, exercising fairness will make you a more powerful writer and help you process, rather than obfuscate, the pain.

#6 – Use care when fictionalizing actual events.

At the same time that we strive to be fair, we don’t want to sugarcoat a book’s message. Don’t let villains off the hook or leave out key scenes from the narrative, just because the material may be graphic or negative.

Instead, take time outside of your writing to work through feelings of resentment, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Your pain may linger as you go through the writing, but you’ll need to have a outlet for your feelings that is separate from your writing project, so that the project becomes a work of art rather than just a diary of things that make you sad/mad.

#7 – Take breaks.

In moments when reliving the past gets too hard to handle, get the heck away from your project and take a break. That way, you can return to it later with the confidence and strength to push through the hard-to-write parts. I find it helpful to have several projects on the back-burner, so that when I need a break from one, I can turn to another and continue writing, which is, after all, what I love best.

Well, there you have it folks: 7 tips that enable your mind to help your heart. With time, perspective, concrete goals, a support system, and the strength to validate yourself, you’ll be unstoppable.

Reach out and let us know how your projects are going, writing about what hurts included!

2 comments

  1. This is great, Julie. During the three years that I wrote my memoir, I also found it necessary to have a counselor on hand to help me work through some of the painful scenarios that I hadn’t yet processed. I also found a few books on trauma that were helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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