I have a current manuscript that I keep abandoning because the subject is so deeply personal and traumatic. In the process of writing this story these experiences are intensely relived, with the result that I become overwhelmed and too emotionally vulnerable to stay the course. Even the research into clippings, letters, and photographs can sabotage my attempts to tell this story.
I was working with a trusted reader but circumstances changed, besides which the writing doesn’t bear up well under scrutiny at this point. If I could just get through to a full first draft I think it would allow for the necessary revisions and editing. Do you have any suggestions for negotiating this initial phase without compromising story, sanity and my need for intense engagement in the process? [Colette Gagnon]
This excellent question haunts far more writers working with lived experience material than anyone would suspect. My answer below may seem tough but toughness is required when writing this kind of narrative.
First of all, although this may sound perverse, being “overwhelmed” is a good sign! It indicates that the writer viscerally feels the power of the story. When they don’t, they’re in trouble.
Second, accept you have been given this story. Why? You are the one who has to capacity to tell it. I would have never chosen the majority of narratives I’ve written but they deepened and matured me as a writer and a person. Ultimately, I’m grateful for them as are the people who have read them. These difficult narratives require a profound devotion. Trust and respect your devotion.
This devotion means writing as faithfully and skillfully as you possibly can. To accomplish this, it’s crucial to make no decisions in your head (they are often faulty), rather get everything down on the page. Decide later, when your narrative is well formed. Alongside of that, resist debating about publishing or not publishing until you have a solid draft.
Thirdly, when the voice of “it’s too personal” arises, relentlessly remind yourself that it isn’t.
What! It isn’t?
No. It isn’t.
It actually not about you, nor those who lived the story: it is about the story. Period.
If you feel engulfed by it, you’ve likely become caught up in the narrative of your overwhelm. This derailment is what is stymieing you (not the story). As well, the research you mention is so forego it until it has less impact. With these gift stories, there inevitably is a larger imperative of inquiry motivating you. See this recent interview with Miriam Toews.
Fourth, it is crucial that you find containers for yourself that support the kind of pacing and confidence you need. My memoir Bloodroot –Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss taught me this invaluable lesson. See my reflection on this here.
Containers can be timed writings; an unfailingly steady but periodic writing schedule; going away for a compressed period of time to write a full draft (no matter what!). Containers can be focusing in on a narrative unit such as: everything about one scene, person, turning point, image, a symbolic object, action, dynamic, time frame, evolving perception, etc.
Finally, find or create a supportive structure:
-Find a writing group or pairing with another writer
-Connect with a manuscript mentor
-Locate an axillary text to deposit all your doubts and fears in
-Read other lived-experience books (or see films of) and note how you value them
-Read excerpts in public reading whenever possible
-Use calls for journal and anthology submissions on related narrative themes or competition deadlines
Respect but refuse your fear.
How have you managed to cope with strong emotions while writing your story? Let us know in the comment section below!
Answered by Betsy Warland.