Writer Q&As: How do I get through the first draft when I am too emotionally vulnerable?

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.

Posted by: Lindsay Glauser

2 thoughts on “Writer Q&As: How do I get through the first draft when I am too emotionally vulnerable?

  1. This could not have arrived at a better time for me and my process!

    I’m on retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey, struggling with a CNF piece about my mother and the impact of her leaving us — her four children and my Dad — for her boyfriend when I was 18. I’m now in my 50s. For three days this past week I wrote and cried, wrote and cried and wrote some more, and amassed only 500 words.

    Over the years, I’ve had great therapists, written a lot of poetry. I’ve learned to meditate and practice mindfulness and thought I’d worked these issues through. Apparently not. As with everything, it seems, the spiral brings it back in a new way.

    But at a reading this week, something shifted. Meira Cook introduced a poem sequence by talking about the difficulty she’d had writing about her mother. She said she’d always wanted to but couldn’t. I could totally relate. When I heard the word betrayal my tears were right there. Unfortunately, I missed her poem. I was too deep into my own goop, noticing how that word precisely described my experience.

    And that’s bizarre because I have a children’s manuscript about the experience pretty much ready to go out into the world. It’s fictionalized, yes, but drawn from the same time in my life. So I decided to sit with it. Brilliant decision on my part because this arrived.

    Today, I’ve written another 250 words, no tears, and it’s not yet noon!

  2. Beautiful to read the question and read the responses. I’ve had to slow down on my manuscript due to the MS relapses I’ve had which are triggered by emotions. The emotions took a toll on my soul to the point of hating my draft, hating the writing and hating myself for failing to meet a deadline. I was so angry with myself and the manuscript. At that time, Betsy was such a great mentor and friend and one of the lessons she taught me was “there is no deadline to finishing”. Somehow hearing that was all I needed. Like I just needed “permission” to accept and take time to heal. It was also helpful to hear from her and other writers how long it took to finish vulnerable pieces of writing. Another tip from Betsy and other writers that helped me a lot was: “write into the fear”. I have written my most “raw” poems at these times. All these tips and hearing others’ writing journey has made me realize – I’m okay and to forgive myself. I now write when my body/heart tells me to rather than my mind. I’ve also stopped answer the question (in my mind and from others): when will your book be done? I give an answer of: “writing from the heart takes a long time. I have no deadline. Really – is there a deadline on life?” Internally – I ensure to balance myself – my mind reminds me not to “cop out” with such a response, but my heart tells me “laugh into it. It’s okay. It will happen.” xoxo

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