On Writing: How to Honor Suffering

Saturday, March 9, 2013

on writing: how to honor suffering

I recently read a book that was well-written, fast-paced, and intriguing. And I hated it. I hated it so much that it still bothers me two weeks later, despite the fact that I read every damn word in three days and had to find out how it ended.

Why did I hate it?

Because one of the characters dealt with tragedy in a completely unrealistic manner. And as it was a tragedy that I myself have dealt with, it made me angry. And I threw the book across the room.

And that's what writers want to avoid.


Trying to put words and sensations around something sad, tragic, or painful that you haven't personally experienced can be very difficult. And the best way that I can think of to avoid tainting your writing with a built-in fury factor is to seek the input and criticism of people who *have* experienced it.

Research it.

Now, I know that you can't walk up to someone and say, "Hey, tell me about losing a child." But in today's world, you can find online forums or put it out there on Twitter or Facebook. "Does anyone have an experience with X they're willing to share? DM me" can put you in touch with those who are willing to answer your questions. People often want to share their experiences. It's cathartic to talk about them. And it can be comforting, I think, to know that a writer wants to do honor to pain instead of just assuming what something feels like.

In my case, this book included a character who had been raped. I personally didn't feel that the aftereffects were handled with empathy but were instead manipulated to push the story forward and, to be blunt, make the sex hotter. It felt insulting and belittling. Hence my anger.

Someone asked me once how I dealt with being raped, and here's the analogy I came up with:

Think of your mind as a house. There are rooms you visit often, rooms you rarely use, and even secret, hidden rooms that you haven't discovered yet. Your tragedy or your pain is a rabid dog. It's unwelcome and uninvited, and it makes so much noise that you can't get anything done. So you take the bad thoughts, the bad feelings, and you put them in a room and close the door. Sure, at first, it claws to get out, and you can still hear the barking. But over time, with nothing to feed on, it gets quieter and weaker. And you're not forgetting it or pretending it doesn't exist-- you know it's there. But you're not giving it the attention it needs to thrive. And if you're lucky, one day, it ossifies and becomes nothing more than a fossil of something that once happened, something that can't really hurt you anymore. 

The character in this book carried her rabid dog on a chain, kept it with her always, and then just shot it one day, right when it solved all her problems. But I don't think these things ever die, and so the book made me angry. If it was that easy for the character to get over her experience, it basically said that all the work I did dealing with mine was nothing. That the fact that my body closed down against my will for all those years, the fact that I couldn't stop the tears-- that all that pain meant nothing. I like to think the author was going for a positive, hopeful message: that with love and tenderness and the right mental breakthrough, it's possible to transcend tragedy. But all I got was that in this book, the rules of recovery didn't apply.

As a writer, I hope you'll never hold back on telling your story. But I also hope that you'll do honor to suffering in the best way you know how. Research is just as important when writing about tragedy as it is when writing about history; if you want the reader to make the jump with you and believe that your world is real, the emotional foundation must be solid.