Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Embrace Your Dark Side

charging knightI once wrote a post called Get Mad: Marketing from Your Dark Side. I’ve mentioned it before briefly in the context of Terry Pratchett’s passing, but I’d like to come back to it again because I recently read two blog posts that touched on how artists use their personal fears, conflicts, and even tragedies to infuse their art with passion that resonates far beyond their own experience.

In my original post about marketing, I talked about how a strong brand is defined as much by what it stands against as what it stands for:

Without an opposing force, a hero is just a person who is going through the motions.

Without an opposing force, there is no fire in the hero’s soul. There is no sense of greater purpose, no fierce commitment, no do-or-die mission.

Without an opposing force, we never get to see what the hero can really do.

Like it or not, your enemy is a big part of who you are and why you are.

As writers, we are defined in a similar way – not just by what we write, but WHY we write it. Often the “why” behind what we write is grounded in some deep ache or longing, desire for justice, or mission to be a voice for the voiceless. These voids and wrongs that need righting are our “dark side.” They are the issues and experiences that touch us so deeply that we feel compelled to write about them.

Over the weekend, I read an interesting piece by Scott Belsky on Behance’s 99U blog. In Creativity is Nourished by Conflict, Belsky tells the tale of his friend, the young musician Rachel Platten, who – after ten years of relative anonymity – just hit big with “Fight Song,” an anthem that was born out of her own fears and frustrations:

This song is Rachel’s first major hit (we’re talking morning shows, rabid fans, sharing the stage with Taylor Swift, etc.), and like all great art, it came from a dark place: desperation, exhaustion, and the desire to prove oneself amidst universal doubt.

And then this morning I read The Secret of All Art (cc Louis CK, Kurt Vonnegut, JK Rowling, Casey Neistat, etc.) by James Althucher in which the Choose Yourself author talks about the importance of having an “emotional anchor” for your art:

Heres what I think all great artists do:

– They have a deeply personal emotional anchor they can tie their work to:

For Kurt Vonnegut, he was dramatically effected by the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, where he was a prisoner of war.

130,000 people died in a single day. Compared with 90,000 in Hiroshima. Kurt Vonnegut survived and his job after that was to dig up all the bodies.

When he ANCHORS a book (in Slaughterhouse Five, for instance, he anchors to the most horrific moment of his life – Dresden), he can go CRAZY after that: time travel, other planets, placing the author as a side character in the book, all sorts of experimentation.

It doesn’t matter because he can always pull back to the emotional anchor when he needs to. And then we all relate.

No emotional anchor = no art. No meaning.

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So, while your stories may reflect what you find beautiful and precious in this world, remember that they are also a place where you can do battle against the darkness that would harm the things you hold dearest. And know that your most powerful writing will often be born of that dark side and your impassioned willingness to fight it with everything you’ve got.

Oh, and by the way, writing from your dark side can make a difference in the world. In her recent Writer Unboxed piece, The Power of Fiction, Jo Eberhardt shares some fabulous examples of how different stories changed the world, one life at a time. Pretty inspiring stuff.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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53 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Embrace Your Dark Side

  1. yes it’s important in a way. When I write I write from my soul with all it has the bright side and the dark side. We humans are like the yin yang. We carry both of these elements within us.

    • Thanks for the reminder about the relationship between the light and the dark. As they say, you can’t see one without the other, and it’s the same in our writing. Even when we are writing about the dark side, we have an opportunity to illuminate the bright parts of the world.
      TKS!

      • Hey! No.. thank-you ) It’ll help a lot of people ponder over the worlds existing within themselves!
        Indeed we do and writing happens to be one of the best means!

    • I have had similar experiences writing essays and even blog posts. It’s almost like when I stop trying so hard to think with my head, my heart can finally take over and get things done. 😉

  2. I find it much more difficult to create conflict and dark characters. I read “The Sociopath Next Door” to learn about that dark side. It was helpful, because I no longer have to understand why someone would do something horrific. I know others who delight in creating conflict and dark characters. Go figure.

    • I haven’t really done much in terms of creating dark characters, and I’m guessing that I would have a hard time as well. What I have played with, is letting the dark side of life drive my writing … meaning that I let myself be inspired by my desire to do battle with things I consider dark, like oppression or injustice or cruelty. When I do this – whether in a story or an essay – I feel like I am striking a blog for “the good guys.”
      Nice to “see” you. Hope your Enchanted Rock stories are going well. 🙂

  3. Darkness is a magnificent light to write. I agree to this post. We need to explore our dark side which we often want to hide but still write through the responsible words.

    • Mmmmm … and even protagonists can have their own dark side, even as they do battle against a greater evil. So many layers!
      Good luck!

  4. I admit Jamie, wonderfully written, tapping darkside often paves the way for something that you may have been looking for years. At the same time it sets deeper and profound emotional connection and that’s when some one can be at his/her best.

    • Exactly. It’s like that “this just got real” cliche. You need to get past all the small talk in order to get to the really good stuff – the stuff that touches people’s hearts, the stuff they will remember.

  5. For some reason, I’ve always felt like I’m the only writer that doesn’t have a dark side or some deep, beautiful meaning for writing. I write because it makes me happy, even though it can be hard sometimes.

    • You don’t need to have a dark side, exactly, Katy. Even if you write mostly about beautiful things, that beauty stands in contrast to the ugliness in the world and is, just by nature of existing, opposing that ugliness for what it is. Realizing and acknowledging what it is that you are standing against can infuse your writing with more intensity and purpose without you having to change the “what” of your stories at all.
      Keep being happy. That’s a good thing! 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on Shewrite63 and commented:
    Thank you, Jamie and NHWN folks for this timely piece of advice. It is liberating in that I have been holding back a research and writing project due to self-inflicted feelings of shame, fear of judgement and rejection. Friends have convinced me that this story could resonate with many others along the way. Tearfully, I thank you.

  7. Reblogged this on and commented:
    To some degree, I have struggled with this myself. I have been working on a screenplay since I graduated with my Masters in creative writing and there are 2 characters who are much darker than they seem at one point and while I love the concept I have for them, I’ve actually looked towards my husband and his preferences towards dark films and novels to inspire my words and my thoughts to tap into the world.

    But what I find most difficult, is relating to my characters which may sound weird because I am writing them but I really don’t. I understand what I want to show them as or describe them but I don’t relate to them. This is how I struggle because my personal taste in films and novels has changed drastically over the years and I think my personal tastes rather than my personal experiences are affecting my work.

    This post has inspired me to tap more into myself in order to create multi-layered characters because all people are multi-layered and; therefore, the characters should be too.

    “‘No emotional anchor = no art. No meaning.'”

    • I love what you’re exploring about “multi-layered,” Christina. I think that’s actually one of the most important aspects of any truly great character. No one is all good or all bad. At least not in real life. When we try to create a “good guy” without flaws or a “bad guy” without any human qualities, they become two-dimensional and unbelievable. “Layers” are what make characters interesting. We want to peel them away to get at what’s underneath – see how their complicated minds and hearts mirror our own.

      Lots to “play” with here. Thanks!

  8. You got me thinking with…”wrongs that need righting are our “dark side.” Never saw it quite that way…”wrongs that need righting” are our dark side. Wrongs that need writing will hopefully follow! Excellent, thought provoking piece.

    • “Wrongs that need writing” … love that! 🙂
      So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for adding that great play on words.

    • It’s a lovely post that broaches a deep and often difficult subject. I think you are right that insecurity is not all bad. It does have an aspect of humility that can be good for our souls. Exploring our insecurities can be a powerful tool for learning more about ourselves and, ultimately, “owning” who we are without feeling like we are “less than.”

      In terms of technical feedback for your post, I think this post might help you wrangle your ideas: https://nhwn.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/short-and-sweet-advice-for-writers-have-a-point-aka-wiifm/

      Thanks for sharing & happy writing!

  9. If you refuse to even consider the negative or less happy aspects of things when writing, you’re already surrendering tons of source material before even starting.
    Go ahead, enjoy some catharsis. Not everyone wants a nursery tale.

    • I SO agree. I wrote a piece about how not even kids always want “nice” stories: https://nhwn.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/children-do-not-want-nice-stories/ They want to dig into the truth about the world, get their hands dirty, explore all of it – good and bad, delightful and scary. Children are fearless in this way, adults maybe less so.

      But, I think that exploring dark source material is necessary if we want to really experience the beautiful side of life. You need the one to contrast with the other, at least on some level.

  10. I have always thought the “dark side” was equal to the “bad side” – but now I understand there is the other side of darkness. The side of me that is wanting to fill a void, rectify an emptiness, create a purpose to my life that only my writing can do for me. It is why I blog (Historical Fiction Addicts), it is why I keep writing (working on my third novel now) and keep pressing ahead so that my work, published on-line and one day with publishers, will satisfy my dark side.

    • So interesting … like the “dark side” is a kind of black hole that needs filling. Which then, of course, begs the question, “Why does it need filling? What darkness is driving that desire to find some kind of fulfillment?”

      It’s like trying to identify the opposite of what you want. That opposite, that opposing force, is the dark side against which you are “fighting” as you write. That’s the obstacle you want to overcome. Many writers spend their lives working to fully define and understand that dark side, and – in the process – create works that helps readers illuminate another step on their own paths.

      It’s an interesting cycle.

  11. I agree that great art can be created from negative emotions and can be a healthy way to process them. But, I don’t think it’s a surefire recipe for quality work. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not a very good movie, but it came from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s respective divorces when they were both in very dark places. So, yes, definitely draw on your pain and sadness and fears to make a story, but don’t forget that, like most other things, it probably needs a few fixes before it can go out in the world.

    • You bring up an excellent point, Abigail. Though we may fuel first drafts by tapping into our fears and outrage against the darkness we see in the world, it’s important (as with any writing) to set that initial outpouring aside and edit before we release it into the world. Raw emotion provides wonderful source material, but that source material must be crafted into something more finished. Railing against an injustice that you find particularly heinous and just getting your feelings out on the page can provide you with an extraordinary level of sudden clarity about your feelings and beliefs, but it isn’t usually a good idea to share that unedited first “explosion” with the world at large.

      Excellent advice. Thanks!

  12. Thank you! You are so right! I have seen that when I needed a pen and paper to write down something, it was at a point when I was deeply moved by someone or some event. And all those writings have been rooted in some despair or feeling other’s pains! Your dark side is the flame to your writing! Thank you again!

    • My sincere apologies for this seriously belated response. Just happened upon your comment while responding to recent ones from my “Top 10 of 2015” post.
      Thanks for sharing your experience here. I love what you said about the dark side being the “flame” to your writing. Nice imagery!

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  18. Aaah Jamie – thank you for linking me to this INSPIRING post.

    Battling my ‘dark side’ has become an exhausting, ever-present, eternal process that preys on my enthusiasm, belief, confidence, happiness, and PASSION.

    The demon within me licks his lips with gusto, ready to feast on yet another delicious meal that’s cooked in a vessel of hatred, coated with the oil of comparison, flavored with the spice of envy, stirred with the ladle of worthlessness. The flame flickers ever-so-gently, eroding my mental acuity, my physical health, and my emotional stability – one lick at a time.

    Thanks again, Jamie, for being an unconditional source of support and insights #HUGSSS

    OODLES of love
    Kitto

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