Weekend Edition – Writing the Hard Stuff

It’s all going to be okay.

Go ahead, enter the dark forest where the path is hard and demons lurk.

Go ahead, enter the dark forest where the path is hard and demons lurk.

Though there is much that I love about the holidays, there is also much that I find trying. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, this time of the year always arrives bedecked not only in holly and mistletoe, but also in an excess of drama and angst. While outwardly we rejoice and make merry, many of us simultaneously wrestle with all kinds of personal, social, and familial demons. I recently learned that many churches now hold “Blue Christmas” services specifically to provide solace to people who struggle emotionally during this festive season.

I bring this up not to dampen your holiday spirit, but to offer a humble word of commiseration and comfort, and also to invite you – one writer to another – to face any seasonal hardships  you may encounter head on, pen in hand.

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Last Saturday my weekend edition was about the top ten reasons I love writing.  The very first comment the post received was from Paul Barnett who offered up an eleventh reason:

Eleven – ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.’ Auden noted: Man needs to escape as he needs food and deep sleep.’

Graham Greene

Think of the mess you might be in if you didn’t write

Think of the mess, indeed.

Reading Paul’s comment, I could hardly believe that I’d overlooked such an important aspect of my writing practice. The oversight was so glaring that it made me wonder if the omission wasn’t perhaps Freudian. After all, I began my writing journey in the pages of personal journals and diaries, and – forty years later – still spend several hours each week putting pen to paper in what is primarily a cathartic exercise meant to help me get things off my chest, clear my head, and (hopefully) give me new insight and perspective.

Looking back on old journal entries, however, I can see that I often shy away from writing about the hard stuff. It’s easy to fill pages with thoughts about my latest projects, ambitions, and ideas or to ramble on about the daily goings on in my life, but these topics – while important in their own way – do not “get to the heart of the matter,” as the saying goes. Though I write in my journals on an almost daily basis, there is much that is left unsaid. And, I regret that.

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As writers, we try to capture experiences – both our own and those of our characters – in a way that is believable and moving. We strive to bring whatever story we are telling, be it autobiographical or fictional, to life in an authentic and fully realized way. Unfortunately, this often means facing down our demons. It means not only acknowledging the hard stuff, but cracking it open and pulling it apart. It means asking hard questions and making ourselves think hard about the answers. It means writing down words even if you’re not sure you ever want them to see the light of day.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” He also said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” This is how to tackle the hard stuff – head on, no holds barred. Just write it. Don’t judge. Don’t worry. Just write. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Whether what you write ever sees the light of day or not, you will be a stronger writer for having had the courage and temerity to put your truth into words: I’m scared, I’m lonely, I’m angry, I’m totally losing it.

Writing about the hard stuff helps you understand it. Even if what you write is only ever read by you, the act of writing it down makes it a part of everything else you write afterwards. You will have gained not only insight, but also a certain mastery over the thing that scared, saddened, or hurt you. Through writing, you will have begun to learn the anatomy of the thing, what makes it tick, why it has power over you, and how to shift your perspective or change your reality so that the hard stuff isn’t so hard anymore.

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This isn’t to say that everything you write has to be dark or heavy. Not at all.

I used to worry that my writing would never be taken seriously unless I got my inner Pollyanna under control. For the most part, I am a seriously glass-half-full/silver-lining kind of person, and that comes out in my writing. I tend to favor topics that I find beautiful, comforting, and inspiring. I love stories that create a sense of wonder, illuminate the good, and provide a sense of hope. And, though I’m willing to walk through the darkness to get there, I’m a stickler about having a happy ending.

Funny and ridiculous are often the result of a writer’s exploration of the hard stuff. A lot of the best comedy is actually inspired by darkness, and transformed through the comedian’s brave investigations into what lurks in the shadows. Or, take writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Pratchett. Each of them took a good hard look at the world – the good, the bad, and the really ugly. They were honest in their assessments of human nature and the human condition. Their stories and novels are full of observations that are not exactly all rainbows and unicorns. And yet, because they were willing to step into that darkness and wrestle with the hard stuff, they were able to craft stories that not only help us to understand and conquer our fears, but also to see the good and the bright more clearly by contrast.

Take a walk back through literary history, and see how many writers you can name who shone the harsh light of writerly scrutiny on humanity and found it wanting, but still managed to write stories that inspire wonder and hope? William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens come to mind, and I am sure there are many, many others you could name.

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Earlier this year, in a post called Imagine a World of Writers, I explained why I think the world would be a better place if more people wrote:

It is all too easy for a lifetime to slip by unquestioned. And if we do not take the time to ask the questions, how will we ever know our answers? Not that the answers are all that important. It is the questions that matter. Writing helps us grasp the questions; and, in the process of seeking an answer, it helps us to understand the question more fully. Writing forces us to think more deeply and broadly and carefully. It  breaks a question open and invites us to explore. The process of writing – the digging in, the discovery, the meandering and wondering, the finding of the right words, the connecting of ideas and generating of more questions – makes it impossible for any question to be answered in simple black and white terms.The process of writing introduces not only all the grays that live in the thousands of stories behind a question, but every beautiful, brilliant color of life.

Today I’d like to add that the world would be an even better place if more people were willing to write about the hard stuff – get in there and get dirty, risk their own vulnerable hearts, share their own pieces of darkness.

Because, despite the perfect lives you see in social media feeds all over the Internet, each of us has our own darkness. Each of us struggles. Each of us lives with a retinue of personal demons who love to creep out of the shadows to taunt and torture us, especially at times – like the holidays – when tension runs high, stress levels are off the charts, and the ghosts of old wounds, regrets, and grief come to visit. The best way I have found to disarm these villains is to meet them in the inky gloom, wielding my pen like a sword that cuts through the dark in order to let in the light.

And perhaps more healing even than my own word-fueled fight are the instances when I discover that I am not fighting alone. When we share our own stories about the hard stuff, we almost always find that our experiences are not unique. There are always other people standing beside us in the dark, swinging their own swords. We just never knew they were there.

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Shareworthy:

book cricket hearthMy reading this week has been mostly on Audible while I run holiday errands and do holiday “chores” around the house. Each year, Audible gives its members an audio book as a gift. Last year, the book was Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth as read by Jim Dale (who also read all the Harry Potter audio books), and this year it was Dickens’ novella The Chimes as read by Richard Armitage. I have enjoyed both readings immensely. Dickens’ characterization skill is not easily rivaled, and each of these stories showcases his impressive ability to observe, capture, and convey the very essence of a person’s nature. There is also, more so in The Cricket on the Hearth than in The Chimes, an almost Oscar Wilde-ish flavor to some of the commentary – not exactly a sharp tongue, but definitely one that is full of wry wit delivered in all good humor.

book chimesListening to the antiquated but highly expressive language used to tell these stories, I felt a little like I was having to learn a subtly different dialect of my native English. It took me a chapter or two to adjust not only my ear but also my interpretation so that I could fully understand the nuances of meaning in each line. I was also reminded how much what we read influences how we write. Be diverse in your reading appetites, but be wary of consuming too much that is below the standard you hope to achieve yourself. Listening to Dickens raised the bar on my own writing and also demonstrated ways to aim for my loftier goals.

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This doesn’t have much to do with writing, but it made me smile, so I’m going to share it anyway.  I suppose if we wanted to, we could muse about how each clip in this montage is a small piece of a story that made was so well crafted and made such an impression that even just seeing these short clips can pull us back into the world of each story.

Yeah. Let’s say that. 😉

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And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

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Finally, a quote for the week:

pin hemingway broken light

Here’s to facing your demons and shining the light on them so they aren’t so scary, to finding the common battles we are fighting side-by-side without knowing it, and to the gift of writing as both a personal balm and a way to connect with others. Happy holidays. Happy writing. 
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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. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Scary Forest Photo Credit: Tim Donnelly (TimboDon) via Compfight cc

47 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Writing the Hard Stuff

  1. This post really speaks to me today. I’ve felt that angst this year, more than others. And though I am beginning to understand some of the reasons for it, I have neglected to turn to writing to sort through it and find answers and solace. Thanks for the reminder.

    • I’m a little relieved to know that I’m not the only writer who inadvertently overlooked the therapeutic powers of a writing practice. I guess sometimes we are blind to the tools that are right there in front of our noses.
      Here’s to answers and solace.
      Thanks for being here.

      • It’s interesting, too, because I have experienced their power many times. I think that somethings things get so overwhelming, the obvious fades from sight. That’s why it’s so good to make the journey with fellow travelers who get it. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this. My blog post this week was pretty dark and personal. I agonized over hitting the publish button because I also don’t necessarily want to come across as fishing for sympathy! Or having some kind soul giving me “self help” cliches. Yet I am feeling low right now. I’m blaming it on the darkness, the lack of light, I mean. So rather than wallow, I’ll pour it all out on paper. Thanks Jamie!

    • Hello, Meg. You’re welcome.
      I know how scary it can be to hit that publish button sometimes. But, as scary as it can be, I’m always glad I did it. I hope you have a similar experience. You name the potential pitfalls of publishing vulnerable pieces so accurately – having people think you’re fishing for sympathy and/or having to read other people’s well-intentioned but completely off the mark advice. I guess our best course is to focus our energy and attention on the writing, and leave the possible responses outside of our worry zone.

      Publish it, or file it, but definitely – as you said – pour it all out. Be well.

  3. Yes, writing about the hard stuff is both difficult but also rewarding while being painful and enlightening. There are poems and documents on my computer that I wrote through tears. Some will go no further than my screen, but were worth the pain of getting out of my head.

    • I have had similar experiences. Sometimes it’s enough just to write it to yourself. No one else needs to read it. No one else needs to know. Just you. There is power in speaking the truth, no matter who listens and who doesn’t.

  4. Wow, this spoke in volumes. Most of the time my family is yelling at eachother.(Me included) This year I figured I would just nap the dreadful day away as well as the days following it and before it. No one would probably be bothered by it. But after reading your post, I might be able to give everything another go. Maybe with some cookies and soda. Thanks for the video, nice touch. I’m sharing it to everyone I can. 🙂

    • Cookies and soda sounds like a good plan to me. 😉
      Thank you for being here and for sharing your experience and thoughts so generously.
      And, I’m glad you liked the video. It’s a little silly, but sometimes silly is what we need.

      Enjoy & be well.

  5. Loved this! I am audio reading “A Tale of Two Cities”, my first Dickens novel! I absolutely LOVE his “Christmas Carol” version! I didn’t realize how funny and how dark his writing was until I read this book, though. I know, your point was to write the hard stuff. It also takes a lot of courage to do that. I was betrayed as a young girl by my own parents because I wrote from my heart. It taught me a lesson with my own children. It also gave me a scar that is hard to overcome at times because I have trust issues. But then I read Dickens, and blogs like this…….Thank you!

    • Hi, Kelly.
      Funny and dark – Dickens was both, wasn’t he? You if you like those aspects, I recommend The Cricket on the Hearth.

      I’m sorry that you suffered a betrayal that has led to trust issues. Those are very difficult to overcome. I recently listened to a talk by the wonderful Brene Brown all about “the anatomy of trust.” It was, I think, her presentation on Oprah’s Soul Sundays show. Worth watching, if you have twenty minutes. It was very helpful to me to gain a better understanding of all the elements that go into trust … and how they can break.

      Thanks for being here, and best to you in your writing and for your holiday.

  6. Wow, Jamie, you always write with such clarity and in such detail. The holidays can be tough, unfortunately. They are a happy time around here for the most part, however. I was thinking about your comments on why you write. I share most of them, it certainly helps me smooth out the rough spots, but mainly I write for the sheer joy of writing. –Curt

    • Hello, Curt.
      I’m glad to hear your holidays are mostly happy. They really are for me, too, it’s just that there are moments that are difficult. Easy or hard, it’s all better knowing I’m not alone on any front … hence the sharing via the written word.

      To the joy of writing!
      Thanks. 🙂

  7. Writing clears my head and often says more about me than I know myself. There are days I begin to write and I am amazed where my fingers take me.
    Thankfully having experienced sad Christmases in the past I will appreciate and enjoy this one.

    • Yes, sometimes our writing can lead us in directions we didn’t expect. I like when that happens. Even if it’s into “dark” territory, being led into an unexpected conversation with myself always results in learning something new. And, that’s a good thing.

      Sorry for past Christmases that were sad, but here’s to enjoying this one to the fullest.

  8. Great post. Hemingway’s quote and your beautiful picture. He knew that Divine Love was the great illumination to his darkness and fuelled the passion for all his writings. Indeed we must have light to get in on all the dark stuff. Writers are people who by the very nature of their passion have the heights of high and the depths of low. That’s what fuels the juices. As for Christmas ….its the fault of a commercially focussed world that what should be a time to focus on The Reason for the Season we are driven by family needs or personal wants, feelings etc. Serenity I love the word. That’s want we all should aspire to for Christmas in our lives and in our writings. Peace and Joy in the midst of it all to you.

    • Hello, Faye. Always nice to see your smiling face.
      “Writers are people who by the very nature of their passion have the heights of high and the depths of low. That’s what fuels the juices.” I would say that artists of any kind fit this description – painters, musicians, dancers, you name it. Art of all kinds is an expression of love – divine or otherwise. Love that.

      Peace and joy to you as well. Peace and joy. 🙂

    • Hello, Linda! 🙂
      Thank you – sending return holiday greetings winging their way over the ocean back to you. May your season be merry and bright!

  9. I’ll start by saying, “I truly enjoyed reading this.”
    “Write about the hard stuff,”huh? Just thinking about the “hard stuff” is hard. I had never thought to write about it. You’ve given me lots to think about.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes it’s all I can do to focus my attention on what hurts, to intentionally wrap my thoughts around whatever it is that is scaring or saddening me. But, I always find that looking whatever it is right in the eye, so to speak, ultimately helps.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for taking the time to say so.
      Happy thinking & happy writing.

  10. When I started bloggling, I thought I’d only go for “…comforting and inspiring” and shied away from any negative experiences in the crazy city I live in. After a few weeks, it got tough, so without going overboard, I started making an ironic comment here, another there. Relief, I started feeling authentic. Moving on lately to more personal issues, so thanks for an excellent thought-provoking and timely post 🙂

    • Hello.
      I can so relate to what you’ve shared here – that sense of feeling “authentic.” If all I ever wrote was the “pretty” and the “perfect,” I would feel somehow like I was being deceptive or misleading. There is a balance of dark and light in real life, and I hope to reflect that same balance in my writing. Sure, I may lean more towards the light, but if I conceal the dark entirely then I am not presenting the full picture, am I? And, as a bonus (as you pointed out), there is genuine relief in being able to strip away that mask of perfection to reveal ourselves as we truly are – IMperfect and still wonderful.

      Thanks for the great addition.
      🙂

  11. Thank you for this, Jamie. I believe there are more of us than not, and for so many different reasons that relate to what you have had the guts to write about in your blog. I fully appreciate the reality as opposed to the fantasy of so much written at this time of year. I haven’t blogged in months, for many reasons, but I believe, with the all of my heart, that your blog needs to be read by as many of us as is possible. I intend to return later today to reblog your blog, which I have a feeling will get me blogging again. Thank you!

    • I’m honored to be part of your “reentry” into your blogging practice. Thank you for sharing that.

      I also believe that many more people than we realize face challenges at this time of year. And, you’re right, we have been led to believe that the “fantasy” of the modern holiday is a reality that we all need to live up to. Not so.

      The best of the season to you & good luck in your own writing and blogging. May it bring you joy and solace.

  12. There are days when I wonder if my writing is just a mental exercise and if I’ll ever get published. But I reassure myself with the knowledge that even if that’s all this becomes, it did keep me sane. I can live with that (but I still want to be published 😉 ).

    • Writing is a multi-faceted practice and pursuit, isn’t it? It has intrinsic value that is personal, but it can also have professional and commercial value. It can be challenging to hold both aspects of it at the same time without demeaning one or the other.
      And – yes – if your writing keeps you sane, that’s a Big Deal. 😉

      Happy writing & happy planning for being published & happy holidays, too!

  13. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Writing the Hard Stuff | A Writer Writing

    • So glad the post found you at the right time. 🙂
      Thanks for the kind words & happy holidays to you, too!

  14. Today was my first time reading your blog. It is inspiring. Thank you for sharing your words with me. One of my favorites: “When we share our own stories about the hard stuff, we almost always find that our experiences are not unique.” This is so true but always seems like the hardest thing to do. Just yesterday I thought about how self-discovery and sharing my true self have often been left on the back burner and may need to be a 2016 change. Thanks for giving me extra push through your words to do so. Love love love the video you shared by the way. I am pretty sure those are all of my favorite movies.

  15. Pingback: Ten Things David Bowie Taught Us About Creating Art | Live to Write – Write to Live

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