It’s all going to be okay.
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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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.’
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.
My 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.
Listening 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. 😉
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
- The Myth of the Everyreader by @RFaithEditorial via @JaneFriedman
- Hardest Stuff First by @SPressfield
- The Step-by-Step Guide to Building an Audience Before Your Business Launches by @neilpatel
- Don’t Quit Your Day Job by @female50freaked
- Developing A Self-Published Author Business Plan via @BookBaby
- Collaboration and creative work by @DanBlank
- There is something extraordinary happening in the world — The Global Future of Work by Gustavo Tanaka via @Medium
- George Saunders on the Power of Kindness via @brainpicker
- One Writer’s Christmas Wish: Serenity by Bella Mahaya Carter via @shewritesdotcom
Finally, a quote for the week:
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.
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 Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.