Forget your distress and focus on your writing

Earlier today I was reading an article on The Guardian's website about the Booker Prize shortlist. It was written by Andrew Motion, the UK's previous poet laureate and head of this year's Booker judging panel. I was struck by the following:

Too many publishers publish too much. Not nearly enough novels get the editing they need. Some novels are so clearly manifestations of distress, they might be better described as "a frieze of misery" (in Larkin's phrase) than a work of fiction.

It's that last sentence that caught my attention. The notion that even when authors are at the stage where they are being considered for the Booker longlist, they can still get distracted by their own 'distress', as Motion puts it.

It made me think back to one of the best writing lessons I ever learned. Let me tell you about it.

The need for distance

When I was 19 years old, someone I knew from school went on holiday with his mates, got drunk and died falling from a balcony.

Though I'd played football with him for years, I wasn't part of his immediate friendship group. But it still affected me. It seemed like such a tragedy and, being a budding young scribe, I decided to write about how I was feeling.

I submitted the resulting poem as part of my first draft undergraduate portfolio. I spent a lot of time on it and remember thinking, 'This is what writing is about. Passion. Emotion. Goodness me, this is brilliant.'

Unfortunately, my tutor didn't agree. In fact, he singled it out as being by far the worst piece of writing in my collection and asked me what the poem was about. So I told him the story.

My tutor's reply went something like this:

Unless you absolutely know what you're doing, and you can distance yourself from the subject, avoid writing about events that have affected you emotionally, especially so soon after they've taken place.

At the time I was mortified. I was upset about what had happened to my kind-of-friend and my poem meant a lot to me. And of course, that was the problem.

I was so caught up in the moment, so desperate to express how I felt, that I forgot to focus on the writing. I had no distance whatsoever.

10 years later...

As regular Write for Your Life readers may know, I've been doing a little editing on my novel these past few months. Sadly, during that time I also lost my (awesome) auntie to an unexpected and pretty horrendous bout of cancer.

One minute she was fine. Four months later she was gone. And naturally, being a writer, I wanted to write about it.

I'm not one for diaries and journals and the like, and I knew I couldn't embark on a new project while I was busy editing my novel ready to send to my agent.

So I found myself stuck. I wanted to write about my 'distress' and I wanted to do it now, while it was fresh. But I had no obvious outlet.

I thought about what my tutor had said all those years ago. What I realised was this.

I didn't need to write a long personal piece, short story or, god forbid these days, a poem. I just needed a line or two. A gesture.

But more importantly, it had to work as a piece of writing. So I turned to my novel.

The following is what I wrote. It closes the penultimate chapter and slots neatly into the plot. It's not sentimental (far from it!), but it means something to me.

Oh, and Georgina is a character. She's been ill throughout the novel. She's not a real person.

Here it is:

I open the box by pushing one end, take out a match and strike it. There is a spark and a flicker of life. Then it settles. Glows amber and red in my fingers. I pause to think of Georgina. I picture her in hospital. Dying in a care home. And hope that God intervenes.

And that's it. It's all I needed.

Of course, I was lucky (in a bizarre, writerly way) that my distress tied in loosely with events in my novel, but that's not the point.

When all my writer's instincts told me it was time to let my emotions pour on to the page, I showed restraint.

I was able to step back and remember: it's not about the writer, it's about the writing.

So what should you do with your distress?

Now, let's be clear. I'm not saying that you should't write about traumatic events in your life. That's just silly. Lots of great fiction has come from trauma.

What I am saying though, is write objectively. Don't get tangled up in the emotional mire and let your standards slip.

Create some distance. Focus on your writing.

If you do decide to write about your distress, think about how much you share.

Do you need to go into detail? Could you do the job in a single turn of phrase or by passing reference? Can you work the experience into a broader narrative?

Because in the end, it's the story that matters. Your characters and the way you manoeuvre them around the page.

What doesn't matter, I'm afraid, is you. And certainly not your feelings. Sniff.