Forget your distress and focus on your writing

A look at how distress and trauma can affect the quality of our writing if we let it dictate the creative process. Focus on your scribbling folks, that's the message.

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.


Anonymous 14 September 2010 Reply

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Iain Broome and Matt Hill, Hannah Ferguson. Hannah Ferguson said: Forget your distress and focus on your writing via @iainbroome […] 14 September 2010 Reply

I find that traumatic events get play in my works, but only in pieces. One line comes through, coming from a completely different situation, a completely different set of characters. But putting that line in acknowledges the event that happened, gives me closure (and acceptance), but also serves the action. If it didn’t serve the action, it would get edited out later.
Only twice have I tried to deal with a specifically biographical situation, both times through my playwriting. Both times it has failed. I cannot deal with it directly because I can’t deal with it dispassionately, or with humor. Until I can laugh at it, or find its irony, I won’t write about it. 14 September 2010 Reply

Iain – thanks for that post. I think all writers like to use writing to pour out their hearts at times of distress. I agree with your tutor to some extent, when we’re close to the event it’s more about making ourselves feel better than it is about the writing. That’s when a journal or diary that no-one else will ever see comes in handy.The problem with pain, even emotional pain, is its difficult to remember. That’s why some people find it useful to keep a journal – you’ll always remember the emotion, but I don’t think you remember its power. 14 September 2010 Reply

Hi Iain, thanks for sharing this. A few thoughts in response..
Seems like this is absolutely what journals and morning pages are good for – we do have a need to process emotions and distress through writing (and there are studies demonstrating the benefits that come from doing so) – getting them out on paper that way saves them leaking into your narrative, unless done deliberately (and thanks for your example of doing just that)

I’m working on a poem or maybe prose-poem series that is based on journals I kept when my mum was declining with dementia. The turning them into some kind of poetic form is a way to try and make them more universal and achieve some distance, but I don’t quite know what to do with the emotion – the pieces with the most intense emotion seem to make the best read. Plus, part of what I want to do is allow people to see some of the emotion – love, sorrow, grief, humour, wonder – in the situation, and not be afraid of it. I’m not expecting an answer on this, but it’s something I’m tussling with, and your piece is giving me the chance to think out loud 😉 14 September 2010 Reply

That’s interesting! I’m not a ‘writer’ as such, but I do write a blog. Recently I wrote about the difference, if there is one, between Art and Design and introduced it with a very brief ‘story’ from my experience in which I mentioned that I had been ‘crestfallen’. It took me by surprise when nearly all of the comments related to how I had been treated to make me feel ‘crestfallen’ and virtually ignored the topic of Art vs Design that I had hoped my blog post was about! 14 September 2010 Reply

Timely advice. Thank you. 14 September 2010 Reply

I couldn’t agree more. Everything we experience, whether traumatic or joyous, needs time to compost. Writing whilst it’s raw is like using fresh carrot peelings on the garden… best to wait till it’s all rotted down together and is unrecognisable in its original form. 14 September 2010 Reply

Thanks all for your fantastic comments – keep them coming! 14 September 2010 Reply

Hi Iain,
I really like this post. I react emotionally to stories firstly and the feeling of what I write means a lot to me. We’ve had a difficult year with a relative’s devastating stroke. You wonder how you can write around it. The emotion informs my writing where I explore the fraility of life without my actually putting the circumstances in the story. I have written more autobiographically but there has to be an otherness injected in. Sometimes writing makes it other but I agree, you must have a certain distance before you can even begin. We write to connect and resonate with others, not just with ourselves, so we have to make things universal, not too personal and specific. 14 September 2010 Reply

I had a similar experience to yours, Iain. I once wrote about a traumatic experience but put it in a short story and, at the time, I was happy with how I’d managed to write about it from a distance.
I took it and 3 other stories with me as my portfolio when I went on a week-long Arvon course.

Both of the tutors who read it responded in the same way, by saying that, while it demonstrated I could write, it also was clear that I was writing about myself and something that had happened to me and that I was clearly in pain.

I was shocked by what they said but it was good to get that feedback at the time, as it’s made me consider distance and how much I need to share in subsequent writing. It’s good to be reminded of that. Thanks for such a timely post. 14 September 2010 Reply

I am not a fiction writer but I do write blog posts. I am often tempted to write a post related to life challenges. It always helps to go ahead and write the post but I rarely publish it. Sometimes I will will write a second post that is loosely related to the topic. I think your tutors advice was good. It is good to get your feelings on paper but you need to step back from it before you publish it for your readers. 15 September 2010 Reply

I agree with your tutor somewhat. Sometimes a traumatic event can happen, and you’ll want to write about it. But, when you do, you’re more focused on the event than your writing, and so the piece doesn’t come out the way you would want it to.
However, I think it would be a good exercise to write about the event while it’s still fresh in your mind, then go back to it years later and edit it. Then, you maintain the emotion through your writing (writing that conveys emotion is generally more powerful, or so I’ve heard), but you’re also not so focused on the event, and you can focus on the writing more the second time around.

Christina 15 September 2010 Reply

I find two typical traps of trying to incorporate lived strong emotion into fiction. The first is telling rather than showing, surprisingly–but the emphasis is on the events that led to the feeling rather than the (character’s) response to the events or how the feeling is demonstrated. (And maybe this is true to our experience: we know we’re very upset, not so much that we’re, say, being sloppy with work.)
The second is that we expect causality in fiction. Our own strong feelings and the reasons for them perhaps don’t fit into that story universe, but because they’re real events, it’s hard to manipulate them–I mean rewrite them to fit the story’s motivations. 16 September 2010 Reply

Sorry to hear about your aunt, Iain. And thank you for this post.
I agree that the distresses of our lives have a way of really making us want to write, but that a little time and distance helps. As a teen, I used to write about personal stuff in a diary, but I don’t do it these days. Now, like you, all of that comes out in my fiction. 16 September 2010 Reply

Fiction is not therapy.

Anonymous 20 September 2010 Reply

[…] Broome at Write for Your Life talks us through how to forget your distress and focus on your writing. Writing is one of the few tasks in which focusing on the end result can hinder rather than help. […] 20 September 2010 Reply

Hi Lain.I don’t agree with the tutor 100%. It’s important to write to let the emotions out. That can clear the way for more writing, or the writer can edit the piece after giving it some air. Some of my best writing has stemmed from writing with emotion and then fine-tuning with the writing.

Anonymous 21 September 2010 Reply

[…] Broome at Write for Your Life talks us through how to forget your distress and focus on your writing. Writing is one of the few tasks in which focusing on the end result can hinder rather than help. […] 24 September 2010 Reply

Oh, I’m so glad you posted this. Especially today.
I’m a nonfiction writer, and went through a lot this year. My instincts want so much to write about what has happened in the past 6 or so months, but I know that when I do, it will be a mess; the story isn’t done yet. It’s great to capture grief while you’re experiencing it, but at the same time, those pages may be better suited to a journal or diary than they may be publishable – for now. I don’t think that means we can’t come back to these events in months or years, when we have some distances and discoveries at our helm.

Thanks for writing this – helpful and insightful!

Anonymous 24 September 2010 Reply

[…] for Your Life Forget Your Distress and Focus on Your Writing My favorite post of the week—and the one item you need to read this week if you’re writing […] 28 September 2010 Reply

Most of my writing comes from personal experience. I find I prefer to write closer to an event happening so I can remember and capture my thoughts and feelings. I have never considered how it would affect my writing but I am an untrained writer and have only recently started to write.
I will take your comments on board. Interesting post. 28 September 2010 Reply

I recently lost my 9 day old son and have had this burning desire to write. I’ve been restraining myself, partially because I wonder who would want to read about MY sad tragedy. The other reason I restrain myself is to keep my emotions from running wild as they usually do. So if I write, I do it quickly. It is too soon to write for anyone but myself, which is a good point you make. I want this traumatic experience to finally push me to write on my own terms instead of graduate school’s terms that I’m so used to. In any light, you have helped confirm a thought that I’ve been having which is that when I finally finish my Master’s thesis, I will dedicate it to him.

Anonymous 10 March 2011 Reply

[…] (the urge to write) | Wikipedia Forget your distress and focus on your writing | Write for Your Life iPad 2 | Apple 100 Million Books Downloaded to iPad, Random House Adds 17,000 Titles to iBookstore […]

Anonymous 12 March 2011 Reply

Sad stories on here 🙁 I’ve gone through a bit of a trauma at the moment, with a parent leaving the home. But it seems I’m completely contrary – I do immerse myself in my writing, but I keep the ‘real world’ and all its nastiness at arm’s length at the best of times, and when something’s gone wrong I shut it out completely and almost go into my perfect story world. I don’t suppose that’s particularly healthy, but it gets things done 🙂
I too am very glad you put this up right now, Iain, because I was wondering whether to start a diary or write about my feelings… now I think I would be more embarrassed looking back on it than comforted while writing it, because I’d probably want to turn it into a sci-fi epic or horror…

Anonymous 10 July 2013 Reply

[…] How deeply you feel what your characters are experiencing influences how deeply your readers will dive in with you, but that very emotion can work against you. Here’s a look at why and how to make it work: […]

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