This is Hard to Talk About: Writing Difficult Subjects
How do you write about difficult things?
First, ask yourself: What’s harder? Living through difficult things? Or writing about them?
Then ask, what’s easier? Talking to people you don’t know about the difficulties of your life or just getting them down on paper?
I was kind of an angsty little kid. Precocious physically and mentally. It was uncomfortable being in my body and my mind didn’t know what to do with that. So I started keeping a little journal. Telling all my feelings. All my hopes and wishes and complaints. I started writing stories. I couldn’t talk to my peers about these things and I didn’t want to talk to my family about them, either.
Thus began a long purging of my feelings, onto the page. I think that gave me courage to speak about how I felt, eventually. And I found, paradoxically, that the things I didn’t want to tell people were, in fact, the things people received the most warmly and affectionately. Knowing that—that I could tell the truth about how I felt and establish a connection with other people—was very powerful. To this day I find I want to hear about others’ difficult times. About their unsettled feelings and deep sorrows and unfinished business. Not just because I’m nosy—which I surely am. But also because it is reassuring to know that the public face we all serve up to the world is a front. That we are all hiding. Faking it. That we are all doing our best, stumbling about in this world we only partially comprehend, and knowing this, there is less shame. Less loneliness, too.
There is bravery involved in doing this, of course. Not all of us experience warm reception when exposing our soft spots. We must be vulnerable, truly, in a culture that doesn’t like to reward vulnerability. We risk being misunderstood and mocked. There are plenty of people out there who want to preserve the façade that they’ve got their lives under control and they will take your most tender confessions and admissions and do terrifying violence to them in order to shore up their beliefs.
So—why would anyone ever write about difficult things?
I consider the alternative. To be saturated until the point of rot and ruin with my own shame and sadness and uncertainty and anger. To try to contain that horror within me seems like another kind of violence, a self-destructive attempt at heroism. An effort to be apart from the rest of humanity, maybe, too. To say, even to oneself, that, no, I’m not going to roll around in the mud and splatter out my pain and confusion like some common wretch.
There’s a thing called dignity, Carrie; you should try it sometime.
I would rather connect than have dignity.
I would rather release the hurts in my history than preserve them in a brine of doubt and grief.
I would rather embolden someone else to do the same.
I would rather not go about lying all the time.
Funny thing for a fiction writer to say: I would rather not go about lying all the time.
So. How does a fiction writer write about difficult things in his or her life?
Excellent question. Answers can be found here.
Carrie Mesrobian is teaching “This is Hard to Talk About: Writing Difficult Subjects” this December at the Loft. She has worked as a teacher in both public and private schools; her work has appeared in the Star Tribune, Brain, Child magazine, Calyx, and other web and print publications. Her debut YA novel will be published in 2013 by Carolrhoda LAB. She lives in Columbia Heights with her husband and daughter and blogs at www.carriemesrobian.com