Monday, April 16, 2018
Yes, it hurts
There are some parts of becoming a writer that nobody really talks about. It’s not because it’s some deep mystery, and it’s not like the secret handshake that we’re taught when we become official writers (more about that later). The reason for all the silence is that the secret is something very difficult to understand until we experience it firsthand. Think of it like love – everyone writes songs, poems, stories, operas and screenplays about the wonder of love. However, nobody really understands what all those things mean until they first fall in love. Then all those songs make sense and those poems come to life.
So, despite the futility I just explained, I will discuss one of writing’s secrets: Pain.
Writing requires us to explain things in whatever way is most important, and often this requires our feelings as part of the process. Not just the simple feelings either. We grow as writers when we start exploring not just the emotions within a story, but all the feelings that get stirred up as we write those simple stories. And often times we learn some truths we never expected, or even some things we never really wanted to face. That is a writer’s growing pain, and it is priceless in developing that talent.
Fortunately, I have been blessed with many friends, plenty of whom could star in their own novels. I have spent fifty years surrounded by scholars, artists, gurus, advisers, reluctant heroes, dirty angels, jokers, liars and thieves – how could I not write about them? So I did. I wrote several stories about one particular friend I met back in 8th grade. He was quite a character and we had epic adventures. And when I wrote the stories about him, well… the stories kind of fell flat.
What was wrong? My stories were honest and entertaining discussions about things we did that landed somewhere between hilarious stunts and Class C felonies, pranks we pulled, and just stupid times hanging out together. But when I reviewed those stories with other people, the most common critique was, “not exploring the character enough.” Tough review for writing about a long-time friend.
As much as I tried to explore the character, the truth was that I was actually hiding parts. I realized I hadn't faced certain truths about the situation. Those stories were as true as ever, but I was not doing justice to my friend. I was not writing his role with all the truths necessary. It hurt to dig in to those truths; into that reality that was so tough to face over the past many years. But until I dragged out that part and faced the situation and all the painful parts included, I would never really have a fully explored character.
The next story about him was simple. I wrote about the day that friend died.
Believe me, that story wasn’t the greatest thing I ever wrote, but it was easily the most honest. I faced up to the grief I carried, the guilt, the unspoken apologies and unresolved issues. I wrote a simple story about his passing, and it hurt. Horribly. And as I faced those truths, I knew just who I needed to write about. I had been holding back on writing in-depth about my friend to avoid reminding myself that he was gone. With those in mind, the rewrites were very easy, and provided some valuable healing.
Pain is never fun, but sometimes it is underrated. Physical pain comes with exercise, and we end up healthier for it. And for writers, sometimes in our stories there is pain that we need to feel. As we experience this, we grow as writers and as people. We get stronger, and we face greater challenges. And eventually we learn that secret handshake taught to all real writers.