Writing your tragedy

Well, now you see how close to the ragged edge of disaster I run on a regular basis. Between trying to write ♥My Book♥ and being sick over the weekend (and I’m  still not 100%) I’m  burnt out, and that’s why you got two somewhat-spacey mystical blog entries. Usually I try to be sarcastic and practical here. Now you know.

I came across an email to another writer who had lost a baby. She was disturbed that she couldn’t write anything in the wake of her loss, and I said it had taken four years after Emily’s death to really feel like I could be a writer again. I was writing during that time, of course, but grieving was robbing my brain of its inspiration the same way being sick this weekend did.

Here’s a quote from that email:

You can “scab over” the hurt, but it’s still there, and the trauma hasn’t been resolved enough that your inner self, the introspective part that writes, wants to handle it. You may at some level understand that it hasn’t been resolved and that’s what’s keeping you from writing about it — because it hasn’t been resolved, you can’t create a tidy little package about it.

Have you read “The Forest For The Trees” by Betsy Lerner? In it she writes that writers tend to keep a distance between themselves and the rest of their lives, as if they’re observing their own lives. It puts a slight wall between themselves and what they’re feeling. So that rather than just feeling hurt, a writer notes that he’s feeling hurt and also how that affects him and what that does to the people around him and so on and so forth. It means there’s always a little shell between a writer and his own feelings so that he can analyze himself even as he’s experiencing something. Sometimes I wonder if that’s not how I survived losing Emily at all — by simultaneously living it and keeping some distance on myself. Maybe you’ve got that wall there too and you know it would hurt to have it come down right now enough to write about it.

Looking at what I wrote four years ago, I can see where I’ve coped with other tragedies by doing the same. In fact, sometimes I find myself in the middle of a mess nowadays and thinking, “I should blog about that.”

But is that healthy? It is, and it’s not. It’s an examined life, but is that life examined at the expense of living it? Am I here-but-n0t-here when I dwell in the twilight between feeling and introspection? Am I effectively saying to myself, “That’s nice, dear, but what have you learned?”

Emily died in July and I had her website up by September, but writing something deeper and more reflective took time. I don’t think I fully explored in fiction the emotions of losing a baby until I wrote Winter Branches (in 2005) and you can see even there, the feelings were translated. (Before someone brings up “Damage,” I’ll note that “Damage” had the same situation but none of the grieving. It’s the frame of the house without the furnishings, the carpet, or the drapes.)

My point here is just, if you’ve endured a tragedy, give it time before you try writing. Maybe years. If you want the processed, final product, those precious resolved feelings, you need to resolve them  first. Writing in  an effort to process the emotions is journaling, and that’s fine. But writing your tragedy too soon because you want to leap right to the end product leads to stalled writing and a burnt-out writer or to a fake-sounding resolution, and it won’t help others in the same situation.


  1. Chandra

    Jane, there is so much beauty and truth in those words. Thanks for sharing.

  2. cricketB

    I’m that way even with less-tragic losses, like my grandparents. Sometimes I don’t mourn for over a year. Sure, some tears at the time, but mostly getting on with my life. I think grief-processing is a wobbly spiral that lasts decades. Sometimes you go forward or back, faster or slower, and in and out of all the phases. I never thought about “able to write,” “able to write about character in similar situation” and “able to use those emotions in writing” as landmarks, but I like the idea. It’s a personal journey, and everyone has their own landmarks.

  3. philangelus

    The stages of writability would be something like

    1) able to record the details of the event, emotion may or may not be present
    2) writes for catharsis, an emotion-dump, primarily for self
    3) writes evangelistically. eg, “These were the stupid things people said when Emily died, so don’t say them” (still primarily for self but outwardly-directed this time)
    4) writes and lets story tell itself

    At around stage 4, the tragedy stops being an Issue and the writer stops having a Message. In stage 2, I don’t think the writer has a Message yet, but is coming toward one. Stage 3 is nearly unreadable, but unfortunately that’s where you get most of the writing about Issues, and that’s why most issue-exploring writing has a Message.

  4. Deb

    I write, I’m discovering, primarily to escape. Not so good for me. I’m really trying to incorporate more of myself into my fiction, because it’s almost like I’m cheating on myself, running to write every time I encounter something I don’t want to deal with.

  5. cricketB

    Damage was more like a blank canvas, on which I could paint and explore my own reactions. I think if you’d showed more of the emotions, I would have overloaded and gone numb, or maybe just backed off and watched how the family dealt with it. Either way, the story would have had less impact.

  6. philangelus

    Nezeq spends most of Damage either empty or angry, and he only barely touches his own feelings. I think that’s why.

    But Winter Branches starts with a character in emotional free-fall and he slowly gets his legs under him.

  7. Judith

    It’s been nearly ten years since my son-in-law destroyed my three precious grandchildren and very nearly my daughter as well.

    The shell you described served me well in the days following the tragedy. I was the take-charge, go-to person for the state investigators on the murders. I was the non-spokesperson for the press. We had been cautioned not to talk to the media, and we didn’t.

    Even now, some of the emotions I stuffed blindside me. Yesterday I saw a delightful picture of a friend’s grandson holding his new baby brother. He looked so much like the middle child we lost that I was dissolved to tears. Not racking sobs, but just wet eyes.

    In the aftermath of this tragedy, people bombarded me with questions, not about the specifics of the event, but comments like “You’re so strong” and “I don’t see how you do it.”

    In fact, I’m not strong. I simply know where to lean. That’s why I’m in process of writing a book about spiritual emergency preparedness. It’s basically a “how-to” get close enough to God that nothing sways your faith in Him.

    Thank you for a thoughtful post.

    Grace and peace,

  8. Ken Rolph

    “It means there’s always a little shell between a writer and his own feelings so that he can analyze himself even as he’s experiencing something.”

    Perhaps you don’t really become a writer until you come to terms with this. It’s something I’ve thought about for some time. I came to a point where I knew I had to accept this about myself. It was a large change. I was brought up in a family where social involvement loomed large. My mum was always the president of the P&C. My dad was the rector’s warden in our Anglican church. But I decided to stop seeking any outside responsibilities. I learned to become invisible and observe what was happening around me.

    Some people have suggested that this is not good, that I became too detached. But I think I function much better than when I try to operate against my own nature. I’ve long said that the professional duty of the writer is to imagine. But now you’ve made me realise what this involves. It does require a certain amount of detachment from what you see in front of you, because you also have to be able to see things which are not there.

  9. CookieJar

    What a great blog entry. It’s a unique topic.
    Judith… oh mercy! I’m so sorry for your loss. May God bless you and your daughter with consolations!
    I work at a hospital and have noticed that people who suffer traumatic accidents, assaults or injuries, do not remember seconds or minutes before or after the event. I believe it’s a way for God to protect us from the horror of evil or confronting the unexplicable when we don’t have the emotional or psychological tools to deal with it. I’ve noticed that people who have a sense of eternal can best surrender to the mystery of suffering. It’s not easy but it is possible to experience healing and enter a new level of genuine existence, a deeper sense of self and in God’s hand a point of sanctity. A mystery takes time to digest and sometimes you have to give it time to flourish. Suffering is a great mystery. Especially when it comes unannounced.
    I think a lot about suffering and healing. At work I witness not only suffering and healing but tragedy and miracles. It has taught me a lot about the hope that is in us,a lso about our vocation and duty to Love God and love one another.

    Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Psalm 139:12

  10. Pam

    I think I am finally reaching a point where I can reflect/write about my child hood history with abuse, parental alcoholism and my stuttering onset.
    So I find your ideas and others very useful as I figure out how to proceed. I have a story to tell, just have not found the right way for me to tell it.
    It will come when I am ready – I believe.

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