Sunday, 9 March 2014

Using the Bad Stuff in Life to Make Your Writing Better

The good news is that my husband is better. After making very slow, two-steps-forward-and-one back progress for nine months, his eventual recovery was sudden; almost overnight it was as though he was here again after a long absence. For a while, I just basked in the joy of having him back. Anxiety and depression are dreadful for those who endure them – I don’t even pretend to know what it is like, though I did a lot of studying to help me understand Jon’s plight better. However, living with someone who is suffering takes its own toll. For the long months of Jon’s illness, I think I lived on adrenaline: researching the subject, buying books, seeing a counsellor to help me cope better and coming up with endless strategies to try to aid Jon’s recovery. I grasped on to need to economise because of our cut in income and became absurdly gung ho about that; here at least was something I could do. The problem with anxiety and depression is that healing takes time; in the meantime there is not really a lot you can do to improve the situation. You just need to find a way to endure it – and my way was constant, frustrated, adrenaline-fed effort.

The thing about adrenaline is that once it is not needed any more, it drains away, and this can leave you feeling very flat. I experienced this years ago when Jon was knocked off his bike by a car. While he was in hospital with broken bones and a punctured lung, I was Mrs Coping Marvellously, juggling hospital visits, work and caring for two young children. However, once he was home, slowly recovering, panic over, I suddenly felt very low.

I think this is what is happening now. Jon is going from strength to strength, rediscovering the joy of teaching and feeling confident and optimistic about his abilities. Ironically, Mrs Coping Marvellously now feels she is rather rubbish at everything. All marvellousness has flown. The first sign was a massive slump in my confidence about writing. A few rejections for short stories and poems I had sent off were enough to make me feel like giving up altogether. The thought of writing a query letter for my novel, full of bouncy self-confidence and marketing savvy, was too exhausting to even contemplate. Writing itself became a chore.
What do you do in these circumstances? You keep going. One word at a time. Keep thinking about your writing. Keep involved with it. Tell yourself that feelings pass. Skills learned through years of hard work don’t disappear overnight; confidence will return. Perhaps don’t undertake anything as major as contacting agents or making big decisions about your writing when you are feeling low. Just carry on being a writer until the creative spark, the energy and the motivation return.

If you are a writer, the bad things in life are never wasted; they give you that crucial edge of insight when you are creating the even worse things that happen to your characters. This week, as part of a Lent course, I was called upon to identify my ‘toolkit’ – those skills, gifts, attributes or just character traits that allow me to benefit others in a way that is unique to me. It wasn’t a great week for such positive thinking, and I was tempted to put ‘I blessed my colleagues with my ability to remain mainly upright today’. Then I thought of empathy. I always imagine how other people are feeling. Of course this doesn’t mean I am always right, but it is habit of mind I have always had: whatever happens, I wonder what other people feel about it. Thus if something happens to upset a friend or colleague, I hope I’m there with a listening ear to give them a sense that I hear them and validate their feelings – which is all most of us want when we’re upset.

It is also empathy that makes me want to write. People fascinate me. What makes them tick, what lies beneath the exterior, how do they experience life? It is this inner life that I want to create, in a way that readers recognise, believe and feel compelled to follow through to the end of the story.

When life kicks you in the teeth, it gives you a unique opportunity to experience what suffering feels like. Often those feelings are a surprise. I understood, for instance, why Jon’s illness made me feel worried for his safety, and insecure about our future. I hadn’t expected that it would make me feel angry. I hadn’t expected to feel lonely, unloved and guilty.

It was when I was walking home from work, thinking about empathy, that my mind drifted into thinking about the characters in my novel, Unspeakable Things, and it was my own surprising feelings about the last nine months that informed several sudden new insights into how these characters would feel. When I got home, I made some notes, probably explicable only to me:

‘Make Jim scarier. Churned up with anger he can’t explain over Sarah’s mood.’

‘Review bit where he thinks the place has a different meaning for her. Give Jim more edge. ADD DRAMA’.

‘Sarah might feel panic as her lack of knowledge dawns – why didn’t I ask? How could I not know what she died of? Is there a secret? Is that why all the questions, odd looks..?'

‘Clarify emotional journey between Jim and Sarah, always with the seeds of his possible betrayal of her, his feelings of anger, rejection and guilt as she drifts away.’

These notes address a structural issue in the novel: I need to tweak and clarify a potential plot twist that should get readers excited. It is a need I have identified before, and worked on, but that probably needs more work. On that walk home, though, it was my own difficult feelings over Jon’s illness that fed a reworking of my characters to make the dynamic between them more believable. I know that as Sarah drifted into deep, internalised obsession, Jim would feel angry and alone; that he wouldn’t understand the feeling, and that he would feel guilty about it with a kind of self-loathing and attempted repression that would only feed the explosive nature of his anger. I’ve been there; that’s how I know.

No one, not even the most committed writer, wants the bad stuff to happen. But when it does, eventually we can learn from it, and make our writing more insightful, empathetic and believable as a result.

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