There is a deep excavation process that goes on when a writer is trying to write from the deep places that real, true writing come from. This is true regardless of genre—whether the writer is composing fiction, non-fiction, or memoir. Getting to the core of an difficult issue, tapping real emotion, a painful piece of our past or a basic truth about life—the kind of deep truth that enlivens all good writing—requires that we take the plunge and dive into some of the most difficult and painful parts of our history and our psyche.
Recently, I had the opportunity to write about these issues to a student who was struggling with everything that was coming up in the course of her writing. I’d like to excerpt the universal aspects of that letter here:
“I’ve watched many writers (and myself too) suffer and feel and relive so many things as they struggled to use their own life experience as seeds for their work—be it fiction or memoir. To get the real truth on the page, to dig that deep, hurts. It can be healing, too, ultimately, but the process of excavation can be excruciating. To cope with our lives, most of us close off parts of ourselves or compartmentalize parts, and when we start to write, those boundaries that have kept us walled off and safe can start to dissolve in ways we didn’t anticipate or plan for. Real writing forces us to go deep. I’ve had many students say to me either, “When I came to class, I quit therapy because the writing took its place.” And others who say, “After I came to class, I had to start therapy because so much was coming up in my writing.”
“So the first thing I want to say is that you are not alone and that what is happening to you is a normal part of the creative process. But it’s hard. And it’s a choice—and it’s a choice you get to make—whether you want to do this work now at this time in your life—or not. Sometimes it’s possible to reclose those doors once they swing open; other times our subconscious takes over and insists that now is the time to reconcile old feelings, to face ancient painful experiences, to come out into the light with what we know and what we have suffered.
“One thing I know is that it’s hard to craft anything when you’re in the stage of having so much breaking through. I taught a class at Cabrilllo College recently and one of my students quoted a previous writing teacher who said, “Write hot and edit cold.” To me, that says it in a nutshell. When you’re in a deep process of excavation (which you may be beginning), it’s the time to get the raw material out—to use writing to process the experience, to retrieve the memories, to face the feelings, to get what happened and how you felt about it on the page. But it is not yet the time to take that raw material and shape it into a novel or a memoir or a polished piece—that’s “editing cold.” Some distance and perspective from your material is necessary in order to look at that work as an editor, as a shaper of the material.
“It’s not that these two processes are completely separate—they never are. You can be deep into crafting an essay or a novel or a book and periodically have to delve into painful or difficult places—but during the times when that is primarily what you’re doing, it can be better to write in an environment where the emphasis isn’t on product, but rather on process—where your exploratory excavations can be supported without concern for character development or narrative arc or how to create an opening that grabs the reader. Flow, not form, is what matters in the early stages—particularly if your source material is a painful aspect of your own life that you are just beginning to face or are facing in a deeper way.
“Before I wrote The Courage to Heal, my book on healing from sexual abuse, I filled journal after journal with my own agonizing process of coming to terms with what my grandfather had done to me. I joined a writing group specifically for incest survivors under the wonderful tutelage of Sandra Butler, who was not a therapist, but a very wise woman and capable writer. How amazing it was that such a group was available when I needed it!
“This was 30 years ago and I literally wrote my way through the incest, just as I’ve watched people in my classes write their way through their grief when their spouse of 50 years has died, write their way through childhood trauma or painful divorces or grief over a disabled child. This is the incredible power of writing in community—of putting life as you’ve lived it on the page and having it witnessed by a supportive group of peers who are not there to comment on your word choice, your plot points or even your suffering. A whole room of compassionate safe listeners—and you speaking your story with your own true voice–can be transformative.
“Of all those notebooks I filled—and there were many—only a very tiny percentage of that writing ever made it into the finished book. It was therapeutic writing for me, not for the world, though without having written it, I doubt very much I could have ever completed The Courage to Heal. I needed to have processed that material in order to write about it. I’m not saying that I was “done” processing it when I wrote the book—that wasn’t the case—but I had a done a substantial chunk of work before I started. And I was in therapy twice a week during the time I was writing the manuscript—talking to all those other incest survivors brought so much up for me. So I worked and cried and worked and cried–but I still had to find a place of objectivity to write from—and perhaps that was only possible in that instance because the book wasn’t primarily based on my own story at all. It was self-help, not memoir or fiction.”
I’d like to ask you, my readers, how you’ve grappled with these issues in your own writing life. And in your response, perhaps touch on one or more of the following questions:
1. What does it meant to you to “write hot, edit cold?”
2. How do you know when you need to focus on process, rather than product?
3. What has helped you when you’ve been digging deep and suffering in the course of your writing?