Writers Inspired gratefully welcomes guest post by touring author, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, author of The Sky Begins at Your Feet.
Please enjoy her insightful post on how to write the “hard stuff” we endure in our lives and leave a comment and/or question as Caryn will be stopping in to reply throughout the day. And of course there’s a giveaway! Random.org will select one lucky winner who comments today to win a copy of The Sky Begins at Your Feet. (US addresses only, please!)
Writing the Hard Stuff
In my new memoir, The Sky Begins At Your Feet, I get to write about a lot of hard stuff: cancer, intensive chemotherapy, losing my breasts, my father’s death, and cancer genetic mutations. Yet the spirit of my book isn’t seeped in hardship, but rather, finding humor, spirit, community and new love for living in a body, all on the premise that whoever we are, we can use life’s hard stuff to cultivate greater joy and meaning.
Which brings me to the topic of this blog: how do we write and help others write life’s most challenging moments without losing the overall intention of our story, watering down or overdramaticizing? I’ve come to realize that the strongest writing, even and especially about difficult topics, comes from writing in your own native voice. Here are some suggestions:
* Listen to the writing, not our ideas about the writing: No matter what we’re writing – whether it’s a 600-page memoir or a one-stanza poem – we need to listen to what the writing itself wants to be. Sometimes we have ideas in our heads, particularly when it comes to writing about traumatic or stressful situations, that can get in the way of the writing. The writing knows more than we do, and if we can let go of controlling the writing with an idea of what we thought we were doing, and instead, put our ear to the page, we can find our way to our strongest writing.
* Forget trauma-drama: We all know people who tend to turn a headache of a situation into an inoperable brain tumor of a moment. In writing, especially when we have dramatic material, we need to be extremely mindful of not trauma-dramatizing what’s already vivid. If we get too heady with high drama and piles of adjectives, our readers will feel hit over the head and may get even get too depressed, angry or anxious to read on.
* Use precise details and small gestures: Garrison Keillor, in one of his monologues that has stayed with me for over a decade, tells of, when experiencing great grief, putting his head on an embroidered pillow. At that moment, he felt enormous gratitude and tenderness for the work that went into the embroidery. His gesture and details did more to convey the depth of his loss than a pile of exclamatory statements. When writing of serious illness, overwhelming loss, or deep caverns of fear, put your head on the pillow of specific detail. Here is a moment from my memoir describing how my five-year-old son encountered my cancer: “He was wearing his Harry Potter T-shirt backwards to hide the stains on the other side. His hair was sticking straight up in front, probably because of the bad hair cut I’d given him, and the double cowlick he had. ‘Mom, if they have to take those things,’ he said, shyly pointing to my breasts, ‘would you get something to wear under your shirt so it would look like you still have, you know….’ I told him yes.”
* Dress the extraordinary in the ordinary: A story, poem, memoir or novel with one breathless moment after another often waters down the real story. Landing on the little ordinary stories within the big drama is a way to create a world with enough air and light that a reader can walk right into it and actually feel what’s hard in your book as well as sometimes in their own lives more acutely. Here is an excerpt from my memoir, telling of the moment I just began to hear that I had cancer: “The parking lot seemed larger, and the sky, already dimming on the edge, seemed more overcast. Amazingly, I walked right to where I parked the car, drawn to it like magnet to magnet.” I describe an ordinary moment to show the vastness of what I had learned.
* Read other writing in your genre about the hard stuff: Writing poetry about grief? Check out Paul Monette’s 18 Elegies for Rog or John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” In the middle of a novel about surviving childhood abuse? Read Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Yearning to write a memoir about surviving long-term chronic illness? Pick up Mary Swander’s Desert Pilgrim. Who you are and whatever you’ve lived or imagined, there are probably some great books, poems or essays you can read to see how others have written effectively about the hard stuff. While some new writers feel like reading others will diminish their voice, nothing could be further from the truth. Reading others shows us how to open up our voice, and also how to find the sheen in the storm, the water in the desert, and the fire in the cold night of our lives and writing.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is Poet Laureate of Kansas and the author or editor of ten books, including her recently published memoir on cancer, community and coming home to the body, The Sky Begins At Your Feet. Her fourth poetry collection, Landed, was also recently released. She founded and coordinates Transformative Language Arts – a master’s degree in using writing, storytelling, drama and more for community building and personal transformation – at Goddard College (www.Goddard.edu) where she teaches. She facilitates writing workshops widely, and with singer Kelley Hunt, writing and singing workshops through their business, Brave Voice (www.BraveVoice.com). Learn more at www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com.