(aka Writing Through Tough Times)

A friend of mine sent me this note:

“Please teach me how to go on producing writing when things around you are in total disarray.  It seems like no matter what the world throws at you, you can carry on with very little interruption.  At the moment, I’m so stressed out by all the crap life has thrown at me lately that I can’t seem to think straight.  Please advise.  This is a serious question, so don’t give me some flip-ass answer. :-)

Let me say that I’m shocked and offended that someone who knows me would assume I would give up a flip answer to something.*  So since my first response was “I still got bills to pay no matter what kind of drama I’ve got going on,” I’m left with a two part answer.  The first thing is to consider Michael Jackson.  His life was crazy and dramatic pretty much from the word go. Chaotic, dysfunctional family.  Surrounded by temperamental artists.  In a cut throat business.  Trying to navigate childhood.  Nothing we as writers could relate to.  But over the years, he answered the question of producing the same way: the only place he felt at peace and in control was on stage.

Writing is my stage.

The second thing to consider is that with writing the doctor is in and cheap.  No matter the clutter building up in my head and heart, art is a way to process emotion.  Whenever I sit down in front of a page, I am feeling SOMETHING.  That’s the place I write from.  Even if I’m not aware of WHAT I’m feeling, I just know that there is something for me to mine.  When I’m not feeling something, my writing is and reads like an intellectual exercise. So I sit down at the page and begin writing.  It doesn’t matter if I’m not specifically writing about what’s going on.  For example, I might not have written a story about someone being unemployed, but I can guarantee you that I wrote a character who struggled with the image issues (not being a man) or the loathing (from not being able to provide for his family) that comes from unemployment.

Writing is my therapy.

Writing allows you to put some distance between you, what’s going on, and what you are feeling.  You’re able to examine it from a variety of perspectives (not just what the main character is going through but how it impacts those around her/him).  You can talk things through using your character, dig deep within and plumb their heart and hidden feelings and truths.  Apparently this is so true for me that my counselor often began our sessions by asking “what are you working on?”  As you can probably imagine, I am pure joy when someone’s trying to get me to open up, however, I’m always happy to talk about my work.

This is part of how I inhabit the emotional space of my characters.  It’s no different than an actor preparing for a role.  You are standing there needing to cry.  So you draw upon a painful moment in your life and emote it.  It you want your characters to convey a certain feeling, you have to open yourself up to that feeling.  it’s why such great art comes from pain.  Pain is universal.

Writing is my medication.

So if I were you, I’d begin with character who is stressed.  Period.  Just see where the story goes. What are they stressed about?  How is the stress playing out, internally and externally?  How do the relationships change around them because of the stress?  What are they going to do to handle the stress?  Are they going to self-medicate?  Are they going to take a drastic action in order to regain some semblance of control in their lives?  There’s a story in your circumstance.  By writing that story, focusing on that character, I am distracting myself from the pain of life without just numbing myself and checking out.  I’m engaging it, wrestling with it, and not simply letting it have its way with me.

Life happens.  We don’t always see it coming.  It can sneak up on us, break into the secure house of our lives, break our stuff, and make a mess of our routines, leaving us completely unsettled.  Unemployment.  Death.  Sickness.  Homelessness.  Loss.  People.  Each day brings a new challenge and new opportunities to grow.  Writing can be a valuable tool to help navigate those experiences and bring meaning and order to the chaos.  For me, everything gets used.  Every hurt, everything that makes me angry, every tear, every laugh, nothing gets wasted (I may be extreme because I’ve been in some pretty dire circumstances but could only think “this is going to make a cool story.”  The first step is to sit down with the blank page, put a pen to it, and see what comes out.

*Though you should probably also keep in mind that some of us function better in chaos and believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we thrive on it to gin up our creativity.