How to write the stories that hurt
I am a fan of stories. I believe they do a lot of good in the world.
Specifically, I care about your story. You know, the one you’ve been meaning to tell… the one that you believe could help somebody… the one that’s been stirring inside you all this time, but you’ve been hesitant to write about… because it hurts.
Unfortunately, many of us carry stories within us that are about painful things.
I’m talking about those Big Bads. Things like trauma and shame and grief. Experiences of racism, oppression, abuse, violence, and other mixed bags of things we never wanted, and don’t deserve.
These are the stories we carry around with us like secret shopping bags, loaded down with stuff we would never buy, and wish we could return.
Do I show you what’s in my bag? Do I lay it all out on the kitchen table for you to see? Or do I just keep carrying it around with me?
Maybe you want to tell your story. Maybe you think it could help others, do some good for the world. Maybe it would help you, be cathartic.
But maybe it will hurt.
And I think you’re probably right. I think that telling your story can be empowering, and can often help others, and can feel really great.
But it can also hurt.
And that’s what I want to talk about today: How to write the stories that hurt.
Sometimes we think we’re “over it” until we try to write about it.
When I wrote my heart speech I agreed to share this thing that I used to keep secret, because I assumed I was “over it”.
No big deal, I thought.
Until I tried to put it into words. All the stuff I thought was long past — previous hurts and shames and memories and conflicting emotions — popped up again as if to say, “Hey there. It’s all your old shit. All the stuff you thought you solved. Still here.”
Once I put the speech together and shared it, I felt lighter and more free than I ever had before. But the process of getting there was unexpectedly emotional.
And I’ll be honest, I still have some stories I’m not ready to tell.
In some cases, I’ve tried. One day I sat down on a park bench to write some personal stories about some traumatic things that I thought were “healed enough”. I thought it was time and the stories could be useful and instructive.
And then all the words sailed right out of me like one big “whoosh”. As I pushed onwards, trying to write anyway, I felt a lot of things I’d worked hard not to feel.
I kept my words right where I put them — in that notebook. I stopped writing about the subject and I didn’t publish what I wrote. Maybe I will someday — just not right now.
I’m telling you this to say: if writing hurts, I get it.
And I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for all the brave people who are sharing their stories in the spirit of healing, helping others and making the world a better place.
Based on my experiences and observations, here are some considerations that may help when writing about things that are, well, hard to write about.
1. You get to decide when you are ready.
I think about it like this: you have an opportunity to tell your story but not a responsibility. It’s your story and you get to decide when and if you’re ready to share it, how you share it, and in what forums.
Some stories need more time to gestate. If you, or your story, isn’t ready yet, that’s OK. Especially if it feels unsafe.
Take a good look: there’s a difference between staying inside your comfort zone, and being in unsafe territory. Can you stretch yourself to step outside of your comfort zone a little, without venturing into unsafe territory?
2. You can choose how to tell your story.
How you share your story is up to you. What format feels good and expressive to you? Essays, poetry, painting, collage, video, zines, dance, and anything else you can think of all count. If your story is hard to tell, you may find that another art form feels better than writing.
You also get to decide what you do and don’t include in your story. After all, you’re not on trial; you get to set the parameters. What feels right and true for you? What is enough to get the point across? What parts of your story will help others or inspire positive change? Again, you get to decide what to include.
3. Write for yourself first.
It’s hard enough to write for a public audience about anything, let alone something that is uncomfortable or personally challenging.
I suggest giving yourself permission to write for yourself, first. Tell yourself: I’m just going to write this thing and if I want to throw it away after or burn it or never look at it again, I can.
Now, hopefully your story won’t wind up as a pile of ashes. But it’s never helpful to write with an imaginary person leaning over our shoulder telling us that what we’re writing is crap.
I mean, that imaginary person is probably going to show up anyway, but if you tell yourself that you’re writing just for you (at least for now) they’re more likely to quiet down.
Once you’re finished, then decide if you want to take the next step to share it. If you like, at that stage, you can edit accordingly.
4. Prepare for the emotional energy tax man.
Writing about difficult, personal things can bring up a lot of painful emotions and sap your energy.
It’s still worth doing, but it’s best to be prepared. I encourage fellow writers to budget in recovery time (therapy session, self-care practices, or just plain down time) if they are tackling a really heavy subject. That why you’re not blindsided by it, and you have some support systems in place and time blocked off to steady yourself if you feel wiped out by the experience.
To be clear, writing doesn’t always feel this way: it can be uplifting, fun, and energizing. But sometimes it’s also tiring, or hard, and that’s OK too.
5. Take your time.
Lots of writing takes time to get ‘right’. Feel free to do it in stages, especially if you’re covering a big subject, and want to write for a public audience.
If it takes hours, or days or weeks or months or however long it takes to tell your story, that’s OK. Keep chipping away at it, in whatever method feels right for you.
6. Look at the story through a different lens.
Don’t feel obligated to write the story with grave seriousness. Looking at the story through different lenses may help you find new creative ways to express and understand your story.
For example: can you find the heroism? The meaning? The humour? Is there room for personal style, flair, even silliness?
Remember, you are allowed to express yourself in different ways. Let it be creative.
Now, more than ever, the world needs your stories.
Your experiences, your ideas, and your truth — it all matters.
To all survivors of the bad stuff and fighters for the good stuff, I want to say: I see you, I hear you.
Thank you for sharing your story.