There’s “hard stuff” in every life story, experiences that are so painful–even decades later–that simply remembering them can cause us to double over in pain, cry out, clench up, or turn away from the keyboard. How do we write about these really dark times in a way that we survive the retelling and our readers reap the lessons of the journey without being clobbered by it?
It’s not easy to honor a gut-punch event or an unrelentingly grueling experience. But you can. I know: I’ve had to search for that balance many times over the past few years in chronicling the lessons life is teaching me.
This week I wrote two back-to-back blog posts, one full of joy and wonder, the next touching despair. Both related events in our journey with my husband Richard’s brain cancer. It’s easy for me to write the joyous stuff, as I did in the first post. He had been released from the hospital after brain surgery that finally relieved the fluid pressure that’s been threatening his right brain’s ability to function.
I wrote about my delight at watching him rediscover the ordinary, everyday world as we drove away from the hospital, its details new and wondrous to him. Writing the good stuff is pretty straightforward. You just tell a story: illustrate what’s happening with enough detail to be compelling, breathe life into your characters and allow them to speak directly with dialog where appropriate, show–not tell–your readers how you feel. And be honest.
The next morning we learned that while the fluid was no longer an issue, Richard’s glioblastoma (the worst kind of cancerous brain tumor) had returned. It’s most likely inoperable, said his oncologist, and it’ll likely kill him. How do you write about that?
Using the same storytelling tools: Set the scene, evoke the characters, let them speak for themselves, be honest and show your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And remember that what you leave out is just as important as what you include.
Here are a few excerpts of that blog post with my comments in brackets:
“Dr. Klein suggested that we get serious about making sure we’re clear about what we want to do and what our choices will be. Because, honestly, he may not have much time. Not that she doesn’t have faith in him–and by extension us, because we are in this together. ‘Miracles can happen,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen some.'” [Dr. Klein’s carrying the story here, and I make sure to show something of what kind of person she is: she “suggests,” she is honest about his prospects, and we hear her wisdom and compassion in the quote.]
“…After we talked, Dr. Klein gave us each a hug. Then we drove across Denver to help my dad, who is sorting and packing in preparation for moving to a smaller apartment. He absorbed the news quietly, … ‘Call anytime you need to talk,’ he said. When I relayed the news to my brother, he added, ‘Think about what you need to strengthen the circle around you.'” [Dr. Klein’s actions speak (again, she’s compassionate); my dad’s quote shows his quiet support; the quote from my brother builds a picture of my family in just a few words.]
“…We hit the road for home, holding hands. We talked about what we need to do to support each other, cried now and then, and reminded each other of what’s important… The bottom line: We’re resolved to live happily, whatever comes. Which does not mean denying the grief and pain and anger and sheer exhaustion. It means remembering to not let those blot out the grace notes, the joy of simply being able, as Richard puts it, “‘to walk together on the surface of this remarkable planet.'” [Here’s my take-home lesson, and a glimpse at who I am, my inner approach to life–and to the hard stuff I’m writing about.]
The bottom line here: When we write about the hard stuff, we need to be both observer and observed. I step back and draw on my inner storyteller, observing and relating crucial details that reveal character, place, action, and narrative arc. And I step into the story, revealing how it feels to me.
Try that. And find the balance that works for you.