Writing the hard stuff with honesty and grace

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.

14 responses to “Writing the hard stuff with honesty and grace

  1. There is simply no one else that could have/should have written this post. You have lived its teachings, lessons learned in the most grueling of circumstances. Through it all, you have been the epitome of grace under pressure, and I, among many, have been so blessed in your sharing, and can only pray I have absorbed some of the lessons here.

  2. Thank you for sharing with us on so many levels–as one living in the midst of hard times, as one clinging to the goodness of each day, as a writer, as a mentor. I need to read this again. It’s overflowing with richness.

    Bless you as you and Richard walk this journey together.

  3. I’d enjoy reading the two blog posts you referred to in today’s post, but can’t find them….. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  4. Dear Susan, this is heart-rending for both of you. I shall hold you in my prayers and heart. Much love,

  5. Susan-the gift of this post is the connection that you have made on such a deep level. Thank you for sharing your story, and thank you for encouraging me to write mine.

  6. Susan I, I’m humbled by your words. If I had to choose, I certainly wouldn’t be walking this path. But it’s what Richard and I have, so I’m determined to find the grace and the lessons in it. You give me hope that I’m successful at that, at least.

    Linda T, It’s hard to be in our stories and to see them from without. But they’re richer in the telling if we can do that. Thanks for seeing what I was trying to do with this post. The original posts are on my blog, Walking Nature Home, at http://susanjtweit.typepad.com

    Edith, It IS heart-rending. It’s also heart-opening, as one of my blog followers pointed out. That’s the blessing in this terrible gift.

    Selena, Thank you for your words. Our stories are one of the gifts we bring to this world. Sharing them is a way to change the world, reader by reader. So write!

  7. Susan,
    Ditto all that others have said above. What’s fascinating about this post is how you’ve taken the observer/observed life and writing lesson to an even deeper layer. So we now have observing the observer and the observed.

    Additionally, for your many readers who you’ve allowed to share in the hard times with both Richard and your mother, there’s another level. So now we have the observer observing the observer/observed who is observing life lessons and the writing process. As always, your work is fascinating and generous.

    Thank you. We all feel gratitude.

    Janet Riehl

  8. Janet, You are amazing at being able to see and analyze the layers, and you’re quite right about how complex this observing becomes. I think what’s fascinating to me about writing life stories is that ability to stand back from the story and see its structure, details and lessons, and then to hone in on the intimate telling of it. Thanks for illuminating the process more clearly. And for being there…

  9. At some point, I hope to become as accomplished as you. This was one of the most well written pieces on “the hard stuff” I have read.

    Wishing you all the best.

  10. Donna, I have had way too much practice at writing the hard stuff, both in the events of the past 18 months since my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer, and in writing my first memoir, Walking Nature Home. I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone, but I can say that practice is critical in writing: practice paying attention to life’s events, practice taking notes (I journal nearly every day), practice finding the story in the mass of “data” (my rough journal writing and other sources), practice picking the words, phrases, tone, storyline… I also read critically, paying attention to how writers I love structure their stories, and what doesn’t work for when when writing doesn’t appeal to me. My advice? Write. Read it over, edit, read it aloud, edit again, read it over, edit… And so on until what you have sings. That’s how accomplished writing happens.

  11. Susan, you make my “hard stuff” seem so blah, so inconsequential. I know we’re told to not compare ourselves and our lives with others because what we have in our lives and how we feel about them and how we respond to all of that is ours and no one else’s so, in that sense, it’s all significant. But after reading this post, I’m not so sure of that. My thoughts and all good things I can send to you go out to you and Richard. Sam

  12. Sam, I think anything that seems like hard stuff is significant. It’s never good to dismiss feelings, especially difficult ones. As women we learn so early and so thoroughly to be quiet, to be “good,” to take care of everyone else before ourselves that we forget to listen to our own voices. If your voice says something is hard stuff, it is! It’s also true that sometimes we get caught in feeling sorry for ourselves and it’s useful to be reminded of where our troubles fall in the general scheme of things. I think you have to sit with your hard stuff, write about it, and then read over what you’ve written, listening to your writing voice carefully in order to get a sense of where yours falls. When in doubt, write it out! Blessings…

  13. You are a very couragous women Susan. I admire your tenacity and decision to continue to find as much joy in life as possible. I’m glad this story circle, and my small part in it, is here for you. Thank you for sharing the hard parts of your life as well as the good parts. It’s an excellent example for all of us to follow.
    Pat Bean

  14. Pat, Thank you! I believe in the Buddhist saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering optional.” Seems to me we don’t have a choice about what life brings us, but we can choose how we respond, and that’s a powerful choice. We ran into a medical student last night here in Denver who we first met in September of 2009 when all this brain cancer stuff started, and he was awed at how great Richard looks and acts. “Attitude makes a huge difference in the progress of illness and healing,” he said. “That’s a big part of why you’re doing so well with all this.” The consensus is that Richard should be dead already, or at least should be failing rapidly. And he’s not. He’s not 100 percent either, but he’s had brain surgery four times in 18 months, a pretty good excuse in itself. So that choice to find joy in life makes a tangible difference…

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