When You Can't Write Around It, Write Through it

In this writing lecture by Brandon Sanderson, a woman asks how to continue writing when you’re going through something traumatic. Sanderson’s answer is a little less-than-adequate (although honest), in that he says he’s never experienced that because a) nothing very bad has ever happened to him; and b) he has a fairly small emotional range (his words, not mine!).

I wish I had been in the class so I could have raised my hand and said: “Write about your trauma.”

I’ve learned this about myself: it’s very, very hard for me to write fiction when I’m in the midst of personal transition. I stopped working on fiction when I fell in love with my husband, when I moved away from a city I loved, and during the first month or two of my marriage. Last week, my beloved cat Phoebe died, and I’ve stopped writing fiction again.

Phoebe, my favorite writing companion.

But I haven’t stopped writing.

There are moments when your real life demands all your writerly gifts. I am no longer afraid to give into these times; I know that when the dust settles, I’ll be emotionally freer to invest in my fiction again. But first, I have to invest in myself.

If you’ve never loved an animal, you may not appreciate how devastating it can be to say goodbye. But I fell away from my fiction as soon as I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t be able to save my darling girl. I stayed up late into the night the day she died, searching for resources to help me fully engage with my grief so that I could more fully heal. I ordered a pet remembrance journal, but my need was too great to wait until it arrived. So instead, I made everything into a pet remembrance journal. I posted photos and updates on Facebook. I wrote about her final moments in my Livejournal, which I hadn’t touched in months. I filled pages in my paper journal, sometimes sobbing as I did so. I emailed my best friend and another animal lover from my writers’ group, and I IM’d with a close friend who put her terminally ill cat to sleep several years ago. I texted my mom.

Today, I received Phoebe’s ashes. I’m going to put together a memorial for her, which will include photos and a goodbye letter. Creating this is helping me make meaning of this hard goodbye, and helping me feel connected to this mysterious creature who spent 10 1/2 years of my life beside me and then disappeared much too quickly. There will be more tears, but until I finish this tribute, I know I won’t be able to focus on my fiction. And that’s okay. Phoebe is worth this time, this writing, this grief.

In the first few days of letting go, when I felt sure the hurt would overcome me, my writing was a lifeline. I thought, “You will write, you will preserve her memory and all she meant to you, and you will get past this.”

It made me wonder how I would possibly cope if I weren’t a writer.

Change and loss are inevitable, and fighting them only prolongs the suffering. Instead, I use my writing to dig in deeper, and come out on the other side wiser and more at peace than I ever could have been if I’d shoved it all down for the sake of the rest of my life. Grieving takes time, and so does writing, but the two need not be at odds. Writing about trauma and transition not only keeps you writing in times where creativity may feel out of reach, but it also helps you move through the grief faster while processing it and integrating it into your life more deeply. There are many, many reasons to write, but I can think of none that matters so much as healing your own aching heart.