The internet is full of testimonials to the cathartic effect of writing about painful experiences. For a great number of people, it is probably a very effective way to confront and expel trauma. But we find that some of our authors – and we ourselves, if we are being honest – sometimes find the painful impossible to confront in writing. So what then? Pain is at the center of most of what we write, in memoirs certainly, but also in fiction. If it were all good news, it would not be news at all.
An inability to write about what is painful can lead to a big hole in the middle of a book. We don’t have any answers that might lead to putting painful stuff into words, but we do have some ideas to experiment with if this is your problem:
Write around it: Often painful experiences can be written about metaphorically or symbolically, and the result can be more powerful than if you spell them out. Readers’ imaginations will fill in the blanks and go where you as a writer do not want to.
Set yourself small goals and reward yourself when you meet them: Tackle your painful experience in small increments. Tell yourself you are going to write about the evening of the day before the painful event happened. When you have done that, take a break and do something you really, really like to do. Reward your effort. Next, write about the morning of the day of the painful event and again, reward yourself afterwards. By the time you come to the painful episode, maybe you will have somewhat conditioned yourself to anticipate the treat you have awarded yourself.
Get it all out in a mad rush: Hold your nose and write everything fast with as little thought as possible. You will have to go back and revise which may not be a lot of fun, but if you can make your rewrite about proper wording and other mechanics, maybe you can fool yourself that what you are working on is just another piece of writing.
Use prompts: Go back to the scene of the painful event or look at old pictures that recall it in some way. Do something to bring it back.
If you are writing fiction, project it: Simply give this painful happening to one of your characters and convince yourself that it happened to them and not you.
Here is one Don’t about writing what is painful and hard. Resist the urge to be dramatic about it, even if what happened to you was fraught with drama. Use simple language or go back and rewrite for plain language. Dramatic and painful events are powerful in and of themselves. They don’t need to be punched up with dramatic writing and in fact ironically, they are less powerful and less believable if they are.