Writing on the dark side

The last week has been a rough one in one respect – I’m writing some very dark stuff in The Swan Harp. Something happened that I didn’t expect to happen in response to an event that has been in the story from the very beginning. Now some of my most reliable characters have stopped being reliable, and I’m not sure where they’ll be at the end of the story. I completely understand now why J.K. Rowling said of the last Harry Potter book that characters whom she had meant to die, lived, and some she’d meant to live had died.

Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”. A writer has to write from inside herself, and emotional response has to be true and touching. Well, right now I’m writing from a dark, dark place inside me. When I come up out of Kiar’s world – along about Echo Bay – I’m finding it very, very hard to leave that darkness on the page.

About thirty years ago I had my first major depressive episode. I didn’t understand what was happening to me; there are large chunks of that six months that I don’t recall. It’s the worst my life has ever been, and I’ve sworn up, down and sideways that I would never go back there again. But that’s precisely where I’m going right now, for about an hour at a time. It clings to me like the smell of smoke, and it’s hard to shake off when I’m finished writing.

It distresses me a lot. I come up and the world is greyer, and it seems like the hope has been leached out of it. It doesn’t last long, but as anyone who’s ever suffered from depression knows, it is eternal while you’re in it. It’s hard to believe things will lighten up ever again. Yet they do.

Chocolate helps, and I’m not being completely facetious here. Dark chocolate gives you a serious serotonin hit. (That’s the reason that Lupin hands out chocolate on the Hogwarts train after the Dementors have been by.)

I’ve also decided that while I’m writing this dark stuff, I’ll have to take alternate days to work on something else so that I can cope. It’s very hard to write what I know I have to get through, and I think it’s important that I make it bearable. However, the fact that I’m finding this so dark and difficult gives me the feeling that I’m doing it right, that the emotion I want the reader to get from this episode will be on the page in spades.

That’s what keeps me going. If this were a facile little book to write, if the terrible things happening to Kiar just flowed out of me without effort or emotion, I think that this story would hardly be worth telling, let alone reading. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. I don’t know. But I do believe that Frost had it right, and that our work as writers is to convey a whole world, including the emotional impact. We have to do that, no matter how hard it is.

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9 Responses to Writing on the dark side

  1. It is very hard writing about the dark stuff. It’s nearly impossible typing when tears cloud your eyes. I know, I’ve been there. I have often had to leave for a moment or two to regain my composure. I hope you manage to get through this dark writing phase and emerge on the brighter side, once it’s all done. Take care. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth,
    Your upcoming post for The Portable You (Tues May 9) got me thinking and I wrote about the “Zeroth Wall” (fear and emotion that block us before major undertakings). Then I read a post in the {grow} blog about how *authenticity* is what makes content valued and widely read. Now you also speak about authenticity. The universe is sending us a message – get real! (But I think your strategy of alternate days for the dark bits is a good one.)
    Jennifer

  3. ecreith says:

    Thanks for your support! Yes, I believe in authenticity, in work that comes from inside you and isnt’ just following a trend. That authentic work is both the easiest, because you know it well, and the hardest, because it is so much a part of you. “Gut” can mean both easy (A “gut course” in university was one that required little work, you just got it) and hard, as in spilling your guts.

    I’ll get through this. I’m taking chocolate today…..

  4. lucinda kempe says:

    I know exactly what you mean,E. Exactly how dark dark can be when writing my memoir which can awaken what I call “flashes of despair”. Sometimes I have to pause and refocus on something shorter and easier to tackle like a short flash.

    That helps a lot. Also knowing that all darkness passes and even finding of late that I can think my way out of the dark. Move a muscle, change a thought is a maxim I like that helps too.

    And, of course, knowing who you can call or write to as well when the muscle thing doesn’t work as well as it should.

    Or coming here and reading your refreshing honesty about the whole damn process of writing and life!

    • ecreith says:

      Move a muscle, change a thought! What a great coping strategy, Lucinda. I admire your ability to work so hard through a dark, dark piece and stay as humourous and optimistic as you always seem on the page.

  5. Sophia says:

    This is beautiful, Elizabeth! Thank you for your courage. Might it work out for us to chat?

  6. ecreith says:

    Yes, Sophia, we can talk, but I think it’ll have to wait until next week. What about Monday May 14th? In the evening?

    • Sophia says:

      Actually, we’re in California! I’ll be getting back late on the 14th. Let’s try for the following week.

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