Should you write about darkness?
Last month Stephen wrote me about the struggle of writing about violence.
"I know I’ve held back as both novelist and lyricist from exploring some of my darkest themes because I’ve been afraid of what others would say. As a happily well-adjusted man, wouldn’t my family observe, “Oh my gosh, what would compel Stephen to write about murder and abuse? Why are his characters so violent and malevolent?” I’m afraid what it would say about ME…"
I am writing this days after the shooting in Connecticut, and I am still in shock; I don’t even know how to understand my own feelings about it. So Stephen’s question feels even more pertinent right now.
What would compel Stephen to write about murder? Why are his characters so violent? By writing about malevolence, Stephen is bearing witness to it, and thereby giving us an opportunity to have our own feelings about malevolence.
Like it or not, that’s what art does: it gives us an opportunity to feel vulnerable.
When we experience suffering in and through writing it, it is an act of compassion - for ourselves, and for others. Doing this is helpful for the world.
To be clear: I do not mean writing to glorify violence. I am writing about being strong enough to look at suffering honestly, and to take it in. The willingness to put yourself in the minds of characters who act unthinkably shows a willingness to better understand the experience of pain. With this understanding comes compassion.
So here is what I do, Stephen – and I have to remind myself of this all the time when I catch myself holding back – first, you have to feel afraid.
Yep: just feel afraid.
Feel afraid about what people will think. Feel afraid of how it might look to your family. Go even further: feel afraid of what it might say about you and aspects of your deep self. Let yourself feel the discomfort. Don't indulge it or put yourself into a panic - that's not the point. You're here to work, to write something useful and true. So stay focused. Just let yourself feel scared and worried. Not wanting to feel that way is part of the problem.
Being a writer does NOT always mean feeling confident or comfortable about what you're writing.
When you write, you are vulnerable. Uncertain. This is really important, and it can feel downright awful.
You may literally squirm in your seat, cringe, or feel like you're peering over the Grand Canyon. There are voices in your head telling you not to write the dark stuff because of - whatever. Okay.
Then, write. Lean right into it. Use all of that freaky fear as fuel for your pen and set it loose into your sentences. Feel what makes you the most uncomfortable, and then write.
There are many obstacles to writing honestly. It's so much easier not to write honestly. Of course your mind and body will tell you not to write those dark themes. But you are in charge; you are the writer. Thank your mind and body for trying to keep you off the rough trail, and then take it anyway. You've trained for this. You have the skills you need. Write where the energy is hanging out - do not steer away from it.
At this point, when I start writing what I'm most worried about writing, my heart always beats a bit faster -- like it knows I've turned onto a dangerous road, and it's on guard for me.
This is writing a double black diamond run.
When you get to the end of the run, you may feel exhilarated, calm and endorphin-laced. Your fears - the voices that told you not to write - they won't matter as much as you thought they did.
Soon, you will see your fear differently. You'll recognize your fear as a call to the dangerous trail, and it will become the most important, useful part of your writing. So the next time that call comes, you will feel more ready. Like a firefighter who hears an alarm: you'll know what to do. You will have done it before. You'll know that the call means that you have something true to write. It might not be palatable, intelligible, comforting, or sellable. It might be ugly.
It might be something that nobody has ever seen before. It might be something that your family won't recognize, or even categorize as a story. It might scare people, or make them sad.
Art is an exploration of what it means to be human. So let yourself explore what that means.
Your willingness to be vulnerable in your art is what will allow a reader to touch his own vulnerability. This will make him feel seen when he reads your story.
This is from Charles Kaufman, from a talk on screenwriting that he gave at BAFTA:
(Thanks Michael Stone, for sending this to me last week, when I really needed to hear it)
"Say who you are. Really say it, in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won't be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time - it can't help but be.
But more importantly, if you're honest about who you are, you'll help that person be less lonely in their world. Because that person will recognize him or herself in you. And that will give them hope… Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world."
Really, his whole lecture is so moving and thoughtful. Give yourself a deep treat: make a cup of tea, put on headphones, and listen for the full hour.
Have a peaceful holiday. My wish for you this year: that you give your writing all the love and attention it deserves.