Should you write about darkness?

shoes in canyon

Last month Stephen wrote me about the struggle of writing about violence.

He wrote,

"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.

xo,

Sarah” width=

In the spotlight: Lana Pesch
In the Spotlight: Gabriele Kohlmeyer

10 comments

Patricia Morris

Thanks for getting me to listen to Charlie Kaufman in Santiago, Chile. He never disappoints me.
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Sarah, you've moved me to tears. Thank you so much for this... Definitely what I needed to hear. ox Cecilia
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Brilliant article! As someone who writes about darkness often (both in my fiction and in lyrics), I do have to be comfortable with both vulnerability and the fact that I know some folks might be turned off by it. But if it's coming from a place that's genuine, I don't mind if it's "mass appeal" is lost. I try not to let myself by guided by "what will others think about me based on this piece"", I just write.
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Marie Nicole

I've found out recently that I enjoy writing about dark stuff. Profoundly. Your prompt: write a scene that starts with 'we all looked up at once' took me to a pretty weird place and I couldn't help it. Some readers were concerned it was a real story. Other stories brought me to tears as I wrote, and others remain in my nightmares. But I so enjoy the dark. They do bring up true emotions. I was almost beginning to fear something was wrong with me.
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Although I'm not a writer of words, I understand what you're saying. I sometimes hold back in my musical expression. Wrote this music based upon the shooting last week - made me a bit nervous to put it out there, as it's such a raw topic (and I didn't want it to seem exploitative). Keeping with the vulnerable them - sharing here: "Requiem for the Victims in Newtown, Connecticut" https://soundcloud.com/jonathan-haidle/requiem-for-the-victims-in
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Sarah As always I really appreciate your insights. I have backed off of writing since completing the #STTS intensive but now that the holidays are here this is exactly the impetus I need to get back at it. I loved what you wrote in your newsletter: "Laura, the world needs you." I hear you. I hear the call. I feel it in my core. I will not back down. And the story emerging is dark, and I am not afraid to go into the darkness, so thank you! Have a wonderful holiday.
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Stephen D. Forman

Shucks... this one just feels, what's the word? Personal. There's so much insightful advice in this piece, Sarah, and I think it's touchingly cool how it's made a deep connection with so many readers. "You're here to work, to write something useful and true." We are war correspondents. "There are many obstacles to writing honestly. It’s so much easier not to write honestly." Funny how instinctively we know what honesty means as writers. The word is a cypher. It's vague and devoid of real meaning. But we know when we're lying to ourselves. "It might not be palatable, intelligible, comforting, or sellable. It might be ugly. It might be something that nobody has ever seen before." Good lord, I should hope so! One of my guiding principles is to write what has never been written before. Nothing bores me so rapidly as a story I've read a hundred times before. "To be clear: I do not mean writing to glorify violence." No, I don't think so either. My mantra has been that a hero can only be as brave as the villain is menacing. The most valorous protagonist cannot exist in a vacuum-- he needs a foil of equal magnitude. You can't have Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader... "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." Life is full of grief and insanity. Turn on the 5 o'clock news. Art should be beautiful. Art should be respite from that. A cool cloth for your burning eyes. Oil for your aching limbs. Or is... "Art...an exploration of what it means to be human"? Thank you for writing such a great essay, Sarah. Seasons Greetings, Stephen
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It's good to have the covers pulled off and to feel the sunlight. Thanks for the yank. --GG
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Stephen D. Forman

I know I've already replied, but that was many days ago. I'm travelling overseas now, and I've learned something worth sharing. Sarah had this to say about writing the darkness: "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." I went on to call the act one of war correspondence... A few days ago, in Amsterdam, I had the good fortune to visit the Anne Frank House. In retrospect, the name "Anne Frank" answers my every question. Her museum is a shrine, it's holy ground. One emerges awestruck. That we can read her Diary today is the result of a lottery won twice over, thrice over. She bore witness to the blackest evil, and wrote with barenaked honesty. Let's see whether this applies to Anne's Diary, shall we? "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." An inspiring proof of how Art can explore Darkness by one of our courageous writers.
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Thank you for this. Seriously. Everything you said in this resonated to such an indescribable degree. I wrote a story one time that was (at that time) the single darkest, scariest thing I had ever written. It was an absolute horror, and I was terrified of it. I knew that it was good, and it received lots of positive feedback. But it frightened me so badly that I couldn't write for a few weeks. It started out simply enough, in response to a perfectly ordinary writing challenge. The story decided to go dark on me, and I let it. Then, after that initial story was ended, the characters decided that they wanted more. And more. Until it became a nightmare of a story, something that I certainly wouldn't let my mother read, for example! The story scared me to such a degree that I STILL have trouble reading it now. Again, it's a good story, and people like it. I'm not ashamed of it. But it threw me. The whole process was an utter loss of the control I always thought I had. So it's good to know that I have permission to feel that fear. I was afraid of the story, of how it would be received, of what it would say about me as a person. But what the story ultimately did for me was to open a door, to get me used to the fact that I CAN write darker, more dangerous-sounding themes. My characters took control, guided me through, and got me out of the other side of things relatively unscathed. I know now that I can tackle such material and not be some horrid excuse for a human being. Because of this, I think I trust myself more as a writer now. (I do still hesitate to read it, though, since it temporarily blocked me--and I'd still never want my mother to read it!)
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