I always knew that 9/11 would play a part in the third book in my Tales of the Countess series. I’ve been working on a first draft and initially danced around the topic, not wanting to go there. But when I bit the bullet and wrote the story as I knew it should be, it started to flow.
It means I have to do a lot of research which is not the happiest of reading. I have to get it right. I don’t want to be disrespectful to all the people who were affected by that horrendous tragedy.
I constantly question myself. Do I really want to go there? Why do I want to go there? Is it okay to go there? Can’t I change the story and have something else happen instead? Who’s going to want to read about this?
But deep in my heart I know that this event was part of my story and it is my responsibility to show how my characters found their way through it. If I change it, then my story loses its integrity. I have to trust that I can find a way to do it.
Last week I re-read Steven Pressfield’s book Do The Work and came across this passage:
My friend Paul is writing a cop novel. He’s never written anything so ambitious – and he’s terrified. ‘The story is coming out dark,’ he says. ‘I mean twisted, weird-dark. So dark it’s scaring me.’
Paul wants to know if he should throttle back. He’s worried that his novel will come out so dark that not even Darth Vader will want to touch it. Answer: No way.
Reading this made me feel better.
Even though doubts frequently arise about taking my story in this direction, I was recounting one of the scenes to my husband and I could feel tears welling up. The fact that these emotions felt so real tells me that I have to continue.
Why you should write it even though “it may be so dark that not even Darth Vader will want to touch it”
A story has its own integrity. Think of it as coming from the great story universe. It already exists in this unseen place. The story gods have chosen you to write it. It’s your responsibility to unearth the story, find out its truth and then bring it to life and convey it to the reader.
Julia Cameron says that we don’t make up stories, we jot them down. This again implies that it already exists but just needs writing out.
If you write fiction then you have probably already had the experience where the characters grow and develop, as if by magic. The words drip off the end of your fingers in a way that might surprise you. When you try and force a story or a character in a direction that suits you, but not the story, it doesn’t feel right. It has a contrived sensation about it and you know deep down that you have copped out.
Following a story into a dark place and having the courage to go there means you are honouring your characters and their truth.
When we have to dig deep within ourselves and go to a raw place, the resulting writing has depth and honesty. Being a creative person (whether that be a writer, a painter or a musician) means constantly having to reach into the unknown, pluck from that unseen realm and bring something into being.
Having the courage to do that makes good art. It evokes an emotional response in the audience. It connects to something in their core. Sometimes you can’t explain precisely what that is that creates the emotion but you know that the work has it.
If you shy away from the topic and take the easier option, you won’t have that depth. You’ll deprive not only yourself of experiencing that truth but also the reader.
Trust the story
I was listening to a writing podcast recently and the author being interviewed said, “Trust the story. It knows better than you.”
Following the story to where it knows it should go will make you a better writer. You will have to develop the skill to do it justice. You will have to work hard and put the time in to make it the very best that you can. You might need to learn new craft techniques which will benefit not just this story, but everything else that you write.
Avoiding a difficult subject could create writer’s block. What will be the biggest torment? Writing it or not writing it?
In my imagination, I have items to be written, whether fiction or non-fiction, sitting in a pipe, all waiting their turn to come to fruition. If I avoid one of those pieces or try and bend it into something else, it creates an obstruction and everything else suffers. I can’t get to the next thing in the pipe until this one is done and completed.
How to protect yourself when writing about dark and difficult topics
You’ll have to trust your judgment as to whether your mental health is robust enough to tackle the topic you’ve landed on. What support do you need to continue?
When I first started doing my 9/11 research, I had a rule that I couldn’t read any books or articles on the internet after 6pm. I knew that if I allowed myself to work into the evening then the subject matter would stay with me mentally and affect my sleep.
When I am doing the actual writing, I get absorbed into the craft of making the words fit and this gives me separation from the topic. I’m doing a job and I have my professional hat on.
Try to separate that this is work and afterwards you will pick up what you have to do next in your life. You may need a ritual to go in and out of that space or create physical separation where you do your writing so that you can switch off and leave any uncomfortable feelings in that place.
Doing something trivial afterwards can break up difficult emotions. This is where watching cat videos on the internet can actually create value! Practical tasks such as chopping vegetables or mowing the grass can also be grounding.
Undertake activities that fill your creative reservoir. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron stipulates doing a weekly fun activity that rejuvenates and replenishes your inner artist. If you are working very intensely then she suggests that you will need two of these each week.
Acknowledge that your writing may be emotionally draining and accept that this will have an effect on you. Make sure that you are employing good self-care. Exercise, eat properly, get sufficient rest and relaxation.
Have regular conversations with other writers. They understand what it is to be obsessed with another reality for months or years.
What if it didn’t exist?
Think of a favourite book, movie or TV show that has dark subject matter but was utterly brilliant. It sits with you long after you’ve ingested it. You might discuss what happened and how it made you feel with your spouse or your co-workers. Sometimes you can’t fully express just how magnificent it was.
Now imagine that the writer panicked and backed away from where the story was heading or just stopped writing. Wouldn’t that be a tragic loss?
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