January 19th, 2015

How My Writing Destroys Me

Steena Holmes

steena-holmesMy house is quiet and I’m nursing a hot cup of coffee (my third actually) while staring at the screen and wondering what else I have left in me to write today. I don’t think there’s much. You see, last night I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning working on some chapters that literally yanked my heart out of my chest and I haven’t quite recovered. Which isn’t a good thing because the story isn’t complete and I am on a tight deadline.

This is only my sixth novel where I’ve experienced this but I’ve learned something about the process I wish I had known back when I wrote my first book. I’m sure the more I write the more I’ll learn and I may discover a better way to experience the heartache but for now, it’s a process.

What process? Of realizing when to write those scenes that destroy me and when not to.

You’d think it would be simple right? It was when I wasn’t on a deadline, when I could write or not write whenever I wanted. If I needed to take time off from writing the next chapter, then okay … whatever it took. I heard of authors who took a year or more to write a novel so it must be okay. My first novel took six months to write. Now I average less than three months, although this one I’m working on now has been less than that thanks to poor planning on my part and the holidays just being here.

I’ve learned that I can’t write those scenes that are dark or painful while my kids are around. So that means on weekends or holidays or even at night before they go to bed. And if I wait until everyone is in bed and stay up for hours (like last night) then I need to make sure my family will not be home the following day either.

There’s a reason for this.

When I write a story about a woman whose marriage is falling apart because she can’t handle her grief, or about a woman so lost in her own mind that she can’t tell truth from reality, or if I touch on subjects dealing with abuse…I become those women. I am those characters in that moment while I’m writing about them. It’s my marriage that is falling apart, it’s my child that I’ve just lost, it’s my husband that was killed and my baby who died in my arms, I am the one reliving the memory of being raped…it’s hard for me to walk away, to close the screen and go back to my every day life as if what I’d just wrote didn’t matter. (I will always remember hearing Jodi Picoult tell an audience that she is able to do this and wondered what I was doing wrong because I couldn’t).

So you can image I’m an emotional wreck. I’m low, quiet, needing space, alone time in order to regroup. My husband once asked me if it was worth it – if the emotional toil was normal and worthy of my energy. Normal? I’m really not sure (if it is, and you go through this as well – I’d love to know how you handle it!) but worthy of my energy – absolutely. Writing these type of stories…it’s what fuels me. I face my fears as a woman, a mother, as a wife in these stories. It’s my happy place (as odd as that sounds) – when I feel the most fulfilled and energized and excited! Worth it? When I read reviews from people who believe that I must have gone through these experiences, that I write them as if I know first hand what it feels like…yes, it’s worth it to me as a writer. I’m always afraid that one day he’s going to ask me if it’s worth our marriage. I hope that day never comes.

There is an emotional toll, make no mistake about it. In order to write a story that comes from your heart (and every story should if you want to touch your readers hearts) then you have to be willing to go to that level. How everyone reacts will be different. I would love to be able to walk away after a scene and be fine – to be able to distance myself from my characters and not have it affect me so much. Maybe one day I will. But maybe by then, I’ll realize that I don’t want to. That this is the process that works for me.

In the meantime, I sit here, sipping my coffee (I should get a refill) and waiting for that boost of energy to open up my laptop where my story is stored (yes, I have a ‘writing’ laptop and a desktop computer where I do all my ‘other’ work – helps me to ‘switch gears’ when I need to.) If I wasn’t under such a tight deadline, I’d take a few days breather, enjoy the slightly warm weather, maybe make a cake for dessert tonight and just enjoy life. But I can’t – and so with my choice of profession comes discipline, and that means pressing on. Or as my mother would say suck it up buttercup.

How do you handle emotional scenes when you write?

About Steena

NY Times & USA Today Bestselling Author

Growing up as a small town Canadian girl, there wasn’t much to do but ride your bike, hang out with friends on the beach and daydream. I always wanted to write but never dreamed it was something I could do as a career. I love to travel and fell in love with the sheep covered hillside, old castles and romantic history of Scotland and England. I dream about waking up in Tuscany and touring small town shops in the south of France with my husband, of placing my toes in the ocean and experiencing history first hand. As a mother with three daughters, I’m learning that teaching them to pursue their dreams is a lasting legacy. I love to wake up to the Rocky Mountains, will forever enjoy the taste of coffee and chocolate and can’t imagine the day when a story doesn’t unfold in my heart. Living a life with passion and pursuing dreams is a life well lived. Find her online at www.steenaholmes.com

36 comments to How My Writing Destroys Me

  • Steena, I’ll bet every writer who reads this can relate. You can’t hope to move others with your writing unless you too, are moved.

    That’s why I have so much respect for writers – they don’t hide. They put it out there.

    My curve for letting it go is much faster than yours. Fifteen minutes, max. Perhaps the one good by-product of a tough past . . . lots of practice compartmentalizing, and letting go of what won’t be caged.

    Write on.

  • I’ve heard great actors discuss this in interviews. They embody the character to deliver an exceptional performance, but then they have to figure out how to let it go. It’s not an easy thing. I guess it’s a skill we hone over time. Until then, I guess we are on the emotional rollercoaster, but I hope that commitment, that effort, that “oneness” with the characters and what they are experiencing, shines through. All the best in 2015!

  • I love hearing this – it reassures me that I’m not crazy! The characters in my novels and even in my short stories are real to me. They inhabit my mind and my heart. I cry with them and for them. Even when I am finally able to set them down, all I need do is reread what I have written and they are immediately resurrected in my mind – and I cry all over again.

    I think this is a good thing, even if it seems somewhat dysfunctional. How can we expect to move our readers if we are not moved by them ourselves?

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      There’s a sticky note above my computer with the following quote on it: “When authors surrender to their own stories and generously love their characters, their manuscripts come alive.” Not sure why I didn’t write who it came from but pretty sure it’s Donald Maass. Whenever I doubt how far i can go, I look at that note.

      I completely agree, Mary Ellen, with your final point.

    • We’re not alone in this Mary Ellen! And exactly…that’s what I remind myself all the time…if I’m not moved, my readers won’t be (which is why I’m in the process of rewriting some scenes…oh the joy of tearing apart our stories before we deadline…)

  • Hi Sheena, I read your post with great interest. I write WordPress blog and value every comment made. I also read the comments of others to this blog, mostly saying that all good writers must feel this way, must be moved to be able to move their readers. I agree, that to enable the scenes to feel real and the characters to become ;’known’ by the reader, the story must sound genuine and believable. How many of us cry at sad or emotional films? That wouldn’t happen if the actors didn’t bring the story to life and the person watching didn’t believe what they were seeing. I have always written but my first and second books are autobiographical and so ‘letting it go’ wasn’t going to happen. With the greatest respect, I have been that abused child,the raped woman you write about and so I know first hand how hard these ‘scenes’ must be for you and I know how hard revisiting the horrors of my past are for me. I felt I had to comment because I am also now, a trained Psychotherapist and a wee bit concerned that authors can become so engrossed in their stories and characters that they find it hard to ;let go’ and how that can impact on their lives. I wrote my first book I DID TELL I DID at the dead of night. I understand about not writing these ‘scenes’ when the children are about. I could only go back to the memories when I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed. I thank you for this blog and will follow you now as you have a way of describing your feelings, that must be the reason for your success as a writer. But when you are feeling hurt, abused , sad or grief stricken, when your characters have suffered in your books, remember that you are not that person, you are not the abused, raped or grief stricken character but somewhere out there I am. Thank you for reading this comment.

    • Cassie – thank you for your words and your advice! You’re right – I have to remember I’m not my characters, even if some of their emotions and experiences come from my own past. Good words!

      • Hi Sheena, I am glad you didn’t take offence, I was just a bit concerned for your emotional wellbeing. Keep writing and step back more often. You are welcome to my words and thank you for your kind reply .

  • Holly Robinson

    Thanks, Steena, for a great post. I agree with you all here–especially Mary Ellen, who asks how we can expect our readers to be moved if we’re not moved ourselves. My test for my books is whether I cry not only when I finish writing certainly difficult scenes, but also when editing them–the third, fourth, fifth time. Then I know I’ve put truth on the page. I don’t know how you write a book in three months, though–I do one every six months, and it just about kills me!

    • Thanks Holly! I like your test – it’s a good one. I still cry when I reread scenes and at book signings I have to be careful, because I am an ugly crier 🙁

    • Holly, I got edits in on a book the other day, and I was reading the scene where a dog is poisoned, with tears running down my cheeks – even though I KNOW he recovers, because I wrote him! We are nuts…

  • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist)

    The closer I am to a situation in what I am writing, the longer it takes for me to recover from writing it. I don’t know if I would change my reaction to such things because I think you’re right, “In order to write a story that comes from your heart (and every story should if you want to touch your readers hearts) then you have to be willing to go to that level.” I don’t think we have to be emotionally wrecked to have written a great scene that offers a punch, but somehow, yes, we have to be moved.

    For me, becoming emotionally attached to my characters does often bleed into my real-life relationships. If they just experienced joy, I am full of cheer and inspiration. If they have experienced pain, I am that much more susceptible to those feeling the same way around me.

    I don’t have advice, but maybe validation is enough! 😀

  • Hi Steena,

    You are on a really tight schedule and that alone would be enough to stress me out.

    I feel emotional when I write difficult scenes and used to avoid them when I first started writing. “You need conflict!” my critique partners would tell me. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want my characters to suffer. Of course, I learned.

    Usually, I’m like Laura, in a short time I snap out of it when I shut down the computer and get caught up in my “real world.” The only time I’m unable to do this is if a scene heavily resembles an emotional sadness from my past.

    I wonder if there is someway you can reward yourself for pushing through a hard scene/chapter by doing something that feeds your soul: reading, an hour at the gym, etc. I know it must be difficult with three children and tight deadlines but maybe even a ten minute meditation might help ease the transition.

    Thanks for writing such wonderful books. Your readers appreciate you and you make their lives a little (or a lot) brighter. That’s important. Take heart!

    • Now that’s a great idea Deb! I usually give myself time to regroup – I’ll read, watch a movie or something but this time around because of the deadline, I keep telling myself I’ll get my ‘time’ after. But…I need to learn to take that time now. Hard thing to do….but thank you for reminding me it’s important!

  • Wow – six novels. And what an array of issues to face! Congrats on your success.

    I’ve always had to deal with emotional upheaval during my work. I’ve found it becomes more difficult during rewrites and revision. I sort of long to *feel it all* as I did during the composing phase. But in order to successfully convey the emotion, I need to maintain a distance. And yet, if I hold myself too far from it, I fear I’ll lose my grip on the emotion entirely. It’s a delicate balance.

    My most intense emotional experience felt otherworldly to me, to the point it was spooky. I write historical fantasy set in a quasi-ancient Rome. I’d read about an atrocity that I wanted to include in my work, that involved the mass-murder of a group of mostly women and children. I put writing the scene off for weeks. When I finally tackled it, I wrote from the POV of one of the victims, right to the (her) end. The moment I finished was beyond cathartic. It was as if I’d been channeling this poor woman. I leapt up from the keyboard and started walking, tears streaming. I walked right out of the house and wandered blindly. I came back to myself on a nearby beach, sitting in the sand, feeling powerfully mournful. I was melancholy and emotionally fragile for days. I’ve only rewritten the scene once, but I found it to be remarkably intact and tight. It needed almost no editing (which is amazing for me). Or maybe I just couldn’t face a deep reconstruction of it – I’m not sure.

    You’re right – it can tough stuff, but I think it’s necessary to the work. And the emotional stuff can be so rewarding. And, although I ask myself regularly if it’s all worth it, my answer remains the same: there’s nothing I’d rather be doing with my life right now, no matter how tough it gets.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Wow, Vaughn, what a story. Thank you for sharing it with us!

      And completely agree, nothing I’d rather be doing either.

    • You get it! I love it! “If it’s all worth it, my answer remains the same: there’s nothing I’d rather be doing with my life right now…” exactly! Thank you for saying what I feel! (and now I want to read that scene of yours)

  • It’s the first draft that gets to me, and I also go into that processing-the-emotions state; I suspect you can’t adequately express the pain (and joy – let’s not forget the joy!) we sometime write unless you do. Second draft, I’m concentrating more on getting the emotions exactly right for other eyes – experiencing it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve conveyed it accurately, because so much lives in our heads. If I go straight into third and future drafts, I’m less affected – numbed, maybe. That’s why I put my books aside for a month or so after second draft – I want to come back clear, to experience my words again as if for the first time.

    I love my characters, and I do live their heartbreaks and fears. And yes, it’s worth it. Because ultimately, a book is a shared experience. Our words give others a chance to expeience the same catharsis, the same joys. To love our characters as much as we do.

  • Excellent article for those of us who write and I’ve not seen a lot of authors admit to it or even mention it. I draw on my pain. It’s there, deep inside me. I tell myself it’s cathartic, that it’s a good thing to get that pain out there. And I’ve pretty much convinced that it is a good thing to open the well of sorrows and let them out in my writing. That’s what I tell myself. And in some ways, I know it is true. But after I write the scene, it does affect me for awhile. I try to stay away from people. So I guess I use avoidance to cope with those emotions that come out when writing a scene that draws on my personal hurt. And honestly, I think it’s a good thing for us to get those emotions out there. Imagine if we tried to keep them inside forever. Maybe we’re the lucky ones because we have a way to let out some of that hurt and anger and desolation. Like I said, I’m almost convinced myself that it’s a good thing.

    Thank you for this article.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      “Maybe we’re the lucky ones because we have a way to let out some of that hurt and anger and desolation.” <-- This! I like to joke that writing is cheaper than therapy. There are times I wonder if I need therapy BECAUSE of the writing but that's a different subject. 🙂

      • Ha, you may have something there. I think I work out my issues through my writing, but it could be the other way around. I think it’s like watching a sad movie. Most of the time, I just won’t watch. But there are times when I want to cry, to get it all out, and then I’ll get the saddest thing I can find and watch it.

    • In my writing, I like to face my own personal fears, so I think you’re right!

    • Nikki Weston

      Hi lalouziane,

      everything you just wrote has resonated with me. I agree, we are the lucky ones, not everyone has the outlet of writing (or knows how helpful it can be). Only last night, I journaled through a problem that is causing me pain, it is no magic bullet but today things are definitely easier.

      You wrote ‘that’s what I tell myself’, and again that sentiment totally resonates 😉 There is little to guide us through this journey, and I find that sometimes I must be my own best friend, advising myself, reassuring myself, supporting myself in lots of ways. We are lucky when other writers share, it advises, reassures, supports. So once again I thank you for this article.

      Best – Nikki
      FTHRW_Procrastination loop moderator.

      • Nikki, it is good to hear from you. Writing is lonely business and sometimes just knowing there are other people out there who share some of the same experiences really makes a big difference. Happy writing.

  • I guess, when we write, we want our readers to ‘live’ the story along with our characters and to do that we need to live it ourselves when we write it. I find it’s several rewrites in that it gets emotional, when my characters are more than just names on the screen then their death or loss or even victory becomes more real for me – and that’s when I know I’m beginning to get it right.

    On the other hand, I don’t dwell on it for a long time. I have depression and anxiety. Even with medication and counselling it is my constant and life long companion. It’s the unsavoury uncle that I don’t want to introduce to my kids and, because they are the most important people in my life, I am careful to protect them my emotional upheaval, whether it is medical or professional.

  • I heard author Susan Wiggs speak at a conference a few years ago and she said something that’s stuck with me. Writing’s not for sissies. Boy, was she right.

  • Nikki Weston

    Hi Steena,

    what an honest post, thank you, I identified with so much of what you’re going through. I’m so sorry that there is pain in this process. I too get asked ‘is it worth it?’, and you know what, my answer is ‘yes’ but god help me if that answer is understood. It is a bizarre profession in my opinion, but one I have to follow.

    You asked how do you handle emotional scenes? Good question. I don’t know if I handle them exactly. Going through them is obligatory, I think we all agree, but walking away is very difficult. I generally feel raw until whatever time I get to sleep, next day things feel better. I do jump from scene to scene, writing only what I can manage. Some difficult scenes get only a few minutes of my time.

    I too have kids, an 18-month old and a 3 year old, both highly emotional like their mum. They totally tune in to whatever’s going on with me, and that’s something I want, to a degree, to shelter them from.

    Thanks for your honesty Steena. Keep doing what you’re doing, you inspire me.

    Best – Nikki Weston
    FTHRW_Procrastination loop moderator

  • Hi Steena, I really liked this post. As you know it has particular relevance for me now as my novel based on true events is due to release in May. Writing about my children in the wake of my husband’s suicide—even now, 17 years later—was wrenching. Yet that kind of grief comes in waves and I am well acquainted with their ebb and flow.

    But my toughest moment was last year, while writing it, when as a special treat I wanted to go to a temple in Philadelphia to hear Jillian Cantor talk about writing MARGOT, her re-imagining of the life of Anne Frank’s sister if she hadn’t died in Auschwitz. It had been an emotional day working on THE FAR END OF HAPPY when I looked up the address online and discovered it wasn’t just an author’s talk, it was a Yom HaShoah service to commemorate the six million Jews that had been killed by the Nazis in World War II.

    If the horrific and seemingly senseless loss of one life isn’t enough to crush you, add six million more. I was a wreck and there was no way I could pull myself together to get to the service, even though that may have been exactly what I needed. For a few days after I experienced that emotional fragility that Vaughn described above and knew I needed time to recover. Again.

    The circle of life, and loss, and writing.

  • Steena, I commiserate with Holly’s comments. I cry every time I read the scene where one of my characters dies. And I must have revised this novel forty times and counting! I also wrote a book about a battered woman and one of my readers (in the field of mental health) asked both myself and my husband to dinner. Later she told me she was sure I was abused. NOT. But yes, a great feeling of having caught the emotion in my book. I also have a problem–a good one–of leading a pretty lucky life. One of my CPs wonders how my character can have a good friend a week after moving to a new community. Ah, the writer’s life. I recommend chocolate to help you detach from the emotion of your characters!

  • Robin Witt

    The hardest time I had was after writing a scene introducing a villian, from the villian’s POV. He kills a very unpleasant character (I wanted to show how nasty he was, but I picked the victim such that I should have been able to celebrate that he got what he had coming.)
    I felt inescapable dirty for three days. It wasn’t the killing, it was the villian’s feelings about it (that I had felt, while writing them) that were so profoundly unclean, wrong, that I was very disturbed by the whole thing by the time I finished.

    Thanks!! This was a great article. 🙂

  • Living alone, I have fewer transference problems than cited. When I get into a character, the emotions can flow and the consequences painful. I tend to write these scenes episodically, usually when I am already in pain from other life’s goings-on. I seem to write these difficult passages more effectively. This tends to minimize the pain.

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