Writers in the Storm

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January 11, 2017

Knowing Your Limits as a Writer

woman-1889812_1920Someone I know is going through a personal tragedy that has rocked my insides to the point I can't think about it without bursting into tears. The idea of dealing with something like this paralyzes me.

I was talking to a writer friend about it and her response was typically writerish - "Oh my god, you have to incorporate that into your book. You have to go there."

It's great advice. Use that raw emotion and make your reader feel every last gut wrenching sob. And I’m sure all of us have, at some point or another, used personal fears, heartbreak, experiences to push a scene to the next level.

I do it all the time. A character in my WIP is dealing with a situation similar to one I went through and there have been plenty of times that I’ve squirmed having to relive some of those emotions. It would be easier to stop, change the scenario, give my character a break, but then I’d have a far less satisfying book.

But with this situation, I won’t go there. Not can’t … WON’T.

Here's the thing ... I don't believe that if you wish for something hard enough it will happen or if you talk about a dream or fear it will come true. But I also have a teeny, tiny little part that doesn't fully not not believe it.

There are topics that I’m not willing to explore as an author because, to be quite honest, I’m afraid to know what it feels like to deal with it. I don’t want to ever have to know what it feels like, not even through research.

I admire authors who will take those gut-wrenching topics and break your heart at the same time they make you have to keep turning pages.

That's not me. That’s not why I write.

I write because it helps me sort through my thoughts and feelings. I write so that I can release those thoughts and feelings. I write because I enjoy writing. So why release thoughts and feelings I don’t want to sort through? Why write about topics that scare the crap out of me?

“Because it’ll make you a stronger writer.”
“Because it’ll make your stories richer.”

Maybe this makes me a lesser writer or a weaker person, but no. Just no.

As a reader, I choose what books I want to spend what free time I have with. And I’ll put down books that deal with issues I don’t want to read about. That’s not a reflection on the author. I’ve stopped reading some amazing books because I couldn’t go there. There are best-selling authors I steer clear of. Is it a negative reflection on me? Some people would say yes. I disagree.

There’s enough to be scared or unhappy about in this world and we all have our thresholds of where we’re willing to go emotionally.

As a writer, there are topics I keep closed in my heart. I’m afraid to let them out, not because of the complexity of writing those emotions – I can do that – but because of feeling those emotions – I won’t do that.

I will however, syphon the very last drop of emotion I can from the topics I choose to write about. I’ll write about overcoming betrayal and losing your self-identity. I’ll explore the heartbreak of a lost friendship and the turmoil over a decision that will turn your life upside down.

As a writer, I don’t owe my readers to go places I’m not comfortable going. There are plenty of other authors willing to go there instead. I owe my readers the best story I can tell. Those are the emotions I’m going to focus on.

Now I want to hear from you ... are there topics you avoid or do you push yourself to write about those hard to stomach issues?

About Orly

Orly-Ivy.jpgOrly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world, where she spent roughly sixteen (cough) years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats. She is a co-founder and past president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Tall Poppy Writersdistance-homeShe is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut, The Distance Home, will be released by Forge on May 2, 2017.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonig, on Facebook at OrlyKonigAuthor, or on her website, www.orlykonig.com.


72 comments on “Knowing Your Limits as a Writer”

  1. I'm sorry you're hurting. My heart hurts for you, Orly. But don't have these. I'll go anywhere. BUT. The only thing I won't do, is have a downer ending. I'll never leave readers in a bad place.

    What can I say? No boundaries here.

    Yeah, I know. It's a problem.

    1. You go there with your characters, Laura, but you don't go there on the page the way many authors do. For most of your characters, it's their backstory, what's damaged them, and what they have to overcome, it's not what they're necessarily going through on the page in front of the reader. And no, it's not a problem, it makes for interesting characters. 🙂

      1. I agree with you so hard on this one Orly! And with Laura too. I think there are few, if any, limits on what I will have had a character go through in their past... and it will go on the page in the sense of them getting through and over it. Or, in the sense of mysteries, something horrible that is happening to a secondary character that they may not live through, but the protagonist does. But I'll never leave my characters in a bad place. I live --and yes I mean live... though I love them too...HEAs, because life doesn't usually give HEA's, and I think books should. At least books I read and write...because I read AND I write as escape, and that's what I want to give my readers.

    1. I've pushed through some of those books but I have to be in the right place mentally and emotionally. Then again, there are so many amazing books out there. 🙂
      Thanks for reading!

  2. I generally don't read Nicholas Sparks for that very reason. I want to "feel good" about what I'm reading. I can handle the angst midway through, as long as you come out on the other side, but if I'm crying at the end of a book, I'm not a satisfied customer.

    1. See, I can't read his books either but for different reasons. 🙂
      I've read a number of books that don't end on a happily-even-for-now, and I loved them for their raw honesty and for the beauty of the writing. But I have to be in the right mindset for them. And then I'll usually pick up something with a lighter topic after to balance it out.

  3. I'm truly sorry for your pain.

    To answer your question, yes, I push myself to write terrible scenes. I've certainly gone "there," with my debut - at least for some. Did it bother me to write what I did in the book? Would I seem callous if I said no? I realized I was pushing at boundaries, and I did it anyway. It's been said "it will pull all your triggers."

    I did it because for me, it's speaking the truth, it's real life, and as ugly as it is, it happens. I see it as an honest rendering of someone's truth, somewhere out there.

    Not every can or wants to read or write about certain topics. I refuse to read, write or watch anything if animal abuse is involved, for instance. My heart can't take it - yet I know that exists too. Therefore I get it, I get what you're saying. I get why you can't go there, can't write about certain things.

  4. Yes, there are some topics or issues I'll probably never explore in my writing. Maybe I'm a wimp, but I wouldn't enjoy reading those scenes, so I won't write them. I hope the stories I do tell can give readers the tools (hope, faith, friendships) to handle situations like the one your friend is going through. I'm so sorry you are suffering.

  5. Orly, I believe you're the first author who feels exactly as I do. There are just some subjects I can not write about, and honestly it's that niggling tiny fear that I wouldn't cope with those feelings or be able to deal with it. If I don't put it on paper maybe, hopefully, I won't ever find out. Honestly I'm not tough enough and maybe that's why I write sweet romance. I need that HEA. If I want to scare myself I can watch the news. Fantastic, relatable post!

    1. Christina, you are so NOT alone, trust me. I'm also a sweet romantic women's fiction/sweet romance writer. I read (and watch movies) to escape, and I feel the same way as a writer--I want to be taken away into the world I'm writing about while I'm in front of that keyboard. Especially over the last couple of years, as I've been dealing with some major family issues I can always get involved in if I want to be depressed and sad and have my heart wrenched out. 🙂 I have spent so many years blissfully lost in the happier worlds of books that I want to bring the same feeling to the people who read my (future) books. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I probably won't ever get a humongous audience, since "sweet" doesn't usually translate to blockbuster. But if I can make even one reader forget their problems for a few hours, I can die a happy writer.

      1. "if I can make even one reader forget their problems for a few hours, I can die a happy writer." <-- LOVE that. And completely agree. Thanks, Linda!!

  6. I'm with you. I don't go to horror movies or watch movies or television that are excessively violent. I don't want those images in my mind and heart, even if they are only made up. There's enough of that in this world for real- just turn on the news. I was a riding instructor for years and I always told my students, 'trust me, I won't ask you to do anything I can't or won't do myself.' Since I can't and won't watch/read serious violence, I won't write about it or ask my readers to read it. There are plenty of authors out there who are great at writing that stuff. Good on them. I'll stick to the stories that come from inside me and luckily, I haven't stockpiled the violence and hate images.

    That said, when I experience really awful, painful stuff, I do write about it - in my journal. I need to write to get it out of my head and for me, at least, that is healing. It's the beginning of letting it go.

    1. "I'll stick to the stories that come from inside me ..." <-- YES!!!! Oh, and journaling. See, that I'm slightly jealous of. That's one of those things that just doesn't come naturally for me. I turn those emotions into fiction instead.

  7. I'm so sorry you're hurting, Orly. I'm with Christina and you.As a writer, it’s hard enough to write the uncomfortable things I’ve lived through and learned from. I do it in hopes I'll teach readers or at least make them feel less alone in the experience. But to go to a place that I have never been and would never want to go feels inauthentic to me. It also feels unfair to the reader and those who *have* gone through it to try to write a story that for them was very real but for me, was not. Thanks for saying what others of us were thinking!

  8. So sorry you're hurting. Two things I want as a writer and a reader...likable main characters and a HEA. I don't mind crying as long as the tears at the end are happy tears. For example, I cry every time I read Laura Drake's The Sweet Spot and sometimes pull it off the shelf when I need a good cry, but I know the ending will be uplifting, life affirming, so I don't mind the crying. Everyone was raving over Gone Girl and telling me to read it, so I gave in. Hated it. The book may have been well-written, the author talented, but why spend my free time with unpleasant people?

    1. You're absolutely right, Carrie, as readers we have the choice on what books we spend our time with. As writers, we spend way more time with those characters than our readers do. I write about characters and issues that touch me in some way. Not always in a happy way, I'm actually not one who needs a HEA. But if the book goes to certain topics, I'm out. And if I won't read it, I won't write it.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. Aw, thank you, Carrien! I just finished Kristin Higgin's Firefly Lane, and I was sobbing at the end (and off and on most of the day), but it was okay - live affirming - I love that.

  9. Sorry you and your friend are going through a tragic time - I hope your friend finds some peace and solace and your pain is lessened as well.
    There are books I'll never read again and movies I can't watch again because, for me, they were just too brutal.
    Over the years, some of my life experiences have added some new scars that are tender that way - I know I will absolutely use some of them in my writing, and others I am dead set that I won't go near. Don't know what makes the difference, and I don't feel any need to figure it out - that's just how it is.
    It's like my second career as a psychotherapist. Based on my own life, I gravitated to certain kinds of situations and clients that resonated for me, but there were others - which also resonated - that I just couldn't ethically work with for similar reasons. Every therapist has his or her own no-go cases, though they're different for each of us.
    None of us has an obligation to shape our writing to others' expectations, and I think that if we try, what we create has a certain hollowness to it anyway.
    Again, I wish for peace for you and for your friend. Take care.

    1. Thanks, Jim. Love the comparison with therapy. Writing is, for many of us, a form of therapy so yes, those "no-go cases/topics" are ours to own.

  10. "There’s enough to be scared or unhappy about in this world and we all have our thresholds of where we’re willing to go emotionally." Yes, yes, and yes! I may be standing nearly alone on this issue, but I don't enjoy books that center around wrenching betrayal after crushing tragedy after devastating loss. As a writer, finding that balance between victory and defeat for my characters is a challenge, and I definitely lean toward victory and joy, both as a writer and as a reader.

  11. I agree there is enough tragedy, unhappiness in the world. Knowing your threshold is a good thing. For my characters there are bad spots but if it is on the page it is quickly put behind a closed door. There is only once where I took a character (and the reader) to a really bad spot where tears ran. As it was a short story in a compendium, like the greek theater, the next story was lighter and had a happy ending. But for myself as a reader I read to escape the world, not immerse myself in tragedy, pain, heartbreak, or living through someone's impending death.

  12. Thanks for this. It reminds me why I've gone back to writing, and why I, who have found best expression in comedic plays, circled back into the 15th century to write about tragedy in verse, and came out on the other side to realize it's time to face my personal family demons and missteps without flinching, because that's what my readers have been privately requesting. Got to finish one other project, first, then it's bound to be daily visits to the shrink on the page. I'd rather laugh. I, too, prefer happy endings but at my age (76) I've finally realized that getting this far is a happy ending, in itself. Give your friend an extra hug, and take one in return for yourself.

  13. I know my limits as an author and a reader. We choose to write about certain topics for a reason...and to avoid certain topics for a reason. Nothing wrong with that. Although I don't shy away from emotional pain in my stories, I draw the line at any kind of abuse. It's simply not something I'd enjoy writing or reading about.

  14. Great post, Orly! i hope you'll be able to read my sophomore. I think it has a hopeful ending but the topic is pretty sad. I know some stay away from sad, but personally I like to explore these emotions in a book. Sometimes I think of reading as a vaccination...a little dose in a book, hopefully nothing in real life.

    1. I like that view - if I write about it and deal with it in my book, I won't have to in real life. Sadly, my neurotic side still feels if I write about something that freaks me out, I'm tempting fate. 🙂

      Now, when do I get to read that book????????????

  15. I can go there in a universal way, but if something's too close and too painful, nope. And I think that's okay. Just because we're writers doesn't mean we can't have truly private moments that we want, and even need, to keep to ourselves.

  16. This is a timely post. At art group last night, the conversation turned to when we stop reading a book and sometimes return it to the bookseller. There was no censure of the author; most admitted liking a work until the place they were unwilling to go as readers was introduced.

    1. There have been books I've had to walk away from because of the timing. I've never returned a book though, just reshelved it and tried again when I was in a different place emotionally.

  17. And sometimes it just takes time before you can write about something. I couldn't write about 9/11 for several years. And I just wrote my first poem about my father's death two years ago. There are still pieces of my past I won't write about, though it migot be therapeutic for myself and others if I did.

    1. "And sometimes it just takes time before you can write about something." YES!!!!!!

  18. I loved your piece. I am knew to calling myself a writer. I have always written stories or jotted down phrases I never knew what to do with them. About this subject, I think it's okay to say No to going there. Much like you I write to release thoughts that I cannot let go of any other way. Some topics I've read about and cringed and admiring the poet or writer for their bravery. It doesn't make you a "lesser" writer...it makes you a better writer. Thank you and I cannot wait to check out your book.

  19. I think you have just voiced so much I feel. I loved the post for many reasons but mostly I liked the emotions behind the words.

  20. In my "daytime" profession as a court reporter I have had to endure listening and transcribing very disturbing things people have done to one another. I personally would not create fiction that type of fiction. I also don't read that type of fiction. Our journeys are all unique, which makes our stories all so different.

    1. Very true. And thankfully, there are readers out there for pretty much every type of story.

  21. To be powerless to help someone you love. Not only rips your heart out, but chainsaws your guts. I am so sorry you are there, Orly.

    For me, putting my emotions on the page is as painful as it gets. I'll give you just about anything to not have to go there. In fact, I didn't want to comment today but figured, finally, I had to. Much love to you and yours.

  22. Orly, beautifully written. Thank you. There is another reason, and maybe some have commented on it, but I haven't read all the great comments. The second reason and one I currently feel after the loss of a treasured friend is simply; I wouldn't betray his memory for emotional plunder. I do well enough without searching dark chasms of empty loss and hopelessness while others grieve along with me. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for caring. Thank you for loving.

  23. Sorry, Orly.

    I tried to write once on a painful event from my past but it was like reliving the ordeal so I stopped. I'm sure it may be therapeutic for some writers, but it wasn't true for me.

    1. Writing is therapeutic, but not about certain things. I can take the emotions that those events bring out and use them in my writing but it has to have a different focus if that makes any sense (and since I'm only on coffee number 3, it probably didn't make a bean of sense). 🙂

  24. Orly, I'm so sorry to hear that your friend is going through something so awful that it's hard for others to deal with, too. I can only imagine how difficult a situation it must be. But I'm glad your friend has a friend who can truly empathize with her/him. That's priceless during a difficult time. Regarding the writing of dark emotions and scenes, I think it's wonderful that there's something out there for everyone: the people who can handle going there, and those of us (which includes me) who can't. The diversity of topics and emotions and stories continually astound me.

    1. It's one of the wonderful things about writing and publishing. Thanks for reading and commenting, Linda!!!!!

  25. I wholly relate to this, Orly, both as a writer and as a reader. I also think it can change with time: Something I'm not willing to immerse myself in now might call to me, however difficult it may be, down the line. Holding out for those calls and learning to be at peace with ourselves whether or not they come is, in my view, a form of self-care. At the end of the day we're all human, and we're all seeking joy on the page, even in sadness. And one of the beautiful things about this creative life we've chosen is that sometimes, we get to choose its direction.

    1. Your last line is exactly what I love most with writing. Thanks for voicing it so perfectly, Jessica!!!

  26. Orly...Your post made me stop and question if there were certain 'places' I wouldn't go with my writing. Some topics do make me cringe and I haven't written about them. But in the right context, I'm not sure I couldn't. That being said, whenever I do write a 'dark' scene, I find I have to balance it at some point in the book by having the wrong righted and the victim becoming the victor. I have the need to do that because, let's face it, in real life that rarely happens. I don't have to have HEA endings...but I do need hopeful.

    I do have to confess I cannot watch those SPCA ads on television showing all those suffering animals. I will even mute the sound so I can't hear what the spokesperson is saying.

    Am sending good thoughts to you and your friend today.

    1. With you on the SPCA ads. And anything with child abuse.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Beverly!!!!

  27. Your post really hit home with me. Like you I will not read books simply because they are well written or on the best sellers' list. I read what sits comfortably with me, likewise my writing. I write, primarily because I love it but also because I have something to say.

    I began writing as a form of therapy & it worked beyond my expectations. Due to the nature of my life problems, I have a rich cache of subjects that could be used, but are topics from my past that I don't want to share.
    I attempt to live my life in a positive, happy way, this has been achieved by facing my problems then letting them go. I dare say that I could pen one or more heart wrenchers, which could be good for sales, but not for my inner peace.
    There is plenty of raw emotion, tucked away, that I am happy to use, as for the rest? No, it's personal & if that lessens interest in my work, so be it.
    My inner peace is worth more than increased book sales.

  28. You know after catching up with all the comments, it reminded me of something.

    I've gotten softer over the years. There used to be so little that really rocked me. Now, I have to flip channels at the ASPCA commercials, too. I can cry at detergent commercials.

    I've seen this in the past with .loved ones as they age. Maybe it's like Seger's song, 'Against the Wind'. Maybe it's part of mellowing.

    But it's disconcerting to this biker-chick, I can tell you that.

    Has anyone else noticed this?

    1. OMG, those animal commercials. I make the Hubs turn the channel the minute I hear the song. I sob like a baby. But then, I always have. Now that I'm a mom, I cannot stomach the starving children commercials either. The flies make me want to throw up and hand over all my money.

  29. Whew, it's a relief to know I'm not the only one who won't tread in certain areas. I admired Gillian Flynn for having the guts to write _Gone Girl_ but was, to be perfectly honest, kind of horrified at the story and would never have been able to write it myself. Likewise, I've read books about kidnappings, abuse, etc., but wouldn't be able to live through those situations with my own characters. If that means my scope and possibilities for publication are a little limited...I think I'd be okay with that.

    Thanks again for another great article!

    1. I think there are enough stories out there for all of us!
      Thanks for reading and commenting!!

  30. Orly, I'm sorry you're hurting. And I agree with you. Some hurts are simply too painful, and must be shelved, either for a while or forever. I know there are writers who can take out those horrors and be with them on the page, but I have to do that in very limited doses. And when it comes to someone else's pain? Who am I to turn around and spill their secrets onto the page? It doesn't mean that pieces don't filter into the writing, but private things deserve to stay private.

  31. I'm sorry for what you're going through.

    I once had a story idea of writing with a character who had just lived through the tragedy of losing her family in a brutal car accident. Then one of my dearest friends lost her husband in an equally horrific car accident. And a childhood friend of mine died with him. I abandoned that story and have no intention of ever writing it. That experience shook me to the core. I can't go there. I had it plotted out before the tragedy, but I wasn't sure what others would think. I also no longer had the heart for the story.


  32. Hey, I kind of know what you are getting at. I can't really write about tragic events while I'm in the middle of them or still reeling from the consequences; during those times, I'm so drowning in emotional vomit that there's no way I can hammer it into shape, explain my feelings in a way someone else would understand. I'll write about it in my journal for my own benefit, but I know better than to try to publish it. Until enough time has passed and the tragic event has healed to a faded, ugly scar and isn't a hemorrhaging gusher of a wound, I can't possibly write about it.

    Even so, there's one event I can't write about yet. I won't say I'll never write about it--experience has taught me God loves nothing more than upsetting Never statements--but it seems unlikely. I can't write about it, not because it's the pain is still fresh--it aches from time to time, but it has mostly healed--but because I don't know how to write it without it coming across as a big long whine. It may have value for me, but if I'm going to share my writing with anyone besides God, I try to make it have value for someone else.

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