Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 26, 2022

Writing Tip: "Your Mess Is Your Message"

Quote that applies to writing life by Dean Graziosi

I don't know about you, but I don't like to advertise my mess. I tend my wounds in private and try not to whine too much. My garage is a little bit insane, my junk drawer is...eclectic, and I keep both firmly closed against prying eyes the majority of the time. But when it comes to writing, my mess is where the magic happens.

Your Mess Is Your Message

When I talk about "my mess," I'm obviously talking about more than my garage.

  • I'm talking about the little girl who survived her parents' bloody battle of a divorce and grew up with a narcissist.
  • I'm talking about that dreamy kid who put on plays in her closet and dove into books to find a better place to live.
  • I'm talking about the friend/wife/mother-me who learned how to use humor and patience to solve problems.
  • I'm talking about the little girl with no voice who grew into a woman who used her voice wisely.

All of that is my real mess. It's what informs my writing voice and shines light into the shadowy corners of my characters' hearts.

Leaning into my mess and throwing open the doors of my own dark corners turned out to be my quickest hack to writing better stories. Bringing honesty and authenticity to my own life deepened my writing voice.

Your Unique Voice

The best description I heard for "writing voice" as a new writer was from Rebecca Forster:

"Imagine you are sitting across the table from your best friend, telling them about something that happened to you. The way you tell them that story is your writing voice. It is unique to you. No one else would tell your friend that same story in that exact way."

Your writing voice comes from your world view, your humor, your family, your friendships. Your writing voice comes from the lessons you've learned and the wisdom those lessons brought you.

In essence, your writing voice gets honed by understanding your mess.

If any of you read my post last month, Are Writers Born, or Are Writers Made?, you'll know I believe that many writers carry around some decent internal wounds. Perhaps we've healed them, or perhaps we're still a work in progress, but all that sometimes-painful life experience is what has given you that beautiful unique voice you bring to your writing.

All of this reminds me of a refrigerator magnet I used to have:

Ongoing Themes in Your Work

I heard the quote at the top during an interview with Tony Robbins and Dean Graziosi. Dean said, "Your Mess is Your Message" when he was talking about skills you'd learned in your own life that you could teach others. The applications to writing fascinated me.

It's our job as writers to create something from nothing. But what we're really doing is creating something out of a piece of ourselves.

We are every character and no character, all at the same time.

Getting back to the title of this post, the reason why tuning into our mess is such a great writing hack is that it allows us to find our story's theme more quickly. Some people even have the same theme in almost every book.

For example, here are some common themes from authors I know:

  • Keeping secrets
  • Telling the truth
  • Shame
  • Love
  • Family dysfunction
  • Chronic illness
  • People-pleasing

Further reading: 10 Common Book Themes

My Own Sneaky Theme

My critique partners all know that one of my biggest pet peeves about my own work is my super-sneaky theme. It pops up every-damn-where, whether I'm planning for it or not.

I'll be writing away, thinking I'm writing a reconciliation-between-two-sisters story, when in reality I'm writing about the shame that prevented the reconciliation.

Or I'm happily scribbling about young love and then a plot twist will hit that causes one or both characters to feel shame, and it will keep the young lovers apart until they've worked through it.

One story was a humor-filled tale about the challenges of caregiving for older parents, but of course, it was really about shame. The caregiver had shame because she had a desperate yen to travel and see the world instead of being stuck at home, caring for Mom. Mom had shame because, for the first time in her life, she was putting her own needs before her child's.

See? Sneaky. I'll think I'm writing about some other Big Universal Idea, and all of a sudden I'll realize I'm writing about shame. Again. It doesn't seem to matter if the story is hilarious, sad, happy or sexy - shame will be lurking in the weeds somewhere.

Many children of divorce grow up feeling shame. I'm not remotely special there. But I'm a writer and, since shame was my mess to work through, now it's my message the majority of the time (whether I planned on it or not).

Plotting Hack: Writing to Theme

But what if I did plan for it? What if I started writing TO the theme that I know will be there anyway?

Let's use the example of that caregiving mother-daughter duo I mentioned above. What if the mother felt so much shame and guilt over her health because she hadn't taken care of herself and now she was terribly ill. And what if that mom decided the solution was to take on the role of matchmaker to "make it up" to her daughter? What if that mother decided she was going to find her cranky sleep-deprived daughter a man.

When I did that, the whole book opened up. The conflict went sky-high. The changes ratcheted up the humor and punched up the pathos. All I did was lean into my sneaky little theme, and into my own experience with my own mess.

Consider the theme(s) on your last several stories. Are they the same down in their underbelly, or very very different? Do you write to theme, or figure it out in the end? Do you have a favorite theme you love to read about?

I'd love to hear what came up when you did this exercise. Please share it with me down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

All photos created by Jenny Hansen in Canva.

37 comments on “Writing Tip: "Your Mess Is Your Message"”

  1. Hi Jenny,
    What an inciting post! I’m definitely passing this on to my writing friends.
    My mess? Control or lack of it. Ha, mostly lack of it. My characters are always trying to manipulate the game and come out on top. A dose of honesty is the only solution, even if they don’t achieve all the control they seek. Yeah, my life in a nutshell. 🙂

    1. I don't know about you, but it was incredibly shocking for me when I realized how much my mess made it into my characters' lives. Good for you for embracing it! And I like that theme - it makes for excellent character growth. 🙂

  2. Theme? I have a theme? I suppose deep down all my books are about characters learning to accept themselves for what they are, to trust themselves and others. My first book was "Finding Sarah" and I guess my characters have been finding themselves in every book. But I never think about it as I'm writing. If it shows up, great.

    1. Hahahaha! I am positive your theme shows up every single time. That pesky thing always does. I kept getting blapped between the eyes with super-deep themes I hadn't expected, so I started digging into theme earlier in the process, but most of the writers I know do it last.

    1. See? They're sneaky. If you read my comment to Terry, I kept getting a bit flummoxed by theme. It was that silent, no-trouble-here middle child until it all of a sudden got loud. By embracing the theme just a bit earlier in the process and paying attention, my editing process gave my stories a lot more polish.

  3. Oh, Jenny, this is brilliant. I'm so happy for you that you've found this. You are absolutely right. When you lean into your deepest inner theme(s) it becomes the scariest superpower any writer ever wielded. It's also liberating and and honest, and honesty comes through in the voice. It also isn't, as you say, whining, because that's what a good writer avoids. Instead, it's heartfelt, it's taking someone's hand and letting them know that, yes, you were there too and maybe your story can help them. This is what hollow books cannot do.

    In August 2019 (my word, my 3-year anniversary), my heart tricked my head. I had the idea to identify what was important to me in the stories I read and those I'd like to write. I made a two-page spread in my writing bullet journal, though I believed I wouldn't need that much space. The handful of ideas I thought I'd have turned out to be two dozen. Thing is, after I became caught-up in the process, the walls fell and honesty took over.

    I started with the expected items referencing fantasy and romance and then…
    • A woman who finds a daughter
    • A girl who finds a mother
    • Found families
    • Hope
    • Finding purpose…

    It changed my writing life. It became, not that I should include those themes, but that I couldn't "not" include them. Do, please, follow that deepest of writing voices. You story idea above sounded wonderful!

    1. Thanks, Christina. That sounds like quite a session with the bullet journal. I like your themes - those are the kind of themes that make good stories.

      Embrace that mess! *fist bump*

  4. Wow, Jenny. I never really thought of it this way. A lot of my characters tend to be loners until something happens that forces them out into the world. I guess I have leaned into it without even knowing.

    1. What can I say, Bob? When you do the story quilting thing, you've got to visit theme way earlier than the linear writers. If you don't, you get lost. I think it's great that you found your over-arching theme when you weren't even looking for it! 🙂

  5. Best post on writing that I've read in awhile! Deep, but accessible advice that really resonates with me as a person and as a writer. I guess now I'm going to spend the morning Getting In Touch With My Feelings - aka "mess" 😀 - and see what surfaces. Thank you for the insightful post!

    1. Thank you so much, Kimberly. Your comment made my day. I hope your "Getting in Touch with Your Feelings" session yields tons of fiction gold for you!

  6. There's only the one trilogy going, and the theme really comes down to 'the children matter' - above everything else.

    Because why else would we do anything if we have them?

    I'm not advocating putting them on a pedestal - that's not healthy.

    But, as a man says in the second volume (going up in the next few days), his motivation is: “Only to make sure they never grow up with such a mother.”

    1. I think that's a beautiful theme. Really, you're talking about keeping children safe. Safe from violence and safe from violent parents. I respect that.

  7. Hi Jenny, Thank you for this illuminating post!

    I use humor in all the genres I've tackled. Thinking about it, I use humor as a coping mechanism. Well, there you go!

  8. Hi Jenny! I do think great stories are written by authors with underlying wounds that they have worked through and that shape their worldview. It's part of what makes their stories and characters relatable. I'm very conscious of my themes early on and write the story and character arc through them. I think I would be lost, otherwise. Thanks again for this great discussion!

  9. I write HEA. The HEA I write journey doesn't resemble my life in a cookie cutter way, but there are things I know or have experienced which can be used as inspiration.

    I like to change things up and add zing where I can.

  10. Wrestling with a lot of writerly emotions today. This post was fantastic. For me, the theme often comes back to one sad moment late at night, the last time I saw a good friend... and all of the things I wish I'd said. I write those emotions into my stories, because I think others also need to hear them...

    1. Thanks, Lisa! I'm sorry you have sadness this week, and that you carry around that unfinished grief for your friend. When people ask who I'd want to talk to, living or not, the answer is always my mother. Just one more hour with my mama, to tell her about my daughter, her namesake. And all those other things you wish you'd gotten to say, or ask, or do.


  11. My first novel, I had no idea about theme. I had a scene I wanted to develop as a thought exercise-what would happen if…

    Next I knew I had a story developing. Halfway through, I realized I had a clear theme. Thereafter, my theme became an ever-present part of my writing and my second novel (in progress).

    So, I have to heartily agree with you.

  12. Jenny, what a great, brave post! Thank you for sharing it. For me the mess was always being the new kid. When I entered the 7th grade it was my sixth school. "Make friends fast" were the words I lived by -- and then we moved and I left them. So I write about being included, about putting your friends first. And I hadn't given it much thought until I read your essay.
    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks so much, James! And I like your theme. Were you a military child? It's my military pals who move so much and all of them make acquaintances at the speed of light. Their really true and deep friends are like gold to them.

      1. My Dad was a field office manager for Griffith Company, a builder of freeways and overpasses and runways. If you've flown out of LAX you used a runway that Griffith Co. built. I went to junior high and high school in El Segundo, literally next to the airport. When I started junior high my parents promised me that I could finish high school in El Segundo and they stuck to it. And you're right - the friends I have from those days are like gold.

        1. Wow! So you are a true Southern California native who has experienced all the different neighborhoods! That's amazing.

          I was a military kid but my dad medically retired pretty early in my life. East Coast to Missouri to San Diego, where I started school, then LA where things began to settle into one spot. I went to two elementary schools up in LA (we lived in the hood so I bussed out), then just the normal junior high and high school. I went to college in Missouri.

          It's interesting to move around that much. When I meet people who never moved around as a kid, I'm always a bit sad for them.

            1. Yup. We moved to San Diego for the Naval hospital there. I think we were there for about 4 years. It's beautiful. I still have cousins there too. 🙂

  13. I have written a theme of a facade or a masquerade with a lot of my characters. An example, I have a romance novel of two women hiding as men within the ranks of the military during the Civil war. So I was thinking about it, and it may stem from suppressing romance in front of my family. I am out lesbian but don't really feel comfortable being "out" in front of my family so directly. It's an interesting mess. I do tend to put my characters in disguise to find ways to break them out into the world.

    1. That is fascinating, Jeanne! It's really interesting to see your feelings and "mess" come through to your characters so clearly. I think you will have a lot of readers who are drawn to that. Personally, I love a good "in disguise" story. (Mulan comes to mind.)

      p.s. I am sorry the comfort level isn't there yet with your family. I hope it will get there.

  14. Awwwh, big hug, Jenny! I needed this sooo much today. My life is such a mess. I didn't even have time to read this but the heading crooked its clever finger and I read it anyway. Thank you! Thank you!

    1. You are so very welcome! I'm honored that you read it, Kathleen...especially because you're in the middle of the mess. One of my favorite quotes is from Zora Neale Hurston:

      "There are years that ask questions,
      and years that answer."

      I absolutely despise being in a question-asking year. They're always an absolute bitch to get through.

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