Monday, December 7, 2009

When life kicks you in the balls...

Just turn around and kick it right back.

That's my philosophy. And if you can't do it literally, then do it figuratively, through your writing.

I'm one of those people who has a strange mix of exceptional good luck, but also exceptional bad luck. I guess the fates wouldn't consider it fair for me to have one without the other. I'm okay with a little bad luck here and there, but I must say- it took me a lot of years to learn how to channel my fears, frustrations and sadnesses into my fiction in a constructive way.

Of course, we all have fears and frustrations. Hell, we're writers- we probably have twice the neuroses of any other individual on earth. But I spent years letting those negative emotions own me and overtake my writing instead of *doing* something with them- and I'm forever determined to keep travelling down the road of positivity and productivity by using what I've learned.

Two examples.

I was standing on the platform last Monday morning waiting for the train to take me to my newly-commenced day job in the city when the express train came through. It's one that bypasses my station, so it rocketed past at 110km/h (mph). Standing on the platform, that glistening length of steel shot by me at a distance of no more than ten feet. And in that instant, I found myself pressed up against the wall, heart in my mouth, dizzy, holding in a gasped breath that wouldn't seem to come out until the train was long gone.

What the hell?

It was six years ago this month that I was sitting on one of the very same trains, traveling in a different direction on my way to work, when suddenly there was

BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG, and a rapid slowing of the train that threw me into the seat in front.

As the train came to a full stop, no stations in sight, my heart was already sinking. I had no real idea what was going on, but my writer's imagination was suggesting the worse.

For once, it was right.

About ten minutes later, a couple of police cars and an ambulance pulled up next to the tracks. Within minutes, police had boarded the train and confirmed that our morning commute had ended with the death of a man who stepped in front of the train and was killed instantly. It took almost two hours sitting in claustrophobic silence, listening to police officers making macho talk about how far the body parts were spread before the train moved on.

I don't know why the experience hit me so hard, but it really did. I guess it was the straw that broke the camel's back at that particular point in time. I went to counselling, I took anti-depressants, I talked and talked- and I tried to escape by writing. But it didn't work. Everything I wrote seemed terrible. When I tried to put my emotions into my characters, they came across as unrealistically crazy with grief and anger. They killed people. They betrayed their loved ones. They were all-round nasty, both the good guys and the bad. Bit by bit, I found that writing was so much more stressful than not writing that I just couldn't do it anymore. So I stopped- for three whole years.

Part of the problem was the anti-depressants I was taking. They took the edge off the sadness and the anxiety, but they also took the edge off positive feelings- excitement, joy. All my feelings became the same homogenous colour of grey, or a bland sort of lavender at best. Without my full palette of emotions, good and bad, I couldn't seem to bring any feeling to my writing. And I was ambiguous about what was on the page, too- I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it. Because of all this, my writing was no longer an escape- it was added to my list of problems. Instead of making me feel better, it made me feel worse.

A side-note here, for anyone nodding and thinking, "This is me!"- three years without writing was worth it to come out of that depression both physically and mentally intact. Take the medication if you need to- you'll get past it eventually, but sometimes you just need the boost first. Don't risk your health by waiting too long to get help.

Anyway, three years later, I was ready to stop taking anti-depressants. I had moved to the country and I was full of inspiration. Bit by bit, as the drugs released their hold, I found my ability to feel extremes again. And this is where I realised I had learned something. The first time I felt the crushing sadness that comes with depression, I turned right around and asked myself, "Is this how Bill felt?". I got thinking about his isolation, the impact of his memories (good and bad), his alcohol problems. And I found that I felt better, and I had words on the page, and- the big revelation- the words I was writing finally rang with true feeling.

I've never been to war; I've never lost a fiance to a tragically early death; I've never been betrayed by people I love. But by harnessing the emotions I feel at other times, I'm able to ask the question "How would he/ she feel?" and come back with a credible answer.

On Monday, I let myself feel an instant of horrific memory as the train went flying by, and then I reminded myself that I'd just experienced a pretty good representation of what Bill must have felt coming home from war with shellshock. Putting that experience at arm's length from me and applying it in a logical way to my character instead allowed me the distance I needed. It didn't stop me from feeling the fear; rather it reminded me just what that fear felt like, but in a way that was useful instead of destructive.

It's my opinion now that no experience is wasted when it comes to using emotion in your writing.

Last year, when my daughter was born with life-threatening health problems, I thought I'd found the first life experience that held too much personal pain to use in writing. She was air-lifted to a neonatal intensive care unit and for four long days hung between life and death in a coma while her sleeping brain was rocked by seizures and her body shivered at the artificially cooled temperature of 34 degrees. The shock, fear, desperate grief and complete unreality of the situation lingered for months after we were released from our total three weeks in the NICU.

Time has healed, though, and not only is she completely recovered and absolutely perfect, but I'm now seeing that a little distance from the raw pain of those days has mellowed the emotion into something I can mould and use. There's something hugely powerful about being able to harness an experience like that.

The whole process is very healing.

To be clear, I don't believe that authors need to experience the same tragedies or joys as their characters to bring realistic emotion to their work. My translation of the emotions I've felt will be into a completely different scenario within my writing- nobody steps in front of a train or watches their baby fight for survival. But they do lose friends and family to war, and they care desperately for children left behind after their mothers pass away.

Essentially I'm saying that I always saw depression as something to overcome and shelve away; instead, I've learned to approach it as a learning experience. You can translate any experience into your fiction if you learn to distill the raw emotion and use it to understand that which you may not know.


  1. Thanks Claire for that thoughtful and open post. I think this relates in a way to what Rachel said about living life rather than being locked in a room and trying to write - you definitely have to get out there and not be afraid of what may happen, in order to have the experiences that give you the raw emotions to work with as a writer.
    The healing aspects are undeniable; even non-writers are asked to keep journals to help them work through their emotions. How lucky for us that our healing and our experiences fuel our creative energies as well!

  2. Claire,

    Excellent, honest post. Yanno, this reminds me of that writing book Rachel was giving away. (The name has slipped my mind at the moment.) I've read about a third of it so far and one of the points the author drives home is that in order to be a true writer--to capture emotions, etc. in an honest way, you have have to be very brave and expose yourself through your words. Sometimes there is no other way to go about that but to harness all of life's experiences--the good and the bad--and put them on display.

    It's not an easy thing to do, and I find myself shying away from certain things at times. Afraid to go there. To leave myself open to criticism. I mean, if someone were to say scathing things about something I hold very personal, I think I would have a hard time coping.

    When my grandmother passed away, I eventually found solace in writing about her death. I actually considered trying to publish it as a short story...but then chickened out. I mean, it's one thing to write about MY experiences, and quite another to expose that moment in time--a moment I know a lot of my family members would hesitate to share--to the world. At the same time, I think it's powerful, powerful the writer in me WANTS to share. Bah. Tough call.

    But the short of all of this is: I get ya. :)


  3. Excellent post, Claire. You are so right - feeling and dealing is so much more healthy. I found myself bumped into that black, empty, space of depression after baby's number 2 and 3. It's an awful place to be. You feel you have to put up a front and pretend all's well to the world, while inside you're dying. Anyone feeling that way ... go see your doctor, or a counsellor - NOW. There's a way out of it all. I talked to my wonderful doctor - a lot - started exercising (baby steps at first, a quick walk round the block) and gradually, ever so slowly, the sun came out again. That black dog still nips at my heels now and again, but now I know how to make him sit. I'm glad you're through it, too. (s)

  4. I typed into my computer "What to do when the world kicks you in the balls..." and got this site. I thought if funny that there would be anything even on this 'subject'. Its so comforting to see in writing thoughts that mirror mine...I'm not a writer...always wondered if I could..just seemed so impractical with reality and bills always pecking away at me. I do thank you for the peak into your day. Made me smile. Thanks.

  5. Hey Anonymous! You'd be surprised to know how many people come to this site after Googling just the same thing- this is one of our most read posts. Glad to have made me smile- and hey, maybe you should try it out one day. Can't hurt to give it a go. Hope life quits kicking you in the balls real soon! :)