I don’t see very many writers who even try to write about the hard things, so the fact that I do it at all seems to set me apart somewhat. The writers that do, do it incredibly, and I learn from them regularly.
But that’s something I often hear as feedback: You write so raw, your words are vulnerable. Some people ask, even, “How do you write so candidly?”
The answer is that I stopped writing for you.
I put the words out there for you, but I write them for myself to read. There are whole folders of word documents and journals (literally, journals – plural and full) that will never reach your eyes. They don’t need to. I was the only one who needed to read them.
Almost exactly three years ago now, I was out of college and had been for a year. School was starting up again as we made our way into fall, and I was nostalgic for that “I’m about to learn new things” time right at the beginning when classes are fresh and assignments are only on syllabi not in your calendar yet.
I bought a book of memoir writing prompts called “Old Friend From Far Away,” and I resolved to work my way diligently through the book to keep me writing — a year out of college had gotten me out of practice.
I bought a new journal and pen, and started in on the book’s prompts, working for the suggested “write on _____ for 10 minutes,” and good stuff was starting to come forth on the first couple prompts.
Then, about two weeks later I was at the eleventh prompt, and some of the prompts, like that one, have a chapter that goes with it to help you learn and become a better writer as well.
The prompt was to write about what you don’t remember. I read the chapter and knew that I had many dark parts of life that I’d rather not remember, so I wrote about all of them except the big one, the darkest one, the secret one that I thought I’d carry to my grave.
I wrote things like “I don’t remember Julie before she was tired and angry. I don’t remember the smell of the hospital or the way the doctor looked… I don’t remember the day after the day after the worst day… I don’t remember what —— looked like the last day I saw her. It was the day of high school graduation and she had a black eye from her dad, and her mom wanted her to move in with her boyfriend…”
I was just grasping for straws that sounded true and vulnerable while I danced around the real thing I didn’t want to remember.
I swallowed my own B.S. for one day and went on to the next prompt and wrote about it. But when I went back the day after that, I couldn’t swallow it anymore. The chapter on “I don’t remember” said this:
“Worry later about your fears — what your mother, brother, partner, co-workers, father, priest, even your angel will think. For now get it out on the page. Discover what you are so fiercely hiding and not remembering or blanking out on…
If what you write is frightening to you, tear it up, burn it, after you are done.
Then write it again. Destroy it.
Then write it again. And chew it up and swallow.
Build a tolerance for what you cannot bear.
This is the beginning: to let out what you have held hidden. Otherwise you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. Get it out and down on the page. If you don’t, you’ll keep tripping over it.”
Those words haunted me and I knew they were right. One day of pretending they weren’t was too much. But I also felt like the risk was too great. I couldn’t write it even if I burned it. And if I didn’t write it, I’d keep tripping over it.
So that was the day I stopped writing.
It was four months later that my secret was exposed. In the midst of the shock and trauma, in a quiet moment, the thought came to me like a fatal silver lining — “Well, I guess I can write again, because now I can write about it.”
I didn’t write about it publicly for a year. Even then it was in very vague terms so that people who knew would know what I was talking about, and people who didn’t know my story could just know that I’d gone through severe life altering events and knew the struggle of starting over.
It was over two years when I started to tell that story for real this spring. But in the meantime, I’ve been writing about it for myself with the candor that my previous life never afforded me. And as I’ve practiced being honest with myself, I find myself sometimes reading a piece I’ve written and thinking, this might have value to share with the world. They can have this one.
That’s how I write so candidly about the ugly, hard stuff of life. I’m not writing for you. I’m practicing being honest with myself, and sometimes I let the world peak in.
There’s a Hemingway quote I found last year that I hold close to my chest and my desk: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
If it hurts, I write hard and clear. Sometimes I still have to burn it. Then I write it again. I’m practicing putting my pain on the page. For me, and sometimes for you, too.
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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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