Woman sitting on the floor writing

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” —Maya Angelou

May Day, my first published novel, came out in 2006. During my modest promotional tour, I was frequently asked where I got the idea for the book. My instincts told me to cover the real story with half-truths: I’ve always loved mysteries! Janet Evanovich wasn’t writing fast enough! I had poor TV reception and so wrote a book to entertain myself!

What I couldn’t say then, what it took me a decade to work up the nerve to admit, was that writing May Day was the process through which I worked through my husband’s suicide.

You’d think a murder mystery would be the last thing I’d want to dive into after dealing with brutal death, but as terrified as I was to write so close to home, I needed to confront what I most feared: the raw pain of loss, the guilt of unexpected death, and the possibility that I’d never find a reason to laugh again.

There was no better vehicle than a mystery.

Since that project, I’ve discovered that writing what you most fear is terrifying, but it’s the only way to go. Today, Shannon Baker and I would like to share the whys and hows of this transformative—for your writing and for you—process.

Jess says…WHY: Personal Healing

In 1996, Dr. Melanie A. Greenberg crafted a clever study where she measured the healing properties of writing about a real traumatic experience, an imaginary traumatic experience, and a real neutral experience (the control group). Her findings? People writing fictional versions of real-life fears demonstrated significant health improvements.

The personal benefits of writing what you most fear make even more sense when you consider Dr. James W. Pennebaker’s discovery (1996) that two elements above all else increase the therapeutic value of writing: creating a coherent narrative and shifting perspective. These are not coincidentally the cornerstones of short story and novel writing. Writers call them plot and point of view.

Writing fiction based on our secrets and traumas allows us to distance ourselves, to become a spectator to life’s roughest seas. We heal when we transmute the chaos of life into the structure of a novel, when we learn to walk through the world as observers and students rather than wounded, when we make choices about what parts of a story are important and what we can let go of.

Shannon says…WHY: Connect with your audience

When Jess released Rewrite Your Life, I was first in line to get my copy.  As writers, we want to use our words to transport readers from their world into someplace new, maybe thrill them, give them insight into ideas, show them places they’ve never been. By tapping into those experiences that have had the biggest effect on us, make us squirm, sweat, cry, or tremble with joy, we can conjure that for readers who may not be able to articulate those emotions for themselves. In Jess’s  book, she shows writers how to quit hiding from themselves and use their fears, deepest hopes, disappointments, sadness, or delight to make our stories so much more. Powerful writing creates emotion for readers. As writers, we need to go deep to hit that vein and get a good gusher.

I worked through the exercises Jess recommended and one asked forced me to face my own biggest fear: the loss of a child. I decided to create a plot that dealt with the issue. That book was difficult to write but early reader response has been fantastic.

Even when I’m writing funny scenes, I want to hit those emotions that tug at readers.  When I’m reading a novel, I love it when a character thinks, feels, or acts in a way that resonates and makes me understand something I’ve been confused about or ducking from. It’s cheaper and less embarrassing than therapy, and nearly as enlightening.

Shannon says...WHY: Narrow your choices to the best one

I am easily confused and overwhelmed. When I have unlimited choices, I tilt. I think this comes from spending so many years in the Nebraska Sandhills with a population density of .9 people per square mile. We only had one grocery store, and it had three aisles. One restaurant and all the food was deep fried. In other words, not much decision making involved.

Using my own built-in trauma--I mean experiences--to select a focus for my next novel narrows the world of possibilities for me. If I’m going to choose my biggest fear to write about, I know my plot will revolve around a child in trouble.  If I choose my biggest character flaw I’ll probably write about jealousy (which I’m doing now involving sisters--aha, another deep well for me to fall into).

The best stories come from those true emotions and experiences we might be spending time and energy trying to avoid focusing on. You don’t have to use them literally. Jess didn’t write about the exact event she experienced, she used the emotions it conjured up.

Shannon says…HOW: Freewriting

My superpowers are denial, selective memory, and emotional subterfuge. Not with other people, mind you, only with myself. And I’m really good at it. Plus I’m super-easy to fool. I find allowing my mind to wander on the page is a great way to trick myself and allow access to emotions and experiences I am adept at hiding.

Free writing, especially in my character’s POV (did I mention how good I am at emotional subterfuge?) is a great way to back into my true fears. It’s like sneaking up on something big and hairy. You can poke it and even if it shows its teeth, it generally won’t bite hard enough to kill you.

Then you can cage it, put it down on paper, and it’s yours forever.

Jess says…WHY: Publication

I think it’s because I was writing what I feared that May Day was my first book to get published. It pulsed with the juice and the heart that my previous book didn’t, that unidentifiable IT factor that makes your book feel alive to a reader.

Jess says…HOW: Method acting

Jess teaching a writing session

Once you’ve freewritten to choose the fear(s) you’re going to explore, and you’ve gotten a rough idea of how to tell that story, either as straight-up memoir (you’re braver than me!) or as fiction, then start the writing process, immersing yourself in memories as you write.

This immersion is crucial to translating your personal fears into bestselling writing. Crafting a scene from your childhood, the one where you went into your grandma’s dirt-floor basement for canned preserves and the door accidentally closed behind you? Pull up the memories, smelling the musty, damp space, hearing your heart pound as everything goes dark, feeling the moist, cool wall under your fingertips as you scrabble for the light switch. Like a method actor, plunge yourself into your memories so you can bring the detail to life for your audience.

LIFESAVING BONUS TIP: Jess here. Writing what you fear is cathartic and creates juicy, powerful stories. However, it also exposes you. Rejections can feel particularly painful if it is not only your writing, but your emotions and life experiences that are not getting picked up by an agent, or a publisher, or a reader. For that reason, whenever writing what I fear, I start each project this way:

  1. I freewrite to get to the root of what I am most struggling with (abandonment issues, family secrets, etc.).

  2. I roughly outline a novel that can serve as a vehicle for that issue/fear.

  3. Then, before I write the book, I write a note to myself explaining in a single sentence my personal goal in the project. It can’t be publication, or acclaim. It has to be internal, such as, “organize the story of my trauma so that I don’t have to second-guess myself.” I put that personal goal in an envelope and don’t think about it again as I get to work on crafting a compelling novel. When the book is complete and it’s time to send it out on submission, I open that envelope back up—sometimes daily—to remind myself of the ultimate goal of the project. Everything beyond my personal growth is out of my control.  (Shannon here: I LOVE this tip, Jess! It gives me freedom to not pull my punches.)

*This article is a reprint from the fabulous Writer Unboxed blog.

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