Writing About What You Know
–Even When It Hurts

Write hard and clear about what hurts. – Ernest Hemingway

By PJ Parrish

Years back, I had the pleasure to hear David Morrell speak as luncheon guest of honor at a writer’s conference. Now, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to hear David or better yet, talk to him, you know he’s a fount of fabulous advice for a writer, no matter where you are on the food chain.

That day I heard him speak, I was well into my own career, so I was munching away on my carrot cake, listening but also mind-wandering. Then he said something that made the hairs stand up on my neck.

“Write about what you fear most.”

I sat there stunned. Tears threatened. Because David had poked a wound in me as a writer. I had been struggling with a short story. It felt artificial and too cool. And I realized, sitting in that ballroom fork in mid-air why. I had been unwilling – or unable – to confront my demons.

I knew the demons were there. That was why I had chosen the story I did. (Or did it chose me?) But I was holding the demons at arm’s length. Or maybe hiding from them. The next day, I went back and started over. It was a hard story to write. But I finished it. I didn’t publish it, but I finished it. And it taught me a great hard lesson.

You have to be willing to open a vein.

David Morrell talks often about a book called The Gift of Fear. The author Gavin de Becker says we should all learn to trust our gut instincts to protect us from life’s traumas and, ultimately violence. But David suggests the book has lessons for writers:

As de Becker says, we have all these signals coming at us all the time, and some people choose to ignore them, and get mugged, or have their car stolen, or terrible stuff, because they say, “I kind of knew there was something wrong there, but I thought, oh heck, it doesn’t matter.” Well, when you feel that, it, it does matter, and basically that’s what my books are about: the gift of fear.

David speaks from experience, and is not shy about sharing this. After his father died in WWII, his mother was forced to put him in an orphanage for a time. When she remarried, his step-father was a brute who hated kids and there was constant fighting in the house. From an interview:

I was in fear for much of my early years. And in my fear, I told myself stories. I was at the time, four years, five years, six years old, and I told myself stories in which I was the hero, and rescuing people or whatever—in effect, rescuing myself.

He carried this into his career as a bestselling thriller writer. If you’ve lived under a rock, you might not know that he is the father of Rambo. He has produced a long, stellar, bestselling list of other novels that range from spy novels to Victorian mysteries. But his theme is always human fear, and his characters’ struggle to suppress it or else give in to it.

He’s not afraid of fear.

In 1987, his teenage son died from complications from a rare bone cancer. David took his panic attacks, despair, grief and deepest fears and turned them into a memoir, Fire Flies. Stephen King wrote of it: “I found myself almost speechless…It left me feeling shaken, uplifted, and terribly moved.”

Many other writers have found their voices in what they fear. John Green, author of The Fault Is In Our Stars, was stricken with severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, unable to escape “the spiral of my own thoughts,” as he put it. With therapy and medication, he recovered and wrote Turtles All the Way Down, a wrenching novel about what it is like to live in constant fear of your own mind.

“Coming out of that, it was difficult to write about anything else,” he told an interviewer. “The topic demanded itself.”

One of my favorite early reads, The Bell Jar, is irrevocably associated with Sylvia Plath’s experience with depression, with the character Esther Greenwood’s mental breakdown mirroring Plath’s own. On the Road is based on Jack Kerouac’s real life drugged out road trip with his friend Neal Cassady. Amy Tan’s brilliant novel Joy Luck Club is based on her immigrant childhood in San Francisco. In an interview, Tan talked about how writing the novel moved her to connect with her difficult mother:

When I was writing, it was so much for my mother and myself…I wanted her to know what I thought about China and what I thought about growing up in this country. And I wanted those words to almost fall off the page, so that she could just see the story, that the language would be simple enough, almost like a little curtain would fall away.”

The story I like most on this subject involves Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Of course.

Fitzgerald, flush from his success with The Great Gatsby, started working on his next novel. It was about a glamorous couple living in the South of France. By this point, his wife Zelda was hospitalized with schizophrenia and Fitzgerald was broke, borrowing money from his editor, and drowning in alcohol. The novel, Tender is the Night, told the sad tale of the self-destructive Dick and Nicole Diver.

A month after it came out, Fitzgerald wrote to Hemingway to ask his friend’s honest opinion of the book. Hemingway wrote back: “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”

There’s a lesson in that for us mortal writers. Yes, write what you fear most. Plumb your life experiences. Use your pain. Write what you know.  But there’s a trick.

I have a writer friend named Jessica Lourey. Jess writes two terrific mystery series, kids books, women’s fiction and fantasy. But her non-fiction book Rewrite Your Life, is what I’d like you to take a look at for our purposes today. Jess writes about how writing fiction can help you heal the wounds in your life. She gives TED talks to non-writers about the power of memoir writing. But her book is full of good advice for novelists:

When writers base fiction too closely on their own experiences, they can sometimes lose the ability to truly play with the story. I think this is because they are not consciously making as many decisions as a writer of “pure” fiction. They can be tempted to simply record what happened in real life (and to skip inventing material to fill in the gaps of their own knowledge about other people’s motivations or bits of the experience that they didn’t notice), instead of pondering how to best tell a good story. I’ve known writers whose story details should have been changed or expanded to better support their theme or create atmosphere, but who resisted the suggestion that they do so because “this is how it really happened.”

Most of us have encountered folks who say, “Boy, do I have a story to tell.” Or “my life would make a great novel.”  Instinctively, all fiction writers know the problem with this. Yes, every human walking the earth has a unique story to tell. But few have the ability to tell it in a way that emotionally touches others.

That’s the trick.

The trick is to face your fear and turn it inside out and upside down. Your own true experiences – be it the horror of war, the loneliness of childhood or the terror of domestic violence – is only fodder. If you spill it out too raw on the page, it can feel strangely trite and, in the case of my short story, artificial. The trick is to take your specific and deeply personal emotions and experiences and make them feel universal. Your pain has to become something bigger.

Your story begins inside you. But in the end, it belongs to your reader.

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

23 thoughts on “Writing About What You Know
–Even When It Hurts

  1. PJ, thanks so much for sharing this about writing. When I first wrote my non-fiction book about the loss of a spouse, I tried to tie everything up with a neat ribbon, made myself too perfect, and it wasn’t until I allowed the vulnerability to show through and wrote about some of my politically incorrect feelings and actions that The Tender Scar really took shape. The same applies in our fiction.

    • Hey Richard,
      I have never written directly about anything sad or dire from my own life, so I can only imagine how difficult it is to find that balance you speak of. I doubt, even if I had the right impetus, I could be a good memoirist.

  2. Your story begins inside you. But in the end, it belongs to your reader.

    A great sign for a writer’s office, Kris.

    Red Smith’s quip about opening a vein was in the context of how hard it was to do a weekly column. But novelist Paul Gallico put it in the terms you’re speaking of:

    “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”

      • The quote is most often attributed to Hemingway, but he never said it. The line was used in a TV movie about Hemingway (because it sounds so good). But ever after Ernie’s been getting the credit that Red Smith and Paul Gallico deserve!

  3. Wow. This post was incredibly moving, Kris. I think we need to bleed a little for readers to connect with our characters. I agree with Jim. That last line should be in every writer’s office.

  4. I’ve been struggling with the same chapter for over a week. I just want to finish it and deal with it rewrites, but I can’t because it doesn’t feel honest. I think this may be part of the problem–I’m trying to hard to make my character a wounded screw up whose trying to protect her son AND stay cool and calm and kinda funny, because that’s how I’m trying to raise my son’s. Except I’m sucking at the cool, calm, and tragically hip part of it. And so is she. And if I don’t buy it, then her son won’t buy it, and the readers most certainly won’t buy it.

    Your post has inspired me to go back to it and look at it through a filter of fear–because my greatest fear in raising kids isn’t that I won’t be funny or cool enough.

    Thank you for a great post!

  5. Great post! For those who haven’t heard David speak, YouTube is a wonderful thing. Plunk “Writing Thrillers And Lessons Learned From Forty Years Of Writing with David Morrell” into a search engine (and that’s only one of the great videos of him online). If you can’t afford to attend conferences, folks, you can find so many interviews and lectures online. He also wrote The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. David says in his book that he decided to become a writer in October of 1960 (before I was born and probably before many of the folks here were born). Interesting guy.

  6. Ahh, this was just what I needed today. I’m toying with the idea of a suicidal character who goes on a crushing, awful story arc that draws him out of that spiral. I want the story to begin with him writing his suicide note, and for it to end when he comes across it, smiles, crumples it up and throws it away. But in between … dat character arc, yo. That’s where all the fear comes in.

    • I hear you, Kessie. I had a character with a difficult past and for the longest time, I shied away from writing a critical scene. It was too painful to write. My co-author sister finally got me thru it.

  7. Simply remarkable. I started writing fiction years ago because I couldn’t give a memoir justice. Distancing myself from the story somehow allowed me to delve deeper. I’ve cried through writing two of my novels as I fought to “open that vein.” The more I write, the more I realize I need to be invested emotionally in the telling. I’ve really been learning that lately. This post is timely and oh so well articulated. Thanks.

    • Glad you find it useful! I’ve long thought about the degree of separation between memoir and novel. It’s thinner than we often think.

  8. Your article definitely spoke to me. When I began writing over ten years ago, I felt I had to tell it exactly as it happened in non fiction. When I transitioned into writing fiction, I knew I had to pull away from recording what happened. It has taken me years to let myself go and develop a story. I am still working on being more free with developing a riveting story.
    I pulled away from my own fears and now I see I need to draw on them.

    • As others here have said from their own experiences, finding that delicate balance between your reality and the reality you have to create to make good fiction is not easy. Good luck!

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