Wounded Writer Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Being a writer can be traumatizing.

Back in October I finished writing Silent Mayhem, a book that deeply affected me.

Sure, I was passionate about the story — I wouldn’t have written it otherwise — but it morphed into more than that; it slashed open another part of me.

I’m still not sure if I’m feeling my own emotions or my character’s, the line between reality and fiction blurred beyond a rational explanation.

While writing, I became the vessel and something else inside me wrote the story, my soul taking it places I hadn’t foreseen in the planning stage. This sounds like a good thing on the surface, but something occurs in the story that wounded me on such a deep personal level. Was it the best thing for the Mayhem Series? Absolutely. This series of events became the catalyst for the next book. And yet, I was still grappling with how to move past it.

The holidays rolled around, and I reverted back into my happy-go-lucky self again. During that time, I started writing Book 4 of my Grafton County Series, but even this new storyline pierced several layers of my heart, illuminating the fact that I may never escape emotional turmoil.

Fast-forward to the beginning of February. My publisher and I worked with the cover designer for Silent Mayhem. On the day the final cover popped into my inbox, my editor sent back the first round of edits.

No big deal, I told myself. I’m a professional. I’ll just leapfrog into the story, bang out the edits, and then plunge back into my WIP. Easy peasy, right?

Wrong.

I read the story one last time from start to finish, making my corrections along the way. Well, I soon found myself in the same quandary, the storyline almost crippling me emotionally.

Friday night I finished my edits and had planned to reopen my WIP on Saturday morning, but as I sat at my desk, I wasn’t able to let go of Silent Mayhem, the storyline tearing open scars I didn’t even know existed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake off the emotional upheaval. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Unlike before, though, I don’t have the luxury of processing my feelings ad nauseam, or even take a well-earned break. Grafton County, Book 4, is due in March.

So, what do you do? Exercise, read, watch a movie … anything to take your mind off the story, right? But what if you still can’t flip the emotional switch to off?

I turned to our ol’ friend Google for the answer. Surely other writers have experienced the same thing. One brave soul must have written about it, right? Surprisingly, I couldn’t find one post. Not one! I read about specific emotions that may lie at the heart of my unrest … grief, betrayal, uncertainty, vengeance, etc. etc. But nowhere could I find advice on this topic as a whole.

What would you even call it, Wounded Writer Syndrome?

Psychology Today has a fantastic article about trauma and how writing about it can help heal us. Writer’s Digest also advocates using a traumatic experience to fuel our writing. Harvard Medical School uses the term “expressive writing” when writing becomes cathartic after a difficult life event. But what if writing caused the trauma?

After a lot of soul-searching, I came up with my own way of coping.

The first step is the hardest of all. It requires us to delve deep within our psyche and unearth the root cause. At what point in the story did our emotions entangle with the character’s? Where did we lose control? Is there a certain scene or chapter that arouses a physical reaction, like crying, shaking, or squirming in the chair? If we’re able to pinpoint the exact moment that first had a profound effect on us, the healing process can begin.

Expressive writing may hold the key to healing a wounded writer’s soul, even if the trauma’s self-inflicted. Expressive writing is also beneficial to our overall well-being. Researchers studied the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines.

They conducted a study in Kansas, where women with breast cancer experienced fewer symptoms and went to fewer cancer-related appointments in the months following expressive writing. The aim of the study wasn’t to combat the disease, and the authors of the paper don’t claim the actual cancer cells were affected. However, the study shows other aspects of the women’s health improved faster than the control group, who merely stated facts rather than expressing the emotional impact of the disease.

From BBC.com

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.

He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system. 

I propose the same holds true for those of us afflicted by Wounded Writer Syndrome. Find the exact moment in your story and write about how that scene, or scenes, affected you, the writer. At that point, we can then piece together our shattered spirit … just in time to traumatize ourselves all over again with the next book. 🙂

Have you experienced Wounded Writer Syndrome? What are some ways that helped you heal?

 

13+

25 thoughts on “Wounded Writer Syndrome

  1. Dear Sue,

    Yes. With pretty much every novel (and some short stories) though to varying degrees. And in different ways, fortunately.

    Sometimes the emotions are strongly happy. It’s still difficult for me to let go of certain characters and scenes even from my Wes Crowley series, the tenth book of which I published way back in July of 2016. In that series, the emotions ran the gamut from utter, laugh-out-loud joy to extreme regret and sorrow, all centered around a secondary character who grew into a co-protagonist.

    As we often do with “real-life” people we love, to allay the sorrow I sometimes experience over the sad situation, I consciously recall some of the happy, fun times.

    Weird. But it works.

    Lately I’ve been working on a world of assassins, but assassins are people too, with more or less normal lives aside from their profession. Guess what? The same stuff leaks in. And because I’m a “pantser” (I hate that term), it always tickles or slaps me as a surprise.

    So what’s a writer to do (one forearm draped dramatically over my forehead)?

    Well, when a professional mechanic or plumber skins his or her knuckles when a wrench slips, or when a professional carpenter bangs his or her thumb with a hammer, s/he curses a bit, then goes back to work.

    Me? I go back to writing. (grin)

    • That’s exactly what I did, Harvey. But I’d be lying if I said part of me still isn’t wounded. This book cut me deeper than I ever imagined it would.

      This line cracked me up … So what’s a writer to do (one forearm draped dramatically over my forehead)? Thank you!

  2. I’ve written about deeply personal experiences that happened to me (where few people know). Like the Writers Digest article suggested, it can be cathartic and necessary. I allowed my wounded self to explore grief and other traumas from the safety of another character perspective (not 1st person). Eventually, the distance between my real life and the character’s perspective becomes safer for me. I delve into THEIR motivations and let them deviate from my reality because it feels right for them.

    Maybe that’s when my brain is willing to accept and let go. It wouldn’t surprise me. The mind is an amazing healer.

    If you haven’t let go, maybe your mind is suggesting there’s more work to be done in exorcising those demons. I’m sending you a cyber hug from Texas. It can’t hurt, unless I virtually squeeze you too hard.

    • Interesting that the change in POV offers you a safety net. That makes so much sense. I thought I was delving into their motivations and feelings, but somewhere along the way mine got entwined with theirs. It’s not the first time it’s happened; it just really threw me this time. Yeah, there must be demons somewhere. Need to find those little buggers. {{{hugs}}}

      • I found my experiences to be in the opposite flow to yours. I start with the raw personal emotion & put as much truth to my writing. It can be draining and I don’t rush it. Those exposed feelings get spread throughout the story as I see scenes where it’s important for me to tap into something real, but eventually I can let the character’s truths to come out and take over.

        If you’re delving deeper and find it hard to distance yourself, that’s your mind sending you healthy warnings or suggestions that you may need to consider. I learned to trust those feelings. Your mind can be a partner in the healing process. I truly believe that. You’re a strong woman. I have faith in you.

  3. Sue, thank you for a moving post that must have been difficult to write.

    Stories are my way to make sense of real-life betrayal, revenge, loss, etc. I guess, instead of “expressive writing,” that could be termed “expressive fiction”?

    What you’ve described almost sounds like PTSD–writing about trauma causes you to relive it over and over.

    I wonder if you could tell yourself, “I’m now removing this emotion from my psyche, putting on the page, and leaving it there.”

    The writer’s mind can be a terrible place but also a wellspring of wisdom.

    • Actually, Debbie, writing this post helped me. It’s not easy exposing raw emotion in public, but I figured other writers might be able to relate. And if they can’t right now, then this post will be here when they need it, so they don’t feel so alone.

      Wow. PTSD sounds about right. I hadn’t considered that. I’ll try what you’ve suggested. Thanks!

      Ain’t that the truth. 🙂

    • I’m not sure I would want to remove those feelings, as if you can eventually turn off a faucet. With time and perspective it’s possible to examine them safely.

      Whatever those feelings are, and the experiences that created them, they are PART of you now and are your strength because you survived. You are different because of whatever trauma instigated your soft underbelly, but how can you know what your life would be like now because of those feelings? Your strength has taken you where you are today.

      For me, as much as I wonder what I would be like if the traumas hadn’t happened, that’s not realistic because I am who I’ve become and accept it. Self-love and acceptance are important.

      • That’s so true, Jordan. We’re the sum of our parts.

        Feeling uncomfortable, digging deep into the memory bank, consciously or subconsciously, is all part of the writing process. I wouldn’t change that, even if I could. The writing would lose its honesty. Sometimes, though, I wish I could shake it off quicker.

        I dove back into my WIP today, so now, I have a whole new set of emotions to grapple with. #WritersLife 🙂

  4. I sort of make myself go through trauma in every WIP I write, because I feel my story is lacking otherwise. But I first felt this, and most strongly, four or five years ago when writing a novel featuring a character with dyslexia who just left convent school and a character who was half insane and a mass murder. At the time I dreamed it up, I thought it was cool. When I actually got to writing it, I had to deal with the consequences. At the time, I was halfway through college, not quite sure what I wanted to do, with people telling me the familiar mantra”pursue a real career,” plus a lot of things were happening. So, when I was writing, I had a lot of soul searching to do. First, to figure out why a person would go crazy and murder. Second, why that kind of person drew me so strongly. And third, all the realities of how bad a disabled life, and by extension my life, was and still is.

    Just out of college, I was taking a writers workshop and the mentor, this prolific children’s writer who was eighty years old, started pressuring me to write about my experiences. I had been pressured before, but now with an old woman asking who seemed to know what she was doing, I had to give in. The actually writing of the story was easy, the reception it got was not. The comments from other writers ran the gambit from “this isn’t believable, no teacher would treat a child like this,” and “she’s too young to have these thoughts” to outright sobbing and me being too emotional to read my own work. And the only thing I could say was “this is all real, and worse than this.”

    • AZAli, as soon as someone says, “No teacher (parent, spouse, fill in the blanks) would treat…” or “She’s too young to have these thoughts,” such blanket statements immediately show that person’s ignorance. Better to pay attention to your wise mentor who obviously recognizes the value of your experience.

    • I agree, AZAli. Every WIP cuts us on some level. If it didn’t, readers could never relate to our characters.

      I’m proud of you for pushing yourself in that class. And y’know what? It doesn’t matter how the teacher or classmates reacted. What does matter is that you wrote an honest, heartfelt piece. I hope it helped you heal. {{{hugs}}}

      BTW, your teacher sounds ignorant and nasty. Shame on her.

  5. Oh yes, I’ve had stories that messed me up bad, in exactly the way you’re talking about. The conflicts were just so extreme. And then I read back through the story later, and only about 10% of the feels had made it to the page. So then I had to summon all those feels again and revise them in. Ugh. Kind of like voluntarily being run over by a tank multiple times.

    How to recover? I don’t know. I just had to give myself space, give the story space. Publishing it was like closure. Once it’s out there, that’s the end of it. It’s done. It’s like the funeral of a loved one after a terminal illness. It’s sad, but it’s ended.

    Actually, I followed it up by writing an extremely fluffy short story about a couple having their first child and all the hilarity and confusion that surrounds that event. It was a nice palate cleanser after that other story.

    • Thank you, Kessie! That’s exactly my point. Some stories have an extreme affect on us, and the emotional upheaval doesn’t just go away overnight. I’m hopeful once the book goes on preorder, I can put the story to rest once and for all. Besides, I gotta make room for all the usual angst of a new release. Haha. It never ends! 😉

  6. I’ve told this in other places. After I graduated from college, my wife and I decided she and our four boys should go and visit her parents, the boys’ grandparents, and everyone else she could in a month’s period of time.

    During one of those three-day federal holiday weekends that came up while they were gone, I decided I would stay up and write into the early morning hours, sleep late, have a late breakfast or early lunch, take in a movie in the evening, and go to bed at my normal bedtime so I would be fresh for work on Tuesday.

    At the time, I was working on a story that involved an actual event in American history–the attack on Black Kettle’s camp at the Washita River, November 27, 1868, by the cowardly Custer. It is the attack portrayed in the movie, Little Big Man.

    The actual attack was horrid, of course. The Cheyenne leader, Black Kettle, and his wife, attempted to escape on horseback and were gunned down. Two things infuriate me about that cowardly attack: one is, that Black Kettle had raised the American flag over his camp. He had been told that, if he raised the flag, the U.S. Army would not harm him or his band.

    The second thing is, that my Great-Great-Great Grandmother, A-gope-tah, was also in the camp that morning. The Washita River is in what was then west-central Indian Territory. Today, of course, we would say, west-central Oklahoma. WHY my Great-Great-Great Grandmother was there was that she had walked there–350 miles–from the site of the Sand Creek Massacre in Kiowa County, Colorado, another massacre she had survived. A-gope-tah had lived in the Holocaust days of American history.

    In the movie, the attack is apparently so traumatic to the audience. You remember it: Little Big Man, Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman, leads the now-blind Old Lodge Skins (played by the late Chief Dan George) across the river and puts the old Cheyenne leader on the opposite bank. Before Crabb/Little Big Man, can get back across the river to get his wife, son, and his wife’s sisters, his wife, Sunshine, attempts to flee. She is shot down. As she falls, you can see the cradle board in which Sunshine is carrying their baby. Where the baby’s face would be, there was a huge, bloody hole.

    I saw the movie several times in theaters. Between the time of the attack and the end, the screenwriter put in several comic relief lines. Most of the time, the audiences did not really buy the lines. Every time the movie ended and the audience was walking out, the people were quiet, hardly conversant, somber. In fact, one time, a guy said to his wife, “Do you want to go next door and get some pizza?” His wife, in a shrill voice, snapped at him, “Oh, shut up you blankety-blank white man.” There was no laughter or fun from anyone at that moment.

    It was the events of Custer’s attack that I was dealing with that morning. As I came to the end my scene, I pushed away from the typewriter and broke down. I cried for a long time. When I finally recovered, I knew I would not be able to sleep. I went out the back door, walked down the alley, and went to an early breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

    All that day, I could not sleep or watch TV. I skipped the movie and ate dinner alone at the same restaurant. That writing session bothered me for a couple of weeks.

    What finally helped me recover was when my family returned. One of our boys who had been on the verge of walking when they left, walked off the plane and, when he saw me, began to run toward me. My wife’s grin has always had a tremendous healing effect on me, as has the gathering of the boys around me, each one trying to jump into my arms first.

    I never did anything with that novel after I finished it. It is in my proverbial writer’s trunk somewhere, lost in the highways and byways of moves and misplacements. As far as I know, that manuscript still travels the interstate highway system of America in a moving van, no one apparently having the wisdom or insight simply to throw it and the contents of the trunk away. Perhaps it has passed several times close to the San Creek Massacre National Historic Site or the little town of Cheyenne, Oklahoma.

    Perhaps, one day, in her Cheyenne Heaven, my Great-Great-Great Grandmother will find a little more healing of old wounds and memories in the laughter and giggles of my family as they struggle to be the first to climb into her lap.

  7. Yup, happened to me with just one book. Our first featuring a female protag, a cop who is brutally raped and left for dead. About half way through I just could not move forward and started avoiding writing. I didn’t even realize what had happened to me but my co-author sister Kelly did. She got me over the hump and we moved on.

    Oddly, it has never happened again, even with other female characters who’ve undergone horrific experiences.

    • Wow. You’re lucky it’s only happened once. I feel like I keep shredding parts of myself with each new book, but Silent Mayhem touched on things that cut me on a much deeper level. It’s difficult to explain without ruining the book. 😉

  8. Thank you, Sue, for your deeply moving and personal story.

    I’ve experienced this wounding before. I know we all invest some part of ourselves into everything we write, but it’s when my characters reveal the depths of their experiences that I find my traumas triggered by theirs.

    The most recent manuscript I edited affected me so profoundly it was psychically painful to complete my work. Going into the project I was aware that the subject matter mirrored some of my health issues, but the author didn’t articulate how intensely her story tied into one horrific event. That moment in her life became the catalyst for everything in the book, rising again and again. I have never had writer’s block before, but after finishing her project I could not put a single word on the page. For a solid week, I sat at the computer staring at a page on which I was supposed to be creating a short story for a contest I had been excited to enter. I missed the deadline with not a single idea for that story. It was more than a month after I returned her edited document that I could find the emotional and physical energy to work on my own projects again.

    • Wow, Suzanne. I can so relate. Thank you for sharing your story. It helps to know other writers have experienced the same crippling emotions. {{{hugs}}}

  9. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

Comments are closed.