Writing About Difficult Topics

I see you there, staring at your phone. You’re once again avoiding your writing because you can’t figure out how to write about that touchy subject you know you need to tackle, that subject which is your expertise and the bane of your existence all in one. Yep, I’ve been there. I see you, writer. You may think your difficult topic around sexuality, racism, child abuse, hate crimes, or homophobia is going to upset people if you don’t write about it the “right” way. Well, I have news: it’s going to upset people no matter what way you write about it. Yes, I am just going to tell you the truth here. Buck up, little camper. It’s going to be okay.

The trouble with writing about difficult subjects really isn’t about the writing at all. Well, it is, but that’s not the reason you’re probably having trouble with it. I had a book in me for many years, a book about sexual abuse. The stories are sickening. They’re based on real things that happened to me, so it’s not easy to write about it. For years I struggled with the subject matter, and it came out in a lot of my other work in a variety of ways, masked like a marauder, tossed up on the shore of my poetry, short stories, and novels. The abuse of my past was practically banging down a steel door to be given its fair shake as the main event of a story, rather than going along for a ride in the trunk.

Eventually a great idea came to me. It fell over me in a rush, quick and immediate, so intense it gave me chills. When you get an idea like that, you can’t ignore it. Well, you can, but it’s stupid to ignore a clear and obvious signal from wherever ideas arise. Ignoring such ideas usually means you’re getting a two-by-four to the teeth in the form of a life lesson sometime down the road. So I wrote the book. It poured out of me like I turned on a faucet. The writing needed little tweaks to shift the telling to make it right, but for the most part it just poured out of me. And then it sat on my computer for a very, very long time.

This may sound idiotic to some of the more accomplished writers out there who struggle with the actual writing, because it seems like a waste to let a perfectly good novel sit on your computer when it could be earning an author money. Yes, well, money was not on my mind. What was on my mind was how my family would feel if I published a novel about abuse. None of the stories were about them, but they did involve a family member who was the abuser. I framed all the stories in the novel around things that happened only to me, not anyone else, but I was still worried. For years I wrung my hands over the release of such a book, even though the time seemed right because of the new wave of feminist movements everywhere.

Though I knew the novel would be good, possibly even the best thing I’d ever written, something kept me from letting myself do the brave thing and just release the damn book. I even asked Amanda Palmer’s advice (among several other famous authors on the same panel in Woodstock a few years ago), and what she said made perfect sense. But I still didn’t publish the book. It wasn’t about the writing. It wasn’t about my family. It wasn’t about what might be good for other people to hear. It was about me needing to deal with my own fear. Yes, you heard me. Here am I, the woman who wrote a book about conquering fear. Yes, sometimes I still have to face my fears, too.

What finally did it? I realized that I didn’t need anyone else’s permission to write about my own experiences, but I had to do some serious soul-searching first. It took me a long time to dig down into the basement of my life, hit the gas line, run from the explosion, and fall down the steps like Tom Hanks at the end of The ‘Burbs in order to realize this story belongs to me, and I am allowed to write about it because I am an expert on my own experiences. My dear writer, you are no different than I am in terms of your expertise about your own experiences. If you have survived anything in your life that taught you valuable lessons, then share what you know. Only you can tell the story of what resides deep inside you. No one else can teach your message the way you can.

No matter where you’re stuck in the process of writing about your “difficult” topic, I can almost guarantee it’s probably not about the writing process at all. You may just be afraid to reveal a very painful part of your life, and that’s really scary. It’s okay to be scared. I’m scared all the time, but I look at what’s scary and ask myself why I’m actually scared. As soon as you realize the real reason for your fear, it immediately shrinks in size. You may need to write about it, talk to someone you trust, spend some time meditating, or go for a lot of long walks or runs in order to understand what you’re avoiding.

Let me be frank for a moment (not Shirley, for Pete’s sake) and assure you that your fear about backlash may be well-founded. When we write about difficult topics, we can be pretty darn sure that people will protest what you’re doing. The world is full of haters, and they all have giant soap boxes like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Trust me, there will probably be people who will come out of the woodwork to storm your castle in the middle of the night with pitch forks and torches. They might even roll out the big guns and bring a trebuchet. If that sounds scary, you’re normal. I don’t want people screaming obscenities at me in the street, nor do I want to have to manage trolls online. Living in a safe world isn’t really an option, though. The world isn’t a safe, easy place whether you write about difficult subjects or not. On the other hand, the world might get better if you share valuable things that can help people.

If the issue is still hard to write about even after you unearth it from your subconscious, you can try writing under a pen name to see if that helps. When you write as someone else, you can say anything you want without fear of consequences. But then, you won’t gain the reward of helping people in the same way as owning it openly. Another option is to trick yourself into believing this is just practice. Write it for your eyes only if you must, and then let it sit for a while. No one needs to see it until you’re ready. The point is, stop thinking about your audience while you write such personal stuff. Write because it’s therapeutic, it’s releasing the past, it’s helping you to forgive, it’s healing old wounds. Just write and don’t worry about what you plan to do with it. You can figure that out later.

Just for today, try writing whatever you want. Let yourself be free in the process of the craft. You don’t need to impress anyone or worry about what a reader will think of you. Be yourself in the words, on the page, in your heart, and do it for YOU. When you connect with yourself, the words will pour out of you in a release. It will be what it is meant to be, and then you can decide what to do with it. Once you get it on the page, you can omit anything you know doesn’t need to be public knowledge, change names, or redact until it looks like an FBI file on Watergate. But while you’re writing, allow yourself the freedom to let your story be told as it comes to you, as it desires to be told. Your heart knows the way. Let it lead.

*For anyone interested in writing assistance such as editing or coaching, I am available to discuss the options with you. Please use my contact page to send me a message about what you need, and I should get back to you in less than 24 hours.