Writing the Tough Stuff: Writing Challenge

After writing several of the last few blog posts I had to ask myself—what’s this with all this writing about loss? And I don’t have an answer, but I suspect the impetus to handle the tough topics has to do with the war in Ukraine. Seeing death and destruction causes me to wonder about all our forebears and what they went through and all the trauma for those in Ukraine and even those in Russia whose children will not be coming home. And all of us a world away who feel helpless, trying to make sense of it. And this comes after two years of Covid-19 and the looming threat of global warming. We all deal with loss differently and we all tackle family stories differently. The thing for me is, if we are dishonest in our portrayal of the past, if we sugar coat or leave out the “tough stuff” we deny understanding and inspiration for future generations.

The other day I was talking with my granddaughter and I mentioned a “phase” her mother had gone through. My granddaughter was shocked to hear her mother went through something similar. Understanding that you are not alone in your struggles, that your ancestors or family members went through rough times, is not meant to discourage or depress—it is meant to tell us– WE have been here before. Wars, famine, death, loss– these seem to go hand and hand with the human condition. There is a value in realizing, people survive unfathomable tragedies and still they have meaningful lives.

I will be honest with you, when you dive deep into your own story or that of your forebears it will affect you. If you aren’t feeling it, you have only scratched the surface. And maybe you are just not ready to “go there.” Fair enough. But if you are at the stage where you are thinking of writing family stories and tackling the tough stuff. The stuff no one wants to talk about, I want to encourage you to do so. Before writing Catherine’s story in My Woman Warrior or my own in My Sister is Gone, but still I Smile I really hadn’t understood how profoundly loss can affect us. Even what appears on the surface to be an ordinary loss that many families face does not affect people the same.

If you are a genealogist or family historian it is easy not to see what is right in front of your eyes. Yes we know women died in childbirth, men in wars, children died young, people died prematurely of illness and disease that seldom happen these days—but how many times do you ask yourself how did it affect them? How did they manage? How did they do it? And the answer is they had no choice. They did not get to choose any more than we do. We are all dealt a hand and we must play it the best that we can. There’s very little that we face that has not been faced before. What is different is how much we know. And how we manage to make sense of the past, the present and the future? The answer is we can’t. For the future we can only leave bread crumbs. Letters, stories, diaries, poems, paintings, photos something that might outlast us. Something which will allow someone in the future—likely someone we will never know, to recognize themselves in our journey, in our struggles.

“We read to know that we are not alone.”

C.S. Lewis

“I write to know what I think.”

Joan Didion

I agree with both. Reading connects us and writing forces us to make sense of the things we care about. In my post Write it Down I meant to encourage you to leave something behind. You can share it now if you so choose. Or leave it for the future.

So how to handle the tough topics. These include but are not limited to:

  • Death
  • Loss, tragedy, heartbreak
  • Illness, including cancer, depression, insanity
  • Crime, imprisonment
  • Physical, mental or sexual abuse
  • War
  • Misattributed paternity, incest

Any one of these topics can be broached in our family stories. They are the subjects of movies, novels, and TV shows so they can be dealt with. How you approach difficult topics is revealing and thus our tendency to walk away, to not expose the most vulnerable parts; not just of the stories, but of ourselves. No one wants someone to reduce who we are to the losses or traumas we have endured. Do we want our readers to say, “ah, so that’s what’s wrong with them?” No we don’t, but that’s what we must risk.

So if you want to write about a difficult topic. Here are some questions to ask yourself?

  • Are you being honest?
  • Are you exploiting someone’s tragedy for your own gain?
  • What do you want the reader to take away?
  • Are you being courageous?
  • Are you facing facts or couching the truth behind a more palatable story?
  • Do you have something to say, that someone, particularly your family, will find illuminating or useful?
  • Will exposing a family secret cause another person harm? If so, does exposing it prevent future pain for others?
  • Are you prepared for reactions that may be different than you expect?
  • If it is a personal story do you have a safety net, or professional support?

If you have answered the questions and are still prepared to write, remember that sometimes there’s humor in the midst of sorrow. Or maybe there’s something universal that you touch upon that helps others to connect even when they want to look away. The image of the fields of sunflowers under a blue sky as reflected in the Ukrainian flag. A dandelion coming up through a crack in broken pavement. The human heart and the human spirit survives. In the midst of sorrow, life goes on. Babies are born, couples are married, seeds are planted and flowers bloom. Take a risk. Write the unspeakable.

Naked Ladies bloom after a Forest Fire

Kelly Wheaton © 2022 All Rights Reserved.

5 Comments on “Writing the Tough Stuff: Writing Challenge”

  1. Pingback: Friday’s Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  2. Thank you for posting on this topic. Your list of questions is very helpful…I have several tough stories to write about, yet have always hesitated. In some instances, there are stories I can’t tell while my mum and uncle are still with us. Others, well, I’ll reconsider, based on your post.

    • Thank you. Even if we write something and stuff it in a drawer the process has value. There is a release on setting difficult memories free. Once on paper you don’t have to hold them so tight. Glad you found it encouraging.

  3. Great post. I’m in a memoir group and it’s so helpful to have an assignment every two weeks. Just a general theme and we each write about 1 page. It’s challenging and rewarding. Your blogs spur my thinking. Thanks!

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