The Story You’re Afraid Of . . .


As some of you know, I’m a theatre geek from way back. I’ve spent better than half my life either hanging out in dark theatres, or auditioning for the opportunity to hang out in dark theatres. You can see plenty of evidence of that on my Facebook photos page. 

Well, the reason this post is going up a little late is that I’ve been in a theatre every night this week ’til midnight working on a show. I’m designing the lights for a local production of the Pulitzer-winning musical Next to Normal. It’s a funny, touching, gut-wrenching, hilarious show about a family dealing with mental illness in today’s world, and how mental illness impacts not just the person suffering, but everyone suffering along with them. The director is an old friend of mine, I’ve worked with the company before and love them all, and the cast is amazing. If you’re in Charlotte at any point in the next three weekends, you should go see it, it’s awesome. 

It’s also full of triggers for me, which made the first night of rehearsal really tough. I’ve been pretty open about my battles with depression over the years, and I’ve written extensively over on my blog about my uncle’s suicide, which certainly made watching pieces of Next to Normal pretty difficult. There’s no visible self-harm in the play, but it is referenced, and that brought up all sorts of issues. So in a way, this was a play that I didn’t want to do, no matter how awesome the script or how talented the creative team. It was too close on a few levels. Of course, I’ve been doing theatre for a couple decades now, so I dealt with all those feelings, then put them in a box until after it opens (tonight!) when I can drag them out and drink them into submission. 

But that’s not really relevant to today’s topic, except as a slightly rambling jumping-off point. We all have things in life that scare us. There are things in everyone’s life that you don’t want to deal with, or don’t want to dredge up, or don’t want to confront, and sometimes you just need to do the show you don’t want to do. Or in this case, sometimes you need to write the book that you’re afraid of. There may be an opus hidden in your personal tragedy, but more often than not you just need to write the story, get it out of you, and stash it away for the historians to analyze. 

You see, stories that we don’t write can become insidious, infiltrating other stories with their issues. If you’ve had a bad breakup that you haven’t dealt with, suddenly none of your characters can relate to the opposite sex. If you’ve had a tragic death in the family, suddenly no one in your stories has any living relatives. That’s what happens when you bottle stuff up – it builds pressure until it finds a way to leak into other things, sometimes spoiling them, or it explodes, sometimes spoiling you. I’ve seen this in authors before, particularly in politics. Some writers can’t keep their opinions on the government out of their writing, even if they’re not writing about the government! 

So you might have to stop working on a project and have a cathartic writing session. Just sit down and write the story that’s boiling up inside. It doesn’t have to be good, it might never see the light of day. But those feelings need to come out, and writing the story is one way. Therapy’s another, but I’m not a therapist, I’m just a writer. So the next time you see a character doing something strange, take a look at YOUR motivations and see if there’s something on this side of the keyboard that is affecting your character’s behavior. 

This also gives you an opportunity to take a look at your characters motivations and tactics, as we say in the theatre. Or “what do you want, and how are you going to get it?” If those motivations don’t come from something grounded in the story, then they’re coming from you. And that’s not great storytelling. The characters don’t live in your head anymore – they live in the world of the story, so everything that motivates them or affects them must live in the world of the story, too. So sometimes you just need the cathartic story to let yourself get out of your own way and let the characters go back to doing their own thing in their own world, without bleed from your world influencing them. 

Writing the story you’re afraid, or doing the show you’re afraid of, can have another unexpected benefit – it might just help you see that stuff isn’t so scary after all. Next to Normal deals with mental illness, attempted suicide, depression and death, but at its heart it’s a hopeful play, with the characters coming out the other side stronger for their pain. Maybe your story will make you stronger for the writing of it. Or maybe it’ll just show you that sometimes you need to let your subconscious come to the front and drive the bus for a little while. At least then the little bugger will stop screaming at you. 

I’m off to another rehearsal. Yes, it’s 10:37 in the morning. I won’t be around the comments much today, since I’m working on two shows, but I’ll be checking in whenever I can. Let me know if there’s a story you’re afraid of that you’ve seen bleed into your own work, because I’ve certainly seen it in mine. 


11 comments to The Story You’re Afraid Of . . .

  • sagablessed

    Congrats on the play, and break a leg.

  • Megan B.

    I can tell there are things that may be “bleeding into” my stories, because I see certain recurring themes in my work. Grandparents come up a lot. I know this is probably because I’ve lost all of mine. Birds come up a lot. Maybe I just like birds, though. I’m not sure if I have any issues that require writing a cathartic story, but it’s worth thinking about. I like the idea of “writing the story you’re afraid of.”

    By the way, when you mentioned letting your subconscious drive the bus, all I could think of was this:

  • John, Lovely post. Painful, but lovely.
    I, too, have lived with depression for years, and the latest Jane Yellowrock book, Blood Trade, opens with Jane tasting/scenting/testing the possibility that she is depressed. When I wrote the first 2 pages of the scene, I remember coming to a halt, and staring at the words for a very long time. Rereading it. Letting it settle into me, to make sure that Jane’s depression was real, and some not figment of my own mental state.
    Turns out that Jane’s depression was a totally different type of depression from my own, and it was real, with nonchemical, real-to-Jane’s-life causation. The story worked, because Jane’s real-life was Jane’s, not mine. And she got over hers. Which was a strange revelation.

    So, yes. We need to write through our own pain, and make sure that what goes onto the page is real to the story and the fictional characters. Otherwise it’s just therapy, and might very well not work as fiction.

    Thanks for this. And break a leg, Darlin’.

  • PS — MW is still timing out. Be sure to save or copy your comments before trying to post.

  • Well, I can post, for the first time in days, I can actually access MW, though only because I’m not at home. It seems that my ISP and the MW server don’t get along. I’ve been through this before, and it really sucks, because it means I have to come into town to do anything on the site. But at least I can access it.

    Great post, John. I have seen both sides of what you’re talking about. At times, I find that I cannot do anything with my WIP because I have other stuff inside me that I have to write instead. Often it’s political; sometimes it’s personal. But as you say, always the answer is to take a bit of time away from the WIP and get the other stuff written. Nothing like a rant to clear the way for my real writing.

    But at other times, I have used the emotions I’m avoiding to make my fiction more grounded, more real. Many years ago, after my mother died, I was having a terrible time getting anything done. Until I created a character who was a widower. I channeled my pain, and the pain I saw in my Dad, into this character and did some of the finest character work I’ve ever done. This character’s grief was hugely important not only to his arc, but also to the motivations that made him a key player in my narrative. And after writing his scenes, I actually felt a little better, and I was able to regain my focus on my other characters and their part of the plot.

    Great, thought-provoking post. And I hope the play goes great.

  • Count me as another who has used writing as therapy… Theater, too — in my case, though, I stage managed productions. I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately, working on a novel with no spec-fic elements but lots and lots and lots of issues related to bullying and school violence. Some days, I need to take a break, just to clear the sorrow-fog from my brain.

    Break a leg!

  • Razziecat

    My stories come from my characters. I can see some of my issues surfacing in my characters, but that’s part of who they are. They and their stories came from those emotions, ideas, questions, that have taken on a life and a personality of their own. I can’t write out my deepest feelings in plain, flat, straightforward words; I can’t pin down the worst fears that way. I have to let them find their own way out in whatever words it takes.

  • (Grrrr. I hate this timing out!)
    I came to writing from the other direction. All my life I’ve written my pain, anger, and fears, usually in poetry, and then later in prose. Fiction came later. But even now, when I hurt I have to transfer that pain to paper. Once trapped on the page, I can poke it and prod it and it isn’t that scary anymore.

    Good luck with the play!

  • I’m one of those people that sort of bottles emotions and issues up and deal with them on an internal level. On the upside, when I need to tap it for a character, it’s there. Still, I do at times write out my irritations. Sometimes I post ‘em somewhere, sometimes I hit delete. I usually hit delete once the reason portion of my brain gets past it and tells the passion portion it’s not worth bothering with. I tend to come to terms with things while internalizing them. Makes me project an outward calm most times. And my wife says I’m very grounding. I guess I’ve become a bit more zen, so to speak, as I’ve gotten older. Some things just aren’t worth getting stressed out, broken down, or fired up over.

  • I don’t know if I have leaked into my stories this way, kinda makes you think doesn’t it? But sometimes it works. ever write a love scene when your in love or a fight scene when you’ve had a bad day? I do know what’s it’s like to have your story take an unexpected turn for the worse. It just feels wrong, makes you want to push back from the table and take a bath. Elack!

    Have fun on the shows!

  • Hey Faith, I noticed you talking about the timeouts. It’s not just the timeouts. I haven’t gotten any MW post in about a week. I thought maybe my email was taking from the list or something and i tried signing back up but the computer confirmed that i was still in the mailing list.
    I don’t quite know what happened.