Don’t worry be happy…And if you can’t be happy, you can at least write about it.
All of us have things in life that we wish we could change. Even if you don’t have any regrets per se, most of us have had some bad life experiences: a horrible job, a horrible relationship, a harrowing illness, the loss of a loved one, family dysfunction, etc.
One way we’re taught to cope when we’re young is by chalking up our bad times as experiences that were somehow beneficial. We say our personal failures were “learning experiences.” We say that our wrong turns were somehow “blessings in disguise.” We refer to traumatic childhood experiences as “character building.”
I don’t know why we humans refuse to call a spade a spade. Sometimes bad things just happen, and they’re just bad. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes there is no silver lining, and it’s not our fault if we can’t find one.
But let’s talk about regret. Regret and pain are two separate things.
Do you ever worry that you wasted decades in a bad marriage? Do you regret that you wasted so much time working when your kids were young? Do you think you wasted your money and your time pursuing a degree that you’ll never, ever use? Don’t.
For one thing, regret is toxic. Regret usually has something to teach us, but once we’ve learned that lesson, it’s outlived its usefulness. For another thing, nothing in a writer’s life is ever wasted. It can all be used in your writing.
I particularly like how Natalie Goldberg explains this idea in Writing Down the Bones:
“Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experiences, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”
Now instead of labeling the bad times “learning experiences,” you can call them “the old steak bones” of your mind. (But seriously, I think she’s onto something.) While it can often be harmful to minimize our experiences by trying to make them seem beneficial, writing is a good way to acknowledge our pain and then put that pain to use.
Let me give you an example: This week I started working on the first draft of my next science-fiction novel. It’s the fourth book in the series, and the main character is coping with a serious loss three years after the last book ended. The world around her has changed, her life is ruined, and she is mourning the death of a loved one.
As I was writing, I realized I had a lot of experience with loss — especially this emotional phenomenon of “stale grief.” By stale grief, I mean grief that is past its expiration date. The character was past the point when she should have been feeling better, and yet three years later she was still mourning.
What does this look like? Without even realizing it, I began to weave in some of my own coping mechanisms in the first few chapters. The character eats and eats and eats. (I love food, and food is comfort.) She realizes that she’s overeating, which is followed by this impulse to run. Her run turns into an emotional moment, but she finds the heat and the sweat cathartic.
Every writer has his or her own emotional burdens. The literary world is like TJ Maxx — everything that comes out of it is slightly dinged up and damaged. That’s okay. That’s why it’s a bargain. Writing is the cheapest therapy you will ever get.
(Disclaimer: Writing is no substitute for actual therapy, and if you are actively processing intense pain or emotional trauma, I suggest you seek out a licensed professional to work with in conjunction with your writing.)
If we take the time to acknowledge our pain, we can begin to use that pain as writing material. If you don’t want (or aren’t ready) to write about your experience directly, you can use a character as a surrogate. You can make the character your same gender, but I suggest altering major life details so you can put some distance between yourself and your character.
As you’re writing, ask yourself:
- What is your character going through? What bizarre and socially unacceptable emotions might she be experiencing in addition to her pain?
- How does this pain manifest itself (eating, exercising, withdrawing, etc.)?
- How is your character different than she was before?
- What foods, places, people, and things does she find triggering? Are there certain things she gravitates toward or things that she’s avoiding?
- How does she treat the people in her life?
- How are the people around her dealing with this?
- What would she need to do to move through this pain?
- What stops her from doing it?
As you ask these questions, you don’t need to think about yourself. If you are writing material that has a similar emotional flavor to your real-life experience, it will have the ring of truth.
What do you think? Can you find a use for the “old steak bones” of your mind? Would you try it?