I recently received this email from a reader. I’ve decided it was a really good question. And so I wanted to answer it here. I would so appreciate the experience of other writers in the comment section. I think there is much, much, much to be learned from this topic.Hannah-I know you must get a quarter million emails a day. Mine’s short. It’s so short but it is so heavy. How do you do it? How do you write SO honestly about all this hurt and not allow yourself to be silenced by fear? Fear of HIM knowing it’s about him. Fear of your family knowing that you were/are so hurt. Fear of hurting those who hurt you.I don’t want any of those things.How do you do it?
I’ll start off by telling you two stories.
The first one happened nearly two months ago when I wrote the following lines:
“My brother has struggled with the grips of drug addiction for the last ten years but he is still the most beautiful fighter I know. It is the only reason I embarked on a faith journey in college. I watched my mother tumble in and out of rhythms with her little boy and I envied the foundation she stood upon.”
Those weren’t the original words.
There was no original line about my brother being a beautiful fighter. I had originally written the sentence, “I am the writer of the family and even I don’t have any more pretty words for my brother.” I had carelessly sliced into someone I loved and published it quickly for the world to read.
My mother stood in the middle of the door frame to my office a day later.
“That hurt.” I knew what she was talking about. I knew those words, no matter how pretty I could make them or how delicate they could seem while standing against a crowd of others, were always going to hurt my mother.
“I know they did,” I said. “I can’t help it though. They’re true.”
“I know they are.” We both stared off into separate corners of the room, waiting on the breath of one another. She finally spoke. “I think that’s why it hurts so much.”
I tidied up the line when the Huffington Post approached me and asked to republish the blog on their site. I gave my brother a sort of redemption with my words. I didn’t want my mother to have to hurt on national platforms. And I know my brother is a fighter, a beautiful one at that.
The second story happened three years ago. The short of the long of it was that there was a guy. Maybe he still reads this page. He always said that he would but I’ve known what it’s like to just want someone to disappear so I wouldn’t blame him if he has let this blog slip from his memory.
“I don’t want to become one of your life lessons,” he said to me. “I don’t want you to turn me into that.”
Still, to this day, those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to hear someone tell me. It was hard because underneath those lines, I knew he was really saying, “I’m fearful.” Fearful that we’ll stop playing in the lines of one another’s stories. Fearful that the only way to move on from this will be to wrap the whole thing up with some big red bow and a moral and offer it up to the world as a lesson learned.
I couldn’t promise him that I wouldn’t search the ground for syllables as a way to explain how I felt when it was over, and I was alone. I am a writer. Writers write about the things of this lifetime they’ve learned to love. Win or lose, we write.
I marveled at Taylor Swift for a long time. How she so effortlessly flings the names of past flings into songs that become eternalized on the lips of teenage girls. Taylor Swift was a realization, to me, that words eternalize people. They’re constant. They’re forever. Placed with a rhythm or printed on a page, we all hold a power inside of us to break someone’s heart with our own writing. By placing their name of the page or even just their likeness, we hold that power. It’s scary stuff.
You have to be really careful with that.
I want to be a good writer one day. I am so hungry to be better.
I think the best kinds of writers, whether they see it or not, are the ones who give grace that expands on the page. The ones who understand that writing about the life of someone else—no matter how boldly they touched you or how much they hurt you—isn’t just the maniac workings of a Taylor Swift burn song. If you aren’t careful, the words you write on a page will leave very little room for redemption. And us, as human beings, were made for some kind of redemption.
We’re going to mess up. We’re going to miss phone calls. We’re going to do some pretty awful stuff to one another. And we won’t always be in control. At some point we’ll learn, if we have not already, that we actually don’t get to fix people or make them better. We actually don’t get to shield them from the world. We actually don’t get to live perfect love stories all the time.
But I think being a writer is far more than just writing about other people and then being fearful of how they’ll respond. A good writer will put their own feelings on the page– ugly or not– but never pretend to act like they can even sum up or begin to discover what another feels in that moment. Being a writer is no different than being purely human: We are entitled to feelings but it truly, truly matters how we refine them when we step to put them out into the world.
But you should own your feelings. You should own every little of shred of emotion you feel. Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s joy. Maybe you want to jump the bones of someone every time you see them wearing that sweater with the patches at the elbows. Ugly emotions or not, own the emotions and don’t shove them into a box that makes you sorry for having them.
Find the root of them. Touch that with your hands. Dissect them on a page. Understand why you are so imperfect and why that is actually the most awesome thing you’ve got going for you.
Explore them. Talk to someone about them. But please, don’t just throw them on a page when you’re angry or upset or you want to make a moral out of someone else. That’s a life. That’s a character in your story. That’s someone who can change at any moment. Just because they are a character, an integral someone to the someone that you are, does not mean you get to write their life story or that you get to eternalize who they are for the world to read. You only get to write about who they’ve been to you. I think smart writers slip grace beneath every door their characters stand beside. Because we all need so much grace.
The hardest part about being a writer, especially a nonfiction one, is that the whole, wide world becomes your syllables. You notice people. You memorize their dialogue. You carry them with you. You staple their hearts inside the lining of your sleeves. And you don’t know how to let people go sometimes, or wrestle with all the impact they made, other than putting it down on the page and walking away. Writers will always deal with the repercussions, with the realization that thick skin must be an attribute to ones who live their lives finding words for the stories they’re swept up into. People won’t always like it. People will not always appreciate the viewpoint. People will get hurt because we’re all sensitive, and scared of so much, at the very root of us. But how silent can you stay? How long can you edge around the words that you’ve needed to say for so long?
I’m writing about him. In my book, I’m writing about him. But first I needed to know my reason “why.” If ever my reasoning for putting him on a page was bitterness & resentment & jealousy, then it wasn’t time. I had to mature to a point where he became a staple in my journey. Where I knew he had changed me. Where I knew, without question, that the character who walks up to meet you on the first page and the same character who waves goodbye as she watches you drive away on the last would be different because of him. To burn him, to be bitter with him, to spit fire at him– all would be a selfish agenda that the world has never needed. The world is full of dagger-throwing, angry people; I’d rather my words be light. Not fire.
Here’s my final advice (and it might not be any good): Don’t write about people just to write about them. Don’t write about people because they’re juicy. Or because you think you need a love story floating on the page. Or because you want some kind of revenge. Write only, and only, if someone changes you. If you see the world differently because of them.
Write about the things that change you. Harvest the emotions. Don’t just spit words out like fire. Fire burns up the ground and destroys the pretty things that used to be. Rebuilding is so hard. So very, very hard. Figure out a way to grow from the people who have hurt you. No matter your age, choose to grow up. And don’t be so quick to place down a period and walk away. A good writer will write with a grace that sprinkles commas and semicolons around the story and says to the reader, “I’m not perfect. They’re not perfect. No one here wins or gets the final breath.”
Growing up means letting go. Giving grace. Owning emotions. Leaving room for redemption. Harvesting something for someone else. And then walking away from the page.