Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Writing What's Difficult: Finding the Balance

On Monday, I wrote about handling gritty issues in "cozy" fiction, that is, fiction that is not generally expected to include graphic violence. Emotionally difficult subjects are not, of course, exclusive to fiction. Nonfiction, including memoirs, travel and nature writing, ethnography, history, and more, often addresses painful and ugly subjects. So does poetry. And drama. Writing is, after all, a reflection of life, and as we were reminded again on Monday afternoon, life is filled with joy, pain, inspiration, tragedy, and triumph.

We have all lived through all of these emotions, and in this age of virtually instantaneous information, many people take in not only personal tragedies but those of the nation and the world. The Internet and the broadcast media provide not just news of events, but the opportunity to revisit every shard of pain over and over. I won't dwell here on my opinions about how healthful or helpful that is for us as individuals or member of the human race, but it is a fact of life for everyone who goes online. Me. You.

Writing seriously about events that lacerate our souls is another matter. I'm not talking about "blurt" writing, the knee-jerk posts and blogs and what-have-yous that begin to spout even before the dust has settled or blood has dried. I'm talking about something deeper. I'm talking about writing that comes from the heart and the gut, sure, but also from the rational mind. I'm talking about writing based on research, on checked and double-checked information, on careful reflection, on skepticism and questions.

I recently wrote an essay about corvids - crows, magpies, ravens in particular. They are among my favorite birds, and the essay focuses on encounters I've had with them on the North Carolina coast, the high desert of Nevada, a rocky beach in Ireland. Corvids are brilliant creatures, and fascinating to watch,  but one day I was witness to a Corvid event that left me shaken. I knew for two years that I would have to write about it, but I couldn't find a way to begin.

How do we enter emotional material? And how far in do we go? I have heard it said that when we need to write the thing that we resist writing because that is likely a rich source of material. I think we also need to figure out why we are resisting, because knowing what we fear may lead us in and - if we are not to become lost in the labyrinth - lead us back out again.

In the case of my corvid essay, I realized somewhere along the way that what I feared was not memory of the event itself, horrifying as it was. What I feared was that I would leave readers with a skewed impression of both the birds and of my response to what I saw. So I kept reading about corvid behavior, and about human-corvid interaction, and ultimately I found the key I needed to balance what I wrote.

Perhaps balance is the key to everything. I don't know, but I do know that nothing is simple, and that when we write, especially when we write nonfiction, we have an obligation to be as true as we can be to the worlds we see.


Here are some examples of superb writing, in no particular order, about wrenching subjects. (Many more authors and works have dealt effectively with tough material - these are just a few that come quickly to mind. Feel free to add to my list in your comments.)
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
  • Dog Years and Heaven's Coast by Mark Doty
  • Songs from a Lead-Lined Room by Suzanne Strempek Shea
  • Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
  • We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth M. Norman
  • Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  1. Love the blog! You are so correct Sheila! It is so hard for people to understand that I enjoy and participate in the "hunt game" and I also enjoy photographing the same birds in their natural habitat. Creates a very "odd position" for me to be in... (:

    Keep on writing.... I enjoy your work so much....


  2. Great post, Sheila. You might want to add MEAN SPIRIT by Linda Hogan. It's a novel that deals with a very distressing real historical situation, a long series of murders for gain in which whole Osage families were wiped out so the white "respectable" murderers could take their land that had oil on it. Was a finalist for the Pultizer Prize and has been on several lists of the best books of the 20th century.

  3. I can't tell you how many times I cried while writing the ending to Sin Creek, an emotional experience not only for my fictional characters but for me as well. I pulled a few emotions from my own life and spilled my guts, hoping that I said enough and not too much and left readers with a enough hope to do what needs to be done during those times. Great article, Sheila!

    1. I bet you did, Susan - and yes, I'd say you hit a nice balance. We're always drawing from our own lives, even when we don't realize it. As for those fictional characters - they're alive enough when we're writing them, and when they're read. At least they are if we're doing our job. Thanks for commenting!