It can be really hard to put yourself out there in your writing, especially when you want to share your feelings through your characters.
In the New York Times bestseller Girl in Pieces and in her new novel, How to Make Friends with the Dark, author Kathleen Glasgow writes incredibly moving characters who are going through some very challenging times. In this article, she shares advice and prompts for how you can use writing to explore your feelings and end up helping others feel less alone.
I write a lot about difficult things: depression, grief, self-harm, body image. My characters, like me, tend to keep things bottled up until everything implodes. Of course, it’s not healthy to carry around your pain. Keeping so much inside can make you sick, emotionally and physically.
So, just like me, my characters tend to learn (sometimes the hard way) that they need outlets. You need to empty your grief, your giant feelings, somewhere. In Girl in Pieces, Charlie Davis puts her feelings on paper in the form of drawings, specifically comics. In my new book, How to Make Friends with the Dark, Tiger Tolliver is much less focused than Charlie. She hasn’t quite figured out what her outlets are, but by the end of the book, she’s making small steps: she begins writing her grief down in a composition book. She says, “I’m writing this down because someday I will be Alice, with a whole lifetime spent without a mother, a lifetime of walking around with a Grand Canyon of grief in my heart, and people should know what that feels like.”
People should know what that feels like. People want to know that other people feel sad, too, or mad, or grief-stricken, or hopeless. But sometimes it’s very scary to put the “true you” down on paper, right? What will people think?
I love books because they are safe places to explore my feelings about things that are going on in my life. I love books because some stories mirror mine, and I feel better. I’m not alone.
But how to start? You have a story to tell. You want to reach people who need your story. You need to heal yourself a little in the process. I have two prompts for you.
What is a secret you’ve never told anyone? Write it down on a piece of paper and fold it up and put it away. Congratulations! Your secret is out (technically) and safe. Now try this.
Start a short story with your secret as the first line. Make that secret the basis for an imaginary character. Live through that secret using the character. Why did they keep the secret? For example:
“I stole twenty dollars from my mother on Tuesday night.”
Now that the secret is out, answer it. Who stole twenty dollars? Why? Why on Tuesday? What did they use the money for? Do they feel guilty, or do they feel satisfied? You might be surprised where your mind goes when you remove the secret, a real thing, from you and give it to a fictional character.
What’s the biggest lie you ever told? Take that lie and use it as the first line of a poem. Write twenty lines as quickly as you can. Then go back and erase the lie. Without the lie, what is happening in your poem? What twists and turns happen when you write quickly, without censoring yourself? Are there images that leap out at you? Is there a certain music that seems to happen from line to line when you read your poem out loud?
Further ideas: turn that poem into a song! Make your own music to go along with the poem or find a friend to help. Take your story and make a short film using your phone with a bunch of friends.
Writing is fun and furious and soothing and tempestuous and hard, just like life. It’s the single greatest healing factor we have. What do we do when we are sad? We listen to music with lyrics that speak to our sadness. What do we do when we need to escape our own inner turmoil? We read a book to lose ourselves in someone else’s world. What should we do when we are just too full of feelings?
Write. Them. Down.
Nobody needs to know how you started writing your great story or poem. Just say, “I had a brilliant idea.”
Trust me, they’ll believe you.