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True to Life, Step 39: wounds and scars

An interesting article by David Brooks in the NYT:


Introspective or Narcissistic?

The answer to that question might be found in whether you keep a journal.
Or, copy and paste this URL into your browser:

    But this is exactly what my book on memoir is about: the fact that in telling our story – with distance, honesty and skill – we allow others to see themselves in our tale. We paint the small picture so well, our work illuminates the big picture.

Here is one of the most important steps of “True to Life: 50 steps to help you tell your story”:

from scars,
from wounds
years ago, I participated in a month-long workshop for non-fiction writers at
the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, a glorious place and an invaluable
resource for artists (suggestion—check it out at In our
group was a gifted young writer with a huge vocabulary and a unique style, but
whose essay about her dysfunctional childhood was a hard-to-read cry of pain.
She had opened doors; in fact, her doors were hanging off their hinges. We
didn’t know how to handle her agonized work. One colleague simply prepared a
list of books for her about childhood abuse and therapy.
Our brilliant head editor explained that despite the
writer’s obvious talent, her pain had not healed enough for her to process the
past and turn it into literature. She was writing not from scars, but from
When a student describes a powerful experience in an
essay in class, we the listeners can sometimes fit ourselves right into the
tale. We not only understand what the writer has been through, we feel we have,
in our own, very different way, been through something like it as well. And
other times, when a student presents such an experience, we shut down, because
we can’t tell what the story has to do with us.
The first writer has been able to stand far enough
back to turn the experience into good writing. Raw emotion has healed enough to
become a scar. The second writer is still coping with an open wound. We don’t
see or hear the pictures, the characters, or the story. We register only the
intensity of the feelings.
A writer cannot create literature while dealing with
strong emotions that have not been processed.
It’s not just pain a writer needs to stand back
from, but also love. If you rhapsodize with gooey ardour about your adorable
children or your faultless parents, I’ll close the book. I want a reliable
narrator, not one swimming in out-of-control, over-the-top feelings, whether
negative or positive. When emotion overwhelms a writer, he or she has proven to
be an unreliable narrator. Readers are not sure they can trust such a narrator
to lead them safely forward and tell them the truth.
Some do get away with writing from wounds. In By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart uses her fury and grief to create
a masterpiece about the madness of obsessive love. Many readers admire the
book; others, including me, do not. It’s true a writer needs to mine that
intense place of unprocessed emotion. But it’s only later, when the rawness has
healed enough for the emotion to be digested, that great writing for other eyes can emerge. In
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, writing just after the sudden death of her husband,
evinces searing pain, but her expert clarity and skill as an essayist pull us
into the cool clear heart of her loss.
When experience is new and burning, a journal is a
most satisfactory friend. You are writing to understand, perhaps to heal,
comfort, and validate yourself. But to write successfully for others to
understand, you’ll most likely have to wait until your wound becomes a scar. When
will that happen? There’s no way to know. Some wounds heal quickly; others take
a very long time.
So how do writers move in close enough to their
rich, emotional raw material to recreate it with genuine feeling and flow? And
yet not move in so close that they are capsized by the original emotions all
over again? How do they withdraw far enough to write about their most
formidable experiences and yet still bring them vividly to life? Negotiating
this precise distance is one of the memoirist’s greatest challenges.
And what about other kinds of
fiercely personal expres
ranting, musing, and confessing? How do we fit them into our work?
A rant, as CBC’s Rick Mercer has shown us, is a
relentless discourse, an objection to something or someone. It is often
eloquent and entertaining, especially if we agree with it. But a rant on paper
can produce the same reaction as writing from emotional wounds: All we can hear
is fury, sarcasm, loathing.
Musing is an exploration of ideas, thoughts, dreams,
fancies, memories—ideal for your journal and wonderful raw material for later
work but often too unformed to be read by others. Essays and stories are
crafted for readers; musing is not.
Again, beware abstract words: glory, loneliness,
peace, heaven, heartache. They’re powerful words, but I can’t see them. A
sudden kiss, a solitary walk in the woods, a break-up done by e-mail: These are concrete. They show where the abstract words of
musing only tell. Pull me in with specifics and detail.
What’s the difference between a memoir piece that
tells the truth and a confession? Once more, it’s the issue of wounds and
scars, and also of craft. Many confessions are
soul-wrenching truth-tellings, blurted outpourings that
are undigested
and unshaped. Good for diaries, good for spiritual counsellors, best friends,
and shrinks, but not for readers. Not yet.
In your early drafts, pour out all the emotion you
want and need. Later, pare back and prune. Remember that, when you are dealing
with huge issues, the drama is there in the action on the page; you don’t need
to hit us with it. The more powerful the story, the greater the need to temper
your tone. Keep your language spare and simple. Don’t tell us what to feel.
Make us see.
When you begin to write, ask
yourself, “Do I feel in control of the material, or is the subject controlling
me?” That might give you a hint about how far you have come and how far you
have still to go.
There is something beautiful about all scars
of whatever nature. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and
healed, done with.
Harry Crews
If you have no wounds how can you know if
you’re alive? If you have no scar how do you know who you are?
Edward Albee
Ursula K. Le Guin, when dealing with painful
subjects, makes a distinction between “wallowing,” which she says she writes
but does not share publicly, and “bearing witness,” which she does.
Judith Barrington



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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