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Writing in the Hurting Places

The semester is in full swing at both UHCL and the prison, which is why you haven't heard from me much lately. No matter what I'm teaching, my students never fail to make me laugh, make me cry, and make me think. And sometimes, when I think I'm all caught up, I go to my email and find sudden little gems like this:
Have you ever used your really personal experiences in your art? And if so, how did you get through it? The piece I'm working on now has me absolutely scared out of my wits.
My first response, before writing back, was to feel an immediate connection to the writer, a female student in her early 20s. My second response, as I started typing, was this:
The short answer is yes. The long answer, I'll have to chew on. I may write a blog post on it, because it's definitely food for thought. Something else I'd say is that you'd have to write through that fear. Either that, or wait until you've processed the experience more and then come back to it with a little more distance. That said, almost all of my writing has dealt, to some degree, with traumatic experience. The main thing to keep in mind is that if you are ready to work in the place that is raw, the work can be a powerful experience. It will transform you and others.
My third response, via this blog, is that if you're ready to write in those painful places, that you have to be, as Natalie Goldberg says in Wild Mind, "willing to break open." If you're not ready for that yet, then perhaps you need to have more distance, or you need to write your own story first, before transforming it or fictionalizing it.

Consider Alice Sebold's experience with The Lovely Bones and Lucky. She started working on The Lovely Bones, but had to write Lucky first to get her own experience out of the way before she could do justice to Susie Salmon's. She, like most of us, had something she had to process before she could open her ears and listen fully to another character. And yet so much of Sebold's own rape experience resonates through Susie's. There's a strong connection there, and I don't think that powerful, influential novel could have been written by anyone else.

It's been like that for me, too. When I was 11, I was sexually assaulted, and, for a long time, my work was about sexual abuse in some way. Eventually, I grew past that, and although my current novel is also about abuse, it's a lot further from my own experience than my first short stories were or my most recent full-length play. Although based on harrowing medical narratives and psychiatric case studies, the story itself is not my own. It's a good thing. I don't think I could write this if I'd actually gone through it. But I also don't think I could write it if I hadn't gone through what I went through, and experienced the same common feelings of powerlessness. I know what it's like to be afraid for my life and to have that fear go completely unrecognized. I know what it's like to suffer at the hands of an abuser and not be able to talk about it. And those are the common emotions I draw on when I write my fiction, even though it means I'm constantly "breaking open." But what I've realized, just this week, is that a thing of beauty can come from a place of horror, and that fear and anger can give birth to joy.
My heart goes out to this student. I know she's hurting. I know she's afraid. But I hope that in the hurting places, she can go deep and find something that transcends--herself, her experience, her art.


Jeanna Thornton said…
Kath, this post is fantastic...your courage flowed with the same rhythm as your sentences...Yes, there is beauty in ruins. Sometimes the journey is the platform for creativity...
Wow a moving, resonant truth you've shared. This post is such a gift. I'm so glad you've come to a place where you can process the painful and use it as fuel.
Joni Rodgers said…
Brave, beautiful and true. Thank you, Dr. KatPat.
Donna Maloy said…
Brava to you and your student!
Anonymous said…
Your students are lucky to have you! Wonderful post.
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