Writing about heavy topics

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Feeling stuck when writing about difficult topics is an issue that often comes up with writers I work with. If you’re struggling with the same issue, I hope this helps!

Why we feel stuck in the first place

The feeling of stuckness or feeling blocked is often a sign that you’re avoiding writing about something because you’re afraid of the emotions it will bring up. 

It’s similar to when you need to have a difficult conversation with someone. You know it’s going to be hard and uncomfortable so you do whatever you can to avoid it. You may even ignore the problem or make excuses and convince yourself you don’t need to have the conversation. But if you’re honest with yourself, you also know that the problem will only get worse if you don’t address it. 

Writing about difficult topics is exactly like that. You know it’s going to be hard so you try not writing about it at all. But the urge to write doesn’t go away. 

There is a silver lining here 

The most anxiety-inducing thing when you’re working up the courage to have a difficult conversation with someone is that you don’t know what’s on the other end of the conversation. 

You don’t know how the other person will respond, whether it will cause more problems, whether it will sour your relationship, whether they’ll never speak to you again. 

But the difference with writing is that it’s just you and the page. The page doesn’t argue back, the page doesn’t think you’re making a big deal out of nothing, the page won’t turn it’s back on you. 

Writing has always been your friend 

Writing has always been there for you. It will be in your corner, during good times and bad times. It will wait patiently, until you’re ready to write about the thing that won’t let go of you.

Remind yourself of this fact when you’re writing about something that’s difficult. 

This is just a conversation between you and yourself. You’re in control of this conversation. You can stop whenever you want. You can take a short break or a long break. You can write about something else, something more joyful, to take the edge off the heaviness.

But it won’t be easy

When we’re writing about something difficult, especially if it happened to us, it’s as if we’re re-experiencing those events. All the emotions we felt at the time, or that we had locked up deep inside of us, will rise to the surface. 

In my experience, feeling stuck often means that we’re scared to go deep and scared of what will resurface if we actually do write the thing we want to write about. 

Acknowledge what emotions this type of writing may bring up for you. When you’re aware of why you’re feeling stuck, what you’re going to have to deal with, it’s easier to decide whether you are ready to face those emotions and write through them, or not. 

Maybe you’re not in a very healthy emotional state and writing about heavy topics will make things worse. Maybe everything is still raw and you need to journal to get all your emotions onto the page and make sense of them first before you can write something that others will benefit from.

Whatever the reason, it’s okay to put it off. Your writing will never abandon you and will be there waiting for you when you’re ready.

If you are ready to write, here are a few things that helped me:

1- Keep a box of tissues nearby. When I’m writing about emotionally heavy things, I know that I will cry a lot, either while I’m writing or after I’m done writing. Preparing for this with something as simple of having a box of tissues nearby helps me feel emotionally ready for the task at hand. 

2 – Remind yourself that no one has to read this. Your goal might be publish your writing somewhere, but while you’re writing, thinking about a potential reader and what they might make of your story will only add to the anxiety and feeling of stuckness. Write for yourself first because that’s when you can be deeply honest and write openly without the fear of judgement or critique. The work of deciding what you want to do with that writing, who you’re going to share it with, where you’re going to submit it for publication etc. comes later.

3 – Keep your writing time short. If you normally write for an hour, reduce it to 30 minutes or even less. The longer you stay in the scenes you’re writing, the heavier you’ll feel when you’re done. And those feelings may stick around for a while as well. Writing more frequently and in shorter bursts helps me to write what I need to write and then get out of the muck quickly. It’s also easier to sit down and get started if I tell myself I’m only doing this for 10 minutes and then I can stop. More often than not, once I start, I feel okay enough to keep going.

4- Set some time afterwards to ‘cool off.’ Think of your writing as an intense workout session, after which you’ll need some time to cool off and process what came up for you. When I’m finished writing, I prefer to not re-read anything that I’ve written. I close my notebook and go out for a walk. I’m able to release the emotions that had piled up as I was writing. Being in nature, breathing deeply, and moving my body always helps me to cool off after an intense writing session. Think about what a cool off session might look like for you and make space for it either immediately or soon after you’re done writing.

Writing can be healing and therapeutic 

Although you might feel stuck and find it hard to sit down and write, remind yourself that your urge to write is there for a reason. Just like a tough conversation can make a relationship stronger, writing can heal you and make you feel whole again. 

Once you’re on the other side, you’ll feel much lighter for having written the thing that wouldn’t let go of you. 

You might still feel the heaviness when you go back and re-read what you’ve written and when you’re in the process of editing your work, but the feeling of lightness will remain, InshaAllah. 

This also applies to fiction

Everything I’ve said here is also applicable to writing fiction. If your character(s) are going through very difficult experiences, expect the same feelings of heaviness/stuckness to come up for you. 

When we write from the perspective of our characters, we’re writing as if we are them, as if everything that is happening to them is happening to us. When you’re writing those heavy scenes, you may feel as if you’re going through it in real time. 

It’s like when we watch a sad scene in a movie and find ourselves crying because of what the characters are going through. Even if the thing they’re crying about didn’t happen to us, or we’ve never experienced it personally, we still feel the emotions they’re feeling. It’s the same with writing fiction.

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