It takes a lot of energy to write a book and stay with it through drafts, revisions, submissions, rejections, sales and marketing. Many writers find the energy in the sheer joy of writing. But others draw on darker impulses and feelings to carry them through the process. Sorrow, anger and hurt can be the writer’s fodder and fuel. I should know.
I’ve written 30 published books—and what propelled me to a writing career in the first place was that I was, frankly, extremely pissed off.
After overcoming depression as a young adult, I decided I wanted to become a psychotherapist. I studied with an eccentric psychiatrist named Milton Erickson who was very optimistic about people’s abilities to change if they were approached in the right way. I was taken by his nearly psychotic sense of hope, and I entered the field full of the possibilities of what I—and my fellow therapists—might be able to help people achieve.
But I was discouraged to find that a surprising number of my colleagues didn’t share this hopeful view. I’d hear them say things like, “These people don’t even want to change; they love being miserable.” Some of these therapists were just, sadly, burned out—compassion fatigue, it’s called in the field—but others genuinely believed that their patients were too damaged to recover.
Now, I was the mellow, peace-loving type, but I found myself wanting to throttle these naysayers. I hadn’t entered the field as a cynic, and didn’t appreciate being surrounded by them. But why should anyone listen to me, the new guy?
The people whose views my colleagues did pay attention to were the “experts,” those luminaries with publication credits to their names. So I got to thinking: If I could write a book that would make a case for my views—and provide practical methods for creating change—maybe I could have some influence. I decided to give it a try.
I have a friend who tells her writing students, “You can’t be a writer unless you love to write.” After hearing her say that a few times, I had to tell her that, at least at first, I didn’t love to write at all. In fact, I disliked it. But I had to write. I was compelled by a variation on that old adage: “Write what you know.” Only for me, it was: “Write what you ‘no.’ ”
Since then, I’ve noticed that many other writers have found their own ways to channel seemingly negative emotions to a positive end—and that we can learn a lot from what they’ve done. So if you’ve ever found yourself feeling cynical, downtrodden or frustrated (and what writer hasn’t?), take heart: Here are 10 ways writers can (and do!) turn “negative” experiences into writing fuel.
1. WRITE INSTEAD OF ACTING DESTRUCTIVELY.
The key to transforming your hurts, frustrations, fears and anger into something useful is to turn the emotion that arises from upsetting experiences into some form of creative expression. It doesn’t have to be a nonfiction book or a persuasive piece of writing, as it was in my case. The point is simply to find a way to use your pen as your weapon.
Take Sue Grafton, who has often told the story of how she got the inspiration for her popular alphabetically titled series: She was in the middle of a nasty divorce, and would find herself fantasizing about ways to kill her husband. Rather than acting, she channeled all those fantasies into her murder mysteries—and her passion-fueled stories resonated with readers, landing her on the bestseller lists.
2. WRITE FROM BEING RIGHTEOUSLY INDIGNANT.
The political world is filled with books fueled by the powerful combination of dissatisfaction and a desire to do something about it. Liberal author and filmmaker Michael Moore has famously penned several bestsellers out of righteous indignation, including Stupid White Men and Dude, Where’s My Country? The same could be said for bestselling author and TV host Bill O’Reilly’s offerings (including Culture Warrior and Pinheads and Patriots) at the other end of the spectrum.
Management consultant and bestseller Tom Peters also famously rants. He wrote his first book to challenge a wave of popular management gurus who claimed American business was about to be overtaken by the Japanese model. Peters thought there were a lot of terrific American companies—and that they needed support rather than skepticism. His book championing that view, In Search of Excellence, started a revolution in management theory. As he revealed in a Fast Company story, “When I wrote [Excellence], I wasn’t trying to fire a shot to signal a revolution. But I did have an agenda. … I was genuinely, deeply, sincerely and passionately pissed off!” Peters goes on to say, “Nearly 100 percent of innovation—from business to politics—is inspired not by ‘market analysis’ but by people who are supremely pissed off by the way things are.”
Did that first book get that anger out of his system? No—as with many other writers fueled by passion, it was just the beginning. As he later wrote in his introduction to his title Re-Imagine!: “I’m 60 years old as I write. I’ve been doing my ‘thing’ for well over a quarter of a century. … At this point, I don’t have to write a book. My speaking and consulting gigs keep me busy to the breaking point and beyond. So why am I sitting inside … on a gorgeous July day on Martha’s Vineyard, cranking out Book No. 11? Because I’m pissed off.”
3. WRITE FROM BEING WOUNDED.
What struggles have you had in your life? What can you offer to others who share them? Patsy Rodenburg had speech problems as a child that led to a wounding encounter with an “elocution” teacher, whose cruel treatment, combined with mocking taunts from fellow students, silenced Rodenburg in the most literal sense possible. Finally finding her voice gave Rodenburg such sympathy for others with speech issues that it became her life’s work—as a vocal coach—and led to her educational book The Right to Speak: Working With the Voice.
And she’s not the only one. Blind, deaf and mute writer Helen Keller—who authored several bestsellers in her time—wrote, “I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work and my God.”
4. WRITE FOR REVENGE OR TO PROVE SOMEONE WRONG.
If you’ve ever been discouraged from pursuing your craft, you’re not alone. To paraphrase one oft-quoted adage, “Writing well (and getting published) is the best revenge.”
Take Ann Patchett, who writes in defiance of her former teachers—a group of nuns, and one especially, who gave her the message that she was dumb. In Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe, she says, “I write for her. Even as a child I wanted to write for revenge, to show them all, but especially this particular nun, that I had been misjudged.”
In 1964, J.A. Jance was a junior in college when she applied for a creative writing class, only to be turned down by the professor because of her gender. “Girls become teachers or nurses,” he told her. “Boys become writers.” But she held onto her writing dream until she married an aspiring writer who, rather than supporting her, reinforced the stereotype. “There will only be one writer in this family,” he told her, “and I’m it.” She was thwarted—but after her divorce years later, she decided to give this writing thing a try again. Jance finished her first three books—with a full-time job and two children to raise—by writing every day from 4–7 a.m. Where do you think the energy to maintain a schedule like that came from?
Moreover, Jance’s thriller Hour of the Hunter featured a heroine who longed to be a writer, but whose husband declared himself the only writer in the family. Her antagonist? A former professor of creative writing who turned out to be a crazed killer.
5. WRITE FROM FRUSTRATION THAT A STORY HAS GONE UNTOLD.
Mark Arsenault was a newspaper reporter assigned to cover the story of a dead man found under a bridge. When he stumbled on a group of homeless heroin addicts near the scene, one of them, Julia, made such an impression on him that he wanted to write about her. But his boss at the paper rejected the idea. After arguing with the editor to no effect, he decided there was more than one way to tell a story that deserved to be told—and Julia became the inspiration for his debut novel, Spiked. In his essay “Romeo and Juliet With Needle Marks,” anthologized in How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own Words, Arsenault explains: “I was so ticked off, I had to write fiction.”
We all know of stories the world should hear. You could be the one who finds a way to tell them.
6. WRITE TO DEAL WITH FEARS OR TRAUMA.
Stephen King suffered from ear infections as a child. The first time the doctor said puncturing his eardrum to drain the infection wouldn’t hurt, King believed him. This was followed by some of the most excruciating, terrifying minutes he’d ever experienced. The subsequent visits with the needle only reinforced this sense of helpless terror—a theme that appears with haunting authenticity in his work.
Anne Rice lost her 5-year-old daughter to leukemia, and has since said that featuring a close replica of the child in Interview With a Vampire was subconsciously a way of giving her immortality.
7. WRITE TO HELP ILLUMINATE OR CORRECT A SOCIAL INJUSTICE.
Never forget that your gift as a writer gives you the power to make a difference.
Before he wrote the popular Burke crime novels, Andrew Vachss was a federal attorney investigating sexually transmitted diseases that had been given to children through abuse, often by family members. He began to write to get a bigger jury than he could find in a courthouse. His crusade started when he interviewed a man who admitted to sodomizing his own baby, but defended himself by saying the state had no right to get involved because the baby was his. Vachss said he thought he’d come face to face with the devil—until he met many more like him. He wanted the laws to better protect children, and so he starting writing fiction on these themes.
In an interview on Amazon.com about his latest novel, Another Life, Vachss says, “My goal was not to raise consciousness, but to raise anger. Ours is a country where anything can be accomplished if enough people get angry … because, in America, we act on our collective anger.” He goes on to cite laws and political action groups that have formed in response to issues brought to light by his stories, saying, “Anyone who says, ‘Books don’t change anything,’ or—more commonly—that crime fiction is the wrong genre for promoting social change—should take a closer look.”
8. WRITE IN REACTION TO SOMETHING THAT UPSETS YOU.
John Grisham was an attorney sitting in on a case in which a 12-year-old girl was on the stand facing the rapist who had brutalized her and left her for dead. It was tough to listen to, especially because Grisham had children of his own.
When court adjourned for lunch, Grisham left, but remembered he’d forgotten his briefcase inside. When he returned, he found the defendant sitting alone in the courtroom and realized how tempting (and easy) it would be, if he were the child’s parent, to kill the man right then.
From this came his first novel, A Time To Kill, in which a lawyer defends a father who commits just such a crime.
9. WRITE YOURSELF OUT OF (OR THROUGH) A CRISIS.
Before he was a writer, the late Dominick Dunne was a Hollywood producer, but an unhappy one. He turned to drinking and drug use and eventually, it got him fired—so he left California, moved to a cottage in Oregon and began to work on a novel about Hollywood (The Winners).
Later, his daughter was murdered. During the trial, Dunne was appalled that the murderer seemed to have been coached on what to wear and how to act (even carrying a Bible). Dunne knew enough from his time in the movies to recognize acting and props when he saw them. He became outraged when he saw how easily the judicial process could be manipulated and distorted. After that trial, he could have spent the rest of his life angry and embittered—but instead, he shifted the focus of his writing, covering the trial for Vanity Fair, thus beginning a long relationship with the magazine. He went on to make a name for himself writing about notorious murder trials in both widely published articles and bestselling books, including Another City, Not My Own (a novel inspired by the O.J. Simpson case). “Thank God I hit bottom,” he once said. “Hitting bottom is a wonderful thing, if you can get back up.”
10. WRITE FROM IDENTIFYING WITH A UNIVERSAL STRUGGLE.
In speaking about her bestseller, Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand often tells of how her illness, chronic fatigue syndrome, left her unable to stand or even lie still at times and made her identify with the broken-down horse and out-of-favor trainer the book featured. The characters had succeeded despite long odds, and eventually, so did Hillenbrand, despite sometimes being able to write for only minutes at a time or in awkward, uncomfortable positions, such as holding her work above her head.
Readers never tire of stories of people succeeding against all odds. Telling one could place you among them.
As Kingsley Amis once said, “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” You don’t even have to get out of your chair to stir up trouble, heal your wounds or seek revenge. Transform all that could stand in your way into the type of writing success that only you can have. In other words, write what you “no.”
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