Novelists, especially, at some point or another must write scenes of heartbreak and death and loss, although narrative nonfiction often includes this as well (see a good example of the latter with Judy Brizendine’s Stunned by Grief) But how do you write these scene effectively without descending into pathos? Just like ploughing through actual grief, it’s tricky.
None of us go through life unscathed. None of us. By the time you get to our age, you’ve almost certainly waded through the thick, drowning waters of sadness and sorrow. I actually do know middle-aged folks who haven’t had major losses (which always stuns me! How can this be?), but they are few and far between. And for writers, this process will, best-case scenario, enrich your work, infusing it with layers and texture and meaning.
But the thing is of course, that you can’t do it while in the throes of that sorrow. I, along with all the novelists I know well, experience grief through a realm of stages that don’t follow the one, two, three, four, but rather go back and forth for a seemingly endless meandering and maddening path. Only in hindsight do we see that we were actually working through. Most all of us have had that thought that we’re defective, unable to “get by” the loss. Which of course, one never completely resolves . . .
Writers often become paralyzed to write while going through this. But so many feel the need to push through (that deadline, don’tcha know. Or the fear that you’ll lose the desire to write, or the thread of the narrative, or fifty other things . . . ). Almost always when they do, the results are disastrous and they have to go back and fix all the messes. I always counsel my writers if they feel the need to write during this time, absolutely do so—but in a journal. Journaling the hurt is a quite effective tool, and buried in there may be some things of use down the road. But most of it is just raw pain.
Healing may take a year, even two, depending upon the core of the loss. And that’s okay—nobody grieves in the same manner as anyone else. But once you begin to heal, that writing desk will beckon. Relieved, you sit down to begin again.
And if you’ve embraced your grief, a funny thing will happen once you return to writing. That deep place of pain, the core of the wound, will open you to compassion for the grief of others. In this case, your character’s! Now instead of writing about sobbing uncontrollably (I must admit, one of my pet peeves!), your hero will have a clutch of the heart when removing a dead bird from the stoop. The root word of wound is “wonder,” as in a wonder. And now your character sees things with deeper insight. As you write into his sorrow, his world opens up.
Now, he can be just as big of a sh_t as he was before, but at least now we’ve found his humanity! Leopards actually don’t change their spots, but those can sure become muted, and nothing brings about major change in your character as does deep loss and sorrow. Unless of course you’re writing a pure sociopath, but that’s a different issue!
So embrace your own sorrow. Drink it in and feel the rush of pain paralyze your senses. Stand in that spot where you’re convinced if you do you will be swept out to sea and drown. Because one day, when you least expect it, all that sadness will infiltrate your writing exactly as you need it to, bringing with it a richness and poignancy that your readers will rave over.