Turning Suffering Into Writing

Figtrees of the Writer's Menagerie. Falling short. Oh heck

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
It's cynical of me to say so, but there's money in misery. But, suffering is a part of life. As Woody Allen lamented:

Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering—and it's all over much too soon.

I'll never be a fan of misery memoirs, though perhaps I should write one, as this genre is said to be the most rapidly expanding. Many stories of suffering have been faked, though I was mightily impressed by Jung Chang's Wild Swans.

I write in the crime genre, which enables me to tackle some contentious issues in society, as well as the vile behaviour of criminals and the deplorable attitude of the public who get a thrill out of being gawkers and trolls.

I've written about murder, kidnapping, poisoning, sexual assault, blackmail, prostitution, drug dealing, incest, violent assault, genocide and human trafficking. Some of these crimes were prompted by unpleasant human events, such as mental illness, bereavement, suicide and assisted suicide, long-term unemployment and debt, cancer, PTSD, and homelessness.

Some of these things actually happened to my friends, acquaintances and family members, though I never write so closely that they could be identified. Some crimes, accidents and tragedies are stuff I remembered from the news, going right back to my boyhood. For instance, my WIP includes a corpse being found incompletely embalmed, which is based on a newspaper story I recalled from the 1960s where a man attempted to preserve his wife in this way, living with her body for thirty years. This only came to light, after he died alone and his putrefying remains alerted neighbours that something was amiss. He was laying on the bed next to his beloved.

I also draw on first hand knowledge, including violent confrontations and fights, (where I was sometimes on the losing end), meetings with career criminals and racists, a near-death experience, finding a corpse, being burgled, bereavement, and the ramifications of mistaken identity. I didn't know it at the time, but my suffering has provided me with perfect material for writing novels! :)

It's said 'To write what you know about', but I have no way of telling whether the passages based on what actually happened to me read truer than those created by my imagination. In rough times, I certainly thought "This will make a great story one day," which only goes to prove that my writerly brain was observant, even while dormant.

Have you ever written anything based on personal suffering, or of sadness that happened to those close to you?

Are there any books that make you howl with anguish? I'm currently reading Plainsong, written by Kent Haruf, in which an abandoned pregnant girl is taken in by two farmer brothers. The kindness of these simple souls to her made me shed a tear—fortunately, I was on the loo at the time—so tissue paper was handy! :rolleyes:

What do you think of misery lit?

Is there anything that you wouldn't write about? I'm going to be tackling paedophilia in my WIP, which makes me uncomfortable, though I'll be writing about this most hideous of crimes partly as a plot device, to have my protagonist lose control of his temper to batter the offender so severely that he gets suspended from duty.

If reading can be therapeutic, I guess that writing about the dark side of life could be healing.

I'm reading The Memorykeeper's Daughter, which is full of sorrow, and enjoying it. The writing is beautiful, and the author has certainly made me care about her characters. When I finish, I will re-read to study just how she did that.
Misery Memoir? Jesus wept. Is this the new positive thinking? Living in Ireland.... if I read one more novel about the crimes committed by Nuns and Priests... Yep, there was some bad stuff going down: you dreadful unmarried mothers, the sins were not of the father(s), obviously, the children had to pay the price, but according to the Book of Lewando most of what is done in the name of religion is suspect.

I have read memoirs about war crimes, I read A Boy Called it, and a truly moving memoir, Morphine and Dolly Mixtures; but you can overdose on misery. We have to learn from the past, but I'm damned if I'm going to wallow in it.

Roddy Doyle's latest Book, Smile, was about a childhood in Dublin being taught by the fraternity. He said they were hard task masters, but if anything went on in his school, he didn't see it. A refreshing stance from one of Dublin's best loved writers.
I have difficulty reading unrelenting misery in a book. Obviously, a certain amount of suffering is necessary for a good plot, but you can go too far, I think. And I really dislike misery memoirs. I try to steer clear of my own personal miseries. The few times I've used my personal experiences to guide the writing of something terrible happening to a character, readers have told me it's not realistic and doesn't ring true. I suppose fiction is meant to be just that, fictional. Readers expect certain behaviours and reactions from characters, regardless of the fact that in the real world, things are much messier--real people act in inexplicable ways, and unbelievable things happen. Fiction has to be much more believable than real life.
I don't go in for misery memoirs. I want to see how people dig themselves out. But if you're writing about it, did you in fact, dig yourself out? But as a general idea, I get that the children of the dark are wiser than the children of the light. I suppose it is because needs must; 'necessity is the mother of invention'.
Is there anything that you wouldn't write about?

I think it's not so much what you write about, it's how you write it. The difference could be compared to the difference between an episode of Rebus for example and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They both may feature horrific blood thirsty crimes. However one is a thoughtful and well portrayed crime piece, the other is just a blood-fest.
If your writing is taking the right line you can tackle just about anything.
Well. Everyone suffers and it's a sorry sort of tale that doesn't make the reader suffer. Readers literally ask for it and ask for it literally. On the other hand, it's supposed to be only one of the things a good story does, not the only thing.
Listen in to the recording of last Sunday's Pop Up, Paul? Listen to @AgentPete's response to a submission using the word paedophilia in the first line.

Are there things I wouldn't write? Yes. Stories beyond my technical capability to handle, or stories I wouldn't ever want to read for leisure, because the world it would take me into is just too terrible to stay there so long, knowing it's the reality for someone.
From today's Guardian, Why Do We Love Reading About Sick People?

Why do we love reading books about sick people?

Reading personal accounts of pain and suffering clearly helps others going through the same trauma.

Since imagination is a key component for us learning to put ourselves in other's shoes, reading is one of the ways we learn empathy. I believe it works in a slightly different way from movies and TV.
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Figtrees of the Writer's Menagerie. Falling short. Oh heck

Hello from Barcelona