Mining your Past, Part 1

Somewhere, deep in your past, there’s something you don’t like to talk about.

It hurts to even think about it, maybe. It’s definitely not something you’d share with the PTA or the guys at work. It’s not just a skeleton in the closet; it’s the bedrock shame and fear and doubt that haunts all of your nightmares.

And we’re going to dig it out.

Therapy is great preparation for this. I spent quite a while in therapy, and I managed to crack open the seals on the door and peer inside. I ran out of money for therapy before I did more than scratch the surface of the material, though, so all that elemental misery is still there in my past, just sitting there. I have to decide: do I mine the horrors of my past and use them in my fiction? Or do I simply let them sit there, leaking their radioactive elements into my life?

It’s not much of a choice: all of that stuff is powerful stuff, filled with the promise of great writing and heart-wrenching truth. It’s much more deadly and toxic than ordinary topics, though. The fumes from the themes alone could kill. How do you delve into what is essentially a Superfund site in your mind without blowing yourself sky-high?

The way we do this is by telling stories, by using the emotion that’s hidden inside our past to lend our stories truth and power.

Before you do it, expect tears. Expect anger. Expect to get so pissy and tired and grieved that you yell at the dog and bitch at your spouse and wind up crying as you take a bath in the evening. It’s okay– that’s how you cleanse the toxins as they accumulate. Apologize to your spouse and tell them what you’re doing. Play fetch with the dog. And let the tears fall. You need them.

When you’re ready to begin, after therapy or restless nights or simply a lot of vodka, start simply. Let the first topic drift into your mind. Maybe it’s child abuse you suffered. Maybe it’s the loss of a parent or a friend. . . broken dreams, teenage angst, heartbreak, or watching your parents savage each other with words. Take that glowing, pulsing, deadly chunk of hurt and remove it from the closet. Set it on your desk and look at it.

Look at it good: this is part of your own story.

Don’t allow yourself to wallow in shame and blame. Those are games for abusers, not for sane adults. This thing happened, and now we’re going to use it. That’s all there is to it. Just looking at it clearly is a triumph, in a way. You survived to be able to write this story.

So here we go . . . YOU decide what happens. Does one of your characters get abused? Does someone they love die? What happens to who?

Decide how much similarity there will be between your own real life and your story. We’re not looking for exact 1 to 1 correlations here. Stephen King never had one of his kids die from dehydration while a rabid dog kept him locked in a tiny car in the summer heat, but we all felt the agony of that situation when we read “Cujo.” The helplessness and the frustration and pain . . . those were real. Where Mr King got them from is, quite frankly, not the story.

Your main character doesn’t have to be the one to suffer the injury. They can be, instead, powerful figures: cops, doctors, teachers, or warriors. They can discover someone undergoing a similar situation, or they can befriend someone who is living the results of that kind of past. Maybe you turn the abuse into slavery or prostitution or drug abuse. Allow the power of your imagination to alter the facts to fit the story. You’re using your pain to make the story ring true, not trying to describe your own life.

If the story IS a direct pull from your own life, you don’t have to tell the reader that, or your agent, or your editor, or even your Aunt Marge and your cousin Ben. It’s a STORY you’re writing, you choose who knows where it comes from.

On Thursday, I’ll go into Part 2: Reaction and Emotions. Until then, peace. And good story ideas to all. 🙂

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About endurancemom

Writer of fantasy and historical fantasy fiction, mother of 6, former nurse, Catholic convert, wife of 25 years, and general all-around geek. Warning: Do not attempt this at home. View all posts by endurancemom

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