Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Dark Side

My writing group has been talking about “the dark side” – that place where death, depression, chaos, and tears live. Can writers become stuck in the dark side? Conversely, what if you want to tell a dark story, but just can’t get there?

It’s easy to get stuck in the dark side because a wealth of material lives there. Our writerly instincts tell us the material is interesting: newspapers are full of tragic stories and murder mysteries are bestsellers. Good writing connects us with the emotions of shared existence – and pitch-perfect description is necessary for that connection. Tragedy can burn events into our minds, giving us vivid memories to work with. Writing’s therapeutic value is well-known and can draw us towards certain topics (Stephen King, for instance, wrote The Shining while battling alcohol addiction). For these and many other reasons, writers may submerge themselves in sinister or sad material. This can be exhausting work. What should a writer do if she’s tired of death and disaster? If you’d like to lighten your work, look for humor – it’s always there just under the surface of tragedy. Try another genre. Study authors doing lighter topics. Too often we label ourselves narrowly and hesitate to venture into new territory.

If you want to write darker material but hesitate to drop into the back alleys of your mind, take it slowly. When writing fiction, sinister characters almost always show up wearing a black hat. Just let them be themselves. Non-fiction can give you the benefit of a more objective stance, although even journalists become deeply affected by the topics they cover. Personal experience/memoir can be painful because you relive the experience to a degree. Every writer deals with this in her own way – when I wrote my memoir, I tackled the hardest material in small doses. Many people say they had to give themselves permission to feel (and suffer) the emotions of the past.

Some of us write about funerals, some about weddings. Both events resonate with us on several levels. Look closely and you’ll find both comedy and tragedy in both.

Photo courtesy of Donna Louisa Mock at

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