Responding to the Personal and the Painful

Annie Dillard writes, "Must everything whole be nibbled?" Through her observations in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she shows us that we are lucky anytime we are unscathed by life; out in the field, leaves are "half-eaten, rusted, blighted, blistered, mined, snipped, smutted, pitted, puffed, sawed, bored, and rucked." Butterflies may have bird-bites in their wings. Spiders may have seven or six or five legs. Wholeness is actually rare. 

Suppose a friend or student gives you a piece to read that is based on a painful experience, most likely a kind of loss. Your first response is probably, I'm not going to touch this. It is too sensitive a topic. It's not mine to say. I don't want to make her upset. Probably a good instinct. You might be tactful and say, "It must have been hard to write," or "I can see that you were upset by the event." But what if you are the teacher and the student is expecting comments that are more committal than these? What if he truly wants to write a moving account and wants your help writing it?

The situation is tricky because no one wants to create a conflict or open a wound.
The emotions are probably at the surface, raw.

You might ask the student to try a few exercises to help gain perspective on the work: 
  • Write the story again in third person (if it was in first).
  • Write the story from a fictional character's point of view.
  • Change the gender of the narrator from male to female or vice versa.
  • Change the location of the story.
  • Place the story in a different time period.
Another common issue is that the person writes about a loved one, how much s/he loved him, how much s/he misses her and does not include any details. Strings of adjectives about feelings don't really impart feelings. The reader needs to get to know the loved one and feel the loss; otherwise, the story is insulated from the world. How to explain this? How to connect to the universal sense of loss?

You might ask the student to:
  • Write a scene where you are interacting with the loved one. What does she do? What are her gestures? What does she say? How does she interact with you, specifically? Give concrete details, specific anecdotes. Write in detail about a moment with her.
  • Write about what you did after you lost him. Not about the loss itself. How do you live your life? How does the loss color your decisions? What do you do differently or the same because of it?
  • Write a scene about the loved one's life that doesn't include you. As if you were listening in, watching through a peephole. Write about an intimate moment from a distance.
You might see a story where the narrator is speaking about someone and includes throwaway lines that are more like grenades: "and he beat her" or "she lost three children, my mother was the fourth." Wait a minute! The student needs to decide if these are important to the story at that particular moment. Whose story is this? Is this the writer's story or the story of the loved one? If the story is more about the writer, then perhaps those little bombs should be saved for future work.

You might ask the student to:
  • Start with one or more of those explosive lines and build the story around them.
  • Take the role of the loved one and write from his perspective. Let it be fiction, but with the emotional truth contained in it.
When the topics are personal and painful, it is hard to reassure a person that she is not her writing. She may need more exercises in order to take that step back and see the story from a distance. It is also possible that the event happened too recently and more time is what she needs.

If you find yourself in a traumatic situation, you might write something immediately for yourself, to capture your emotions and/or to release them. You might try revisiting the writing a few years later and decide if you want to keep it for yourself, or if you want it to share it with a wider audience. Consider sharing it. We all experience loss. We acquire dents and feel comforted knowing we have company.

At the end of Chapter 13, Annie Dillard writes:
That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise…the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden…I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along.