Broken Spaces: Writing the Personal Essay, Creative Non-Fiction, and Vulnerability

By. Ashley Alton

“Is art worth the pain it causes?” This is a quote that I have pondered on during my time as a writer, and it’s the fundamental question that arises when we write our most vulnerable work. Kay Redfield Jamison, who wrote Setting the River on Fire, addresses the struggles of madness, mania, and character of the poet Robert Lowell, and highlights the importance of writing from the depths of the soul, but also breathing into those broken spaces. This is important since writing can uncover parts of us that have not been breathed into. These places deep within are the places that many confessional poets and non-fiction writers write from and showcase their trauma through art. How does one go about doing this? How do you know if you’re ready? Like Redfield-Jamison wrote, is your “art worth the pain it causes?”

Upon taking my first non-fiction writing class, I was unsure if I would be able to access a deep part of me and have the courage to be vulnerable yet truthful about writing from pain, trauma, and real experiences that many can relate to. I didn’t think I had the courage, the grit, and the patience to sit with myself and let the pen do the talking. It wasn’t the pen that I had to get to the page, it was the pain that I had to let speak to tell my story. I didn’t think that I could do it. I glossed over painful parts of my life by drowning myself in addiction and rage to NOT feel pain. Now I had to bring them up and be vulnerable with those rough parts of me? HELL NO.

All I did was start with a sentence. A memory that was a bit painful, but one that I could still sit with. I let it come up in my mind and then I would start to free write. I wouldn’t let my fingers come up from the keyboard. I would just write and write and write. It took many attempts for me to get to this point. I knew that I couldn’t I let myself think my own out of this process and that I had to let the memories that I shut so far down, speak. Once the words came up, so did some tears. But that’s a part of the process. Tears and emotions don’t lie, and I had to let the process come full circle. I knew at that moment that I was going to learn something: How writing from those broken, scar-tissued places would free me from the bondage of not being good enough, not being loved enough, and too broken.

Writing non-fiction is not easy. You’re asked to show up fully and get very honest and vulnerable about tender parts of your life. You may feel that you’ve healed from whatever trauma that you’ve been through, but tending to it and allowing the writing process to take over, can show you what you’ve been covering and how to let the truth set you free. We may all experience love, death, breakups, trauma, and other universal experiences that we all have, but our unique experience with it is not the same as someone else’s. Do not be afraid to tackle topics such as love and death and put your own spin on it. No one experiences the same exact moment twice, so start writing about it. Start with telling the truth.

This isn’t a “how-to” guide on writing non-fiction because I haven’t mastered that yet. But if you want to learn how to write about painful things, there are a few things that can help expedite the process:

  1. It’s not going to be easy – Writing about anything personal may be too much at times. Depending on the topic you are writing on, you may need to sit with it for awhile and see if there is enough distance for you to write on it. When we have enough distance from our experiences, we tend to write more honestly about it and not gloss over details. Sit with it for awhile, let a memory or person’s face pop up in your mind, and go with your initial gut reaction to it. You’ll know if you’re ready to face it and if you need to put it on the back burner for the time being.
  2. Research, research, research! – If you’re unsure how to write non-fiction, study your favourite non-fiction authors. This can help you craft your own voice and show how other writers tackle writing from a very vulnerable space. If there are memoirs that you love and writers who have shared similar experiences that you have, study how they write, and how they go about getting into detail with their experiences. The more you read, the better writer you’ll be. Read, write, repeat!
  3. When in doubt, fictionalize it – If you are still struggling to gain distance from writing about personal experiences, try and turn it into a character. Yes, this is best suited for fiction writing, but it can make it a bit easier to write about a painful experience through the lens of a fictional character. This can help with staying honest about your story and to bridge the gap between you and your “fictionalized character” and create deeper healing. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be able to drop the character and write deeply about your pain without the armour. You’ll know best when and if this happens.
  4. Be patient with yourself – Writing non-fiction is not easy. We want to hide in fantasy and create a world that we can get lost in, not write from our own experiences and failures. Go slow. Write what you can, and if it gets to be too much, put the pen down and walk away. Let it marinate on the page and if two weeks later you can look back at your writing, pick up the pain and continue. This isn’t supposed to be done overnight (unless you have an assignment with strict deadlines!) but do your best. You are the expert of your own life. Take it slow and keep going.

Only you know how much to write, when to write, what to write about, and what is going to help fuel the process. But also, don’t be afraid to take risks. If writing non-fiction seems daunting, ask why you’re doing it? What about it is interesting to you? How can you infuse your own writing style on the page and mix it with all the experiences that you may be too afraid to write about? No matter what, you can always stop and put the pen down.

Try, however, to muster up the courage to pick it up again.

Then continue.

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