Every once in a while, I make the colossal mistake of reading my old diaries. I do it in a circumspect manner: I squint one eye closed, lift the lid of whatever Banker’s Box I’ve chosen with one index finger, turn my head so that I get just a glimpse of the books lined up relatively neatly in their box.
I flip through with one hand, still holding the box lid aloft with one finger of the other hand, and choose something with both eyes closed.
Then I let the lid float back into place, dislodging dust so that I have to really squinch shut both eyes.
I crack open the diary the exact same way: one eye shut; paging through delicately; holding my breath as if I’m about to smell the stinky tofu of my memories.
Ech, you say. Surely, she’s exaggerating.
I’m not, I promise. It is so onerous to look back through my diaries. I do it when I have to remember things. You know, recapture feelings, like how it was the night my mom got robbed in our driveway and no one heard her yelling for help. Or the day I turned 40 and my well-meaning husband executed a surprise birthday party he didn’t invite my best friends to (they lived too far for an invitation, he said, displaying what I filed away as Midwestern sensibility).
Yeah, I’ve filed those feelings far, far away, in a dusty Banker’s Box. You betcha.
And then there’s the goldmine of facts: We don’t remember things as they actually happened. Every time you remember something, you’re just remembering the last time you remembered it, so your memory is basically one big pile of fishing stories in which the fish just gets bigger and bigger every time you tell that story. Diaries can reveal how things actually happened.
So if my diaries are such a wealthy repository of writing prompts and information, why the hell do I have such a hard time looking at them?
The reason is obvious: The writing is garbage, and I don’t just mean the stuff from my teen years. Why, as recently as yesterday’s entry, the writing is rife with adjectives and adverbs, it reeks of someone struggling to comprehend what has just happened, someone reaching to make sense of things with one of those grabber claws for help. (The entry I wrote the night my mom got robbed is full of all caps and underlines; me swearing vengeance upon the guys that did it and then ran away, literal thieves in the night. Reading it is mortifying.)
This is why, although writing is great therapy, the writing that exists in your diary isn’t meant for anyone else’s consumption but your own weeping self.
And yet we get work in Tahoma Literary Review’s open queue that is clearly written from the position of someone who’s using their writing to work their way through an event or understand a problematic person in their lives. Sometimes, this work can take the form of short stories as the writer tries to put up a wall between the events that have affected them so and the creative work they know can help them and their readers to work through the issues the event has raised.
Writer and producer Ken Pisani, whose novel AMP’D was a finalist for 2017’s Thurber Prize for American Humor, is one of the quickest, most concise wits I know. If you’re writing too close to an event that’s really affected you, Pisani said in a class I once took from him, you run the risk of being maudlin.
That kind of treacly sentimentality is enough to ruin any good that might come out of a written piece of work.
Time and distance, it’s said over and over again, heal all. So how can you know when you’re too close to something? The two most telling ways I know aren’t useful until after the fact, but that’s OK. (If you already have something written about your triggering event, then you have something to start with. And it’s always easier to work from something, even if nothing from that first draft ever makes it into the final draft.)
First: You’re really sensitive to feedback. You might feel like you’re ready to get feedback on a piece of work, but when you get the feedback, you’re all jumpy and prickly. This is a surefire indication that you can’t be objective about what you’ve written, which means you probably don’t have enough distance from the thing you’re writing about. An acquaintance once asked me to edit a piece about the very recent death of her father. It had a lot of holes in it, which I pointed out. She couldn’t understand how I could tear down her work so clinically when she was clearly writing about something that was dear to her.
Second: You feel icky when you’re writing about the event, thing, or person you’re trying to understand. This is a similar feeling to when you’ve just experienced something awful, and you’re trying to write about it. You relive it as you’re writing about it, so writing about it feels like accidentally brushing up against a skinned knee – ouch! There. That cringe. That just-before-barfing mouth-watering sensation. If ever you experience that while you’re writing something, step away from it. You need more time before you can try it again. When you’ve let enough time go by that you can poke at your skinned knee and it has a protective scab over it, then you can touch it.
OK. Fine. You begrudgingly agree that you need time. But you need to, want to write about this thing. It is burning a hole in your creative pocket. What do you do?
You compromise. You make something that’s just creative enough to be proud of, but just wacky enough that you balk at sending it in someplace for consideration. You make something just for you.
By “you,” of course, I mean “me.” Here’s the party trick that never fails to entertain my brain and keep me an arm’s length from subjecting some poor editor to my not-ready-for-consumption work. (It also prevents me from subjecting myself to inevitable rejection.)
I make a game of whatever the thing was. I look for a new way to tell my story, something totally wacko, like an essay comprising entirely crossword puzzle clues, maybe. I write a list of directions, a recipe. Perhaps the thing loans itself well to maps. I’ll write that. Or I’ll write it from an animal’s point of view.
Whatever the thing ends up being, it’s definitely not ready for publication. First drafts never are, right? Or maybe it’s the bones of something even better than what I would have originally written. Either way, it’s a whole new work, and that has fed my creative beast, so I have bought myself a little more time and distance before the urge to tackle the thing darkens my door again.
So many times, I’ve slaved away at something, only to realize that I’m just not ready to write about the thing. But I think this is OK: If a thing matters so much that you just have to write about it, then it deserves time and room to breathe and evolve into something that will see an audience.
Eventually, the mortifiying writing will become something concrete. You will have distance enough to see it and its impact on you with clarity and with more experience; you will have used your tools and skills to shape it into something that can truly help you to resolve your feelings about the event or person. The work will sound significant when read out loud; look just right on the page.
And, I bet that your eventual work will have the added benefit of helping someone else to navigate their own thing, too.
Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org. Originally Published