There is one immovable, immutable, indelible trait that all natural born writers share. In times of deep stress or incredible joy, we write in our heads. Despite the entire world collapsing a writer cannot help but observe details that will make the story live on.
Natural born writers catalog sensory data. They store details and emotional reactions and poignant bits of dialogue as events unfold around them. This requires no conscious effort on the writer’s part. It just happens. No matter how nightmarish the experience, no matter how spiritually elevating, how tender, or loving, or awe-inspiring, no matter how devastating or painful – a writer records story details.
You, who are writers, think back to an early memory. Delve for an experience when you were five or six years of age. It’s all there, isn’t it? Remember climbing onto Santa’s lap. I stared at that fat stranger in red, and wondered why my mother had been so insistent that Santa Claus is real when clearly his beard is fake. One good pull and…
Now, try recalling a traumatic event. I’ll use my mother dying in the hospital as an example. I was thirteen. I can still remember sitting beside her bed, and noticing how blue her veins were as they pulsed in her too thin wrists. I remember the cloying smell of medicinal sweat permeating the hospital and the biting stench of ammonia used to mop the tile floors. And meatloaf. Why is it hospitals must always stink of meatloaf and medicine?
My mother’s eyes were as faded as the afternoon sky as she turned to me on that last day, both of us knowing she would not be there for my first kiss or my first broken heart. She was so desperate to say all the things a mother ought to tell her daughter. What last words, I wondered, would she find amidst the fog of pain and drugs?
Speech battled with the morphine.
It clouded her eyes and rendered her sightless. My mother reached for me, scrabbling for my hand like a frightened child, terrified of the tigers that inhabited the pale yellow wall across from her bed.
Do you see how, at thirteen, that scene etched itself in my head. Because of that experience, and others, I know how to write a death scene.
Stress is not your enemy. If you are a natural born writer every trauma is being recorded for future use. Every major event in your life is subject to the scrutiny of your writer’s mind scouring it for story riches.
Here’s the flip side of this coin. Here comes the golden nugget of this article, because if you are a writer you already knew everything I just said, didn’t you?
The real payoff is this: when you are facing painful stressors in life, death, suffering, divorce, illness – WRITE. You are writing anyway – in your head. Snatch fifteen minutes between meeting with your lawyer or the funeral director and write. Or even if you simply can’t do that, know you are writing in your head. It keeps writers sane amidst insanity. It’s how natural born writers make sense of their world.
The worst thing that could happen to a writer is too placid an existence. The richest material, the most gratifying lines you will ever write are born from your deepest traumas and your most extraordinary joys.