Writing Hard About Hard Stuff

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Three years ago, my grandmother cut all ties with my mother and me because I was dating a Black man.This same man is now my wonderful husband, and I knew he would be the day I met him. I tried and tried and tried to convince her that I loved him, that she loved me. But there seemed to be a barrier carefully and bitterly crafted of her anti-Blackness despite her own dark brown skin, and a deeper more sinister thing-- my dad once wondered if perhaps she’d been traumatized by someone or something as a young girl. (Not that that would be an excuse for racial prejudice but it would explain many other things.) To him, it seemed like there was something more than the aforementioned anti-Black sentiment that, unfortunately, runs through many Latinx cultures, and there was. There were things in her past that she told with a casualness that in hindsight is rather alarming, and probably many more that she never told at all. So many mysteries, obscuring her visage like the cataracts she had to have removed, a piece of her eye replaced with a tiny, reflective piece of plastic that made her eyes twinkle knowingly. But no new knowledge came from the implant, only vision good enough that she only needed reading glasses. What caused so much of my pain was the fact that I don’t know which, if any of her dark memories, was the culprit for the demise of my connection with half my family. Whether it was one of the many mysteries she never revealed to me or anyone instead. Why did she choose to recoil and reject, rather than reach out? Why did she not share her pain, rather than cause even more. Why? Not a day goes by that I do not ask this.

            And yet. I think I can somewhat imagine. It took almost a year of rage that almost destroyed me and my love before I finally got therapy. It’s difficult to share our own pain, much less write about it, even though as writers we often get the phrase “at least you have something to write about now!” I have written countless chapters and iterations, both fiction and non-fiction. I started writing it as a novel, but the term “stranger than fiction” comes to mind; the racial prejudice, as terrible as it was, was only a cataract on the surface, and there was no way I could get a reader to suspend disbelief for it all. Recently, I gave in and decided to write a memoir. It’s been going better, but even then I can only handle short bursts because it feels like the fine line between scratching an itch and rubbing it so raw that it bleeds and stings when even the slightest air touches it.

From this I’ve learned that there are two basic ways to writing about the tough stuff: writing about it directly but not using it as a catharsis, and simply writing about other things, perhaps sprinkling in bits of our truths but mostly keeping our work separate from the pain. My foray into trying to turn my own story into a fiction was a form of the latter, though wanting to do the former. Indeed, I published a story in which an abusive and equally prejudiced father shuns his daughter-in-law while his son nurses him through his final days. The only truth in it was the father’s past, as told to the son by his mother (my grandmother’s own childhood experience) and the moment in which the father sits up in his bed even though his son has just confirmed him dead (my great-grandfather sat up in his deathbed after his heart had stopped hours before, took a rattling breath, gazed at my grandmother one last time, then passed away once more). Where the truth stops is the briefest moment of reconciliation, the one I never had but often see in my dreams. The original tries to write about the experience as a writer, not as an everyday person struggling with grief, were unsuccessful because I was trying to face my own pain without having come to peace with it. Writing that is meant to be turned outward shouldn’t also serve as therapy, even though it might turn into something successful later, after we’ve processed it a bit more. I look back on my journal from that time and see that I could never have crafted something other than a couple of short stories with some true elements thrown in.

In short, I don’t think either method is better for writing about difficult or traumatic topics, it depends on how ready and willing the author is to confront a painful thing, if they want to at all. Sometimes it takes lots of time, patience, finesse, and care, as with handling any sensitive topic. If we can practice these as we write, we can work ourselves up to a productive, restorative writing experience.

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Zyanya Avila Louis

Zyanya Avila Louis received her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College and now teaches in their First Year Writing Program. In her time working with students at Emerson, she as developed a passion for working with international students, multilingual students, and other diverse student populations, which is born from being bilingual herself. She loves writing and reading fiction and non-fiction, and occasionally enjoys poetry. Zyanya was born and raised in El Paso, TX and now lives in Quincy, MA with her fiance and her growing library of books.