First off, happy November! Already November. Wow!
Second, about the title of this post. I often reference a writer’s toolbox. If someone’s not feeling well, or is feeling like there’s a block in the way, or is bored, or anything else, I’ve been saying to that person, if the writerly sort, to write about how they’re feeling and to put it in their writer’s toolbox. When you’re in the moment, you’re more likely to notice how your head can feel heavy when you’re bored, or your eyelids can feel like weights are attached when you’re sick. When procrastinating, you may notice that your hands feel an energy and want to separate from your body and go do something else. While tired, you may hear your bones creak though no one else can, or feel your heart beat in your teeth. Certain sounds may be easier to hear or tune out. Later on, when writing about these feelings, it’s really easy to forget how it feels outside of the most general sense.
When I was younger, I went through some terrible medical trauma. I won’t even get into it. But I got through it by viewing my life as a stage production and I needed to take notes in case I needed to “reperform” it later. As soon as I’d wake up from surgery, I’d grab my journal and write. My doctors and nurses learned to keep my journal and a pen near me so I’d have it first thing when I woke up. Once I wrote three words. “Well, I lived.” Other times I wrote several pages. I have few memories of writing at those times, but the words I wrote told the uncensored feelings and pains of the moments we usually forget.
Later, when I was 20, I joined an RPG back in the early days of online role-plays. World of Warcraft didn’t exist, so RPGs were smaller and we wrote out way through it, basically a text game. There were no graphics. We each had a text map and knew it took two real-time days to get from this point to that. A game master could go into all the subforums. I was an elf, so I couldn’t go into the orcs’ layer, their subforum (guess what this involved). The game master could. Basically it was nothing like today.
A couple orcs challenges me and a fellow elf to a battle. The game master used our weaponry, health, and other factors, to determine our odds against each other, and from there used an algorithm to figure out who won and lost. We elves had the upper hand, but still lost. The winners would write the start of the battle to the point of how they killed the losers, and the losers took over and wrote the actual deaths.
I grabbed my journals and read through them, and was able to use my words to reconstruct memories of how it felt to have such raw wounds and pain that I wanted to die and be done with it all. I would describe the searing pain so impossible to comprehend that vision was obstructed from within. When you lose enough blood, you’ll feel warm for a moment, and then cold. Fire and ice. My death scene was so realistic is actually scared people. It was too real for them.
Before that, in high school, we had to write a poem in the style of an author known for his heavy themes of darkness and death. I’d been close to death before, dead twice and revived. Since I always demanded journals near me, yes, I’d write the first chance I had. My teacher didn’t credit me for the poem. The realism again caused discomfort. The points just weren’t factored into my grade, and while the rest of the class read their aloud, I wasn’t given the chance. I showed it to a few kids in the class, one who happens to share the name of one of my characters, after whom I actually named the character, and they were stunned.
While in an abusive relationship, I journaled like mad. The relationship started in high school, and having a journal with me was so common that kids I didn’t know would point it out if it wasn’t in my hands. I journaled five years of it, even when I didn’t realize it was happening. Because of this, I was able to write Juliette’s abusive life in a realistic way that is difficult for those who haven’t been there to understand. You can be so beaten down that you no longer feel dread because it’s just normal. It becomes a comfort zone. Then one day it all comes to a head and panic to survive often sets in.
What each of these situations have in common is that I wrote in depth about how it felt to be in these moments. I can write very realistically because I don’t have to rely on trying to remember what it’s like when I’m having happier times. There’s no rosy glow tinting difficult situations. I think Stephenie Meyer can write so romantically about abuse because she’s never been there. I don’t think anyone who has been could compare a crush to heroine, or describe abuse as romantic and sweet and ideal. At the same time, when you’ve been abused and no longer are, it’s easy to shove things deep down that it’s hard to remember in as vivid detail as when going through it. It’s a self-preservation method. You can remember, like with childbirth’s pain, but at the same time, not vividly remember the full pain aside from saying that it was bad.
For each of these situations, I took my writing of them and put them in what I called back then, and still call, a writer’s toolbox. When a character is going through a certain situation, I can pull out the writing and use the words I felt and thought enough at the time to write down.
Imagine standing in a forest. What do you hear and feel and see? Can you describe it in more detail than some trees and sunlight and maybe the scent of dirt if it’s recently rained? Can you go in more detail? Try for a moment, the continue reading.
Do you hear the crisp crackling and snapping of twigs and branches in the distance, their clear high pitch carrying on the wind to you as if you were inches from the action? Do you hear the bubbling and crystalline babbling of a creak with its water sprinkling and rushing over pebbles and rocks racing away from its source? Can you hear the rustle of leaves as wind sweeps through the branches of trees and bushes? Do you see a random leaf or two falling from above, riding the wind gently to the ground? If you open your mouths and refrain from breathing, can you smell and taste the wind coursing through your nose and out your mouth, forcing some freshness into your lungs and filling you with a renewed sense of vitality?
If you take a notebook to a forest, sit, and experience with abandon, writing every sensation that comes to mind, you will notice things you probably wouldn’t have otherwise. If you use stick this in your toolbox, you can use it later to make a trip to a forest that much more realistic for your readers. Try it with an afternoon sitting on the beach. Try it when you’re waiting in line to get on a roller coaster, or, if you’re a passenger in a car or are stopped in stop-and-go traffic (but stop doing it before taking your foot off the brake, unless you’re recording yourself speaking). Making dinner with kids running around getting into things? Write that down. Sick to your stomach and hoping you don’t heave yet again? Trickier, but still wrote what you can, even a few words or phrases. How about when you’re eating sauce-slathered BBQ’d ribs and getting sauce on your face while bits of meat get stuck between your teeth, making them feel out of alignment until you track down some floss and feel relief after eagerly removing the bits? Wipe your hands off first, and then write what the sauce on your cheeks feels like.
Your writer’s toolbox is your collection of described experiences to use later when you’re writing about someone going through the same. You can turn your negative experiences into positives (at least to a small extent) if you write about them to use later.
So when I say to write about what someone’s going through and stick it in the writer’s toolbox, this is what I mean. It only took me 1460 words to tell you. 🙂