What is the most difficult scene you've ever had to write? And why?
The most wrenching scenes are actually the easiest for me to write. If a story stirs me up, it’s usually because my emotions are already invested in the setup or outcome, usually because the scene somehow reflects an event in my own life that was evocative, either positively or - more often - negatively. (No mystery there - happy doesn’t make for satisfying fiction. Trouble does.)
This is not to say that these scenes trip gaily off my fingertips. I live in the emotion: the grief, fear, rage or whatever feelings I am trying to describe in my characters and invoke in my readers are present as I work. In fact I would say that the more they take over my head-space, the more successful the writing is likely to be.
Odd as this may seem, though, it’s not a negative experience. For me, the act of writing allows me to process and eventually purge the effects of the inciting action. If it’s on my mind sufficiently to motivate me to write it in the first place, it usually means that I have not finished with those emotions. I may not have forgiven myself for a mistake made long ago, vanquished an old fear, recovered from a past hurt, or gotten over an old love.
The experience has proved most cathartic when the emotion at the core is shame.
I think this is because for me, the act of writing is in part the act of identifying and accepting the things I resist. (The reverse is true; when I have resisting writing about something I was usually trying to keep it buried.)
In my young adult novels I wrote about being rejected and shunned in high school. While this was not the central theme of the book, writing it was a powerful experience for me nonetheless. I found that the words poured forth with the immediacy and vivid pain as though the experiences took place yesterday, not thirty years ago. In that sense the writing was easy. I had access to the sensations, thoughts and emotions of the awkward and isolated teen - I didn’t have to imagine or invent any of it.
You might think that I would find the experience painful and, in fact, in the past I have skirted the subject and had to retreat from it because it was still too raw. What’s different now, I think, is that I understand that I did not engender my own pain. I have no remnants of the belief that I was truly flawed. Unburdened by mistaken beliefs, I can access the feelings and, finally, eradicate them through fiction.
(Anyone who doubts the therapeutic powers of fiction really ought to write the story of their most painful moments in the third person - a little authorial distance seems to be endlessly freeing for the inner storyteller.)
I use shame as an example, but it really works for any powerful memory. I recently wrote a relationship scene while thinking about a boy who broke my heart when I was twenty. Again, the passing of time has allowed me to see a number of things far more clearly (e.g., what I perceived as charisma was really self-absorption) but I still can call up the sharp-edged emotions the experience evoked for me (longing, obsession, indifference to everything else, despair). The memories allowed me to create a far more convincing scene.
It takes a fair amount of guts to write the hard stuff, but the hard stuff is often the best stuff. Personally, I think it's fine if you have to work up to it; that's what "starter books" are for.
Well, I must say that I can't think of a single appropriate image to slap on this post. That's never happened to me before! Ah well...I'll try to be more visual next time. :)