I have tried a thousand times over to write about the existential dread, the horror of it. The terrible twins of despair and uncertainty make their way unannounced into poems which were supposed to be about other things — the flavor of them living on and on in this way, disconnected but ever-present — but writing about the dark things face to face, headlong, doesn’t work for me. I don’t know where to start.
Today I’m here to explore how to take on the topics that you just can’t seem to write about — the topics that you must write or they will destroy you — but which fight jagged battles when approached. Every one of us carries traumas with us — some more shattering, some more shame-ridden than others. But everyone carries these.
Sometimes the shame itself is the greatest barrier. Maybe it’s shame from the trauma itself, or around exposing something you believed must be kept secret; maybe the shame stems from perfectionism — or being beaten down too many times in your creative life. You start to write, you shake a little bit, your mind goes numb — or it races — then maybe nausea washes over you… If you sit with this discomfort, then words may come. Sometimes sitting with it is unbearable and you’re suddenly drinking a scotch, or allowing your mind to race back to workaday stresses and chores, other distractions. And the writing is halted before it even begins.
Sitting with pain or shame can be excruciating, and our bodies and consciousness will go to great lengths to “save” us from facing them, even if it means the stories stay buried.
Writing itself is a brave act. It exposes us (and maybe those closest to us), makes us truly witness to ourselves and others. Writing or journaling is sometimes seen as a way to “process” emotion — as if emotions were simply fruits to be dropped in the blender, then turned into a delicious smoothie. The language of “processing,” in my view, is off-base. I think writing takes us far beyond and deep within — and we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought that processing always ended in sweetness and delight (although sometimes it does).
In writing, experiences take on new life, new power, even spring hope. But it’s not instant. The cry of the soul may cycle through rage and despair — blending pain, elation, relief, unbearable loneliness — but that cry must be heard. This is what makes us human.
I suggest that writing difficult, or emotionally charged topics, requires these: self-compassion, uncomfortable witnessing followed by the allowance of space; and time itself.
In practicing self-compassion, think about this: “Can you treat yourself as a cherished friend?” I have spent a lifetime criticizing myself so harshly that others couldn’t possibly offer up a more painful critique, all in the mistaken belief that it would spur me to be stronger and produce better work, and make me less likely to fail.
When I set out to write about my grandma Florrie for the Duluth All Souls Night poetry reading in 2019, I found myself paralyzed by the quest for perfection. In life, my “difficult” and beloved grandmother seemed to value only the best — a trait she surely inherited from her forbears and translated down through the generations. In practicing self-compassion, we give ourselves space to escape the mythos of perfectionism, and allow ourselves to create something real and true to our lives.
And it takes many tries.
I wrote about Florrie in the fall, after her death in the spring of that same year, but it was the first time I had allowed myself to read her obituary. I was shocked by the force of my own response, realizing for the first time how powerful the event of her death really was. As a friend to myself, I gave myself some room to accept, write some bad lines, let the poem take its own shape over time.
In witnessing, we sit with the topic or event and allow ourselves to be washed away one moment and the next be assaulted by startling details. I wrote about the veins in Florrie’s hands — how they looked and felt as I sat close to her, while she lay listless in the hospital bed brought to her apartment for the final scenes of her life. I did not, however, write about my terror over the thirst I thought she must be feeling. She couldn’t swallow and so could not take anything by mouth. We were allowing her to starve and dehydrate until she faded away, and that haunted me. I did write about her weak hand gestures which recalled memories of forceful professorial gestures in her prime. I left out the parts about how my aunts argued about administering morphine. My aunt, the eldest sister, cried out in tears that “It will kill her!” after her younger sister dropped some opioid relief beneath Florrie’s tongue. The rest of us were stunned, and someone called out, “But she IS dying!” I didn’t write about those parts and I don’t think I could have done; now two years later, these words emerge in an essay.
While writing the Florrie poem, I took breaks of hours and days. The experiences followed me around. Other poems might take years or even decades. Poems about charged events have to form in their own time and space.
About giving space… I’ve found that hiking the trails or walking along the lake can take me away enough to let my heart and body do the work (you’ll frequently hear me talk about the heart and body working together to make art). Movement through space can allow the cognitive controller to take a rest. We cannot create great poetry as long as we are trying to control it.
I’m still trying to learn this.
And finally, the reality is that time itself may be needed. I am decidedly impatient, and this impatience effectively blocks creative work in every instance. I don’t know that I could have written about Florrie in the May following her April death — but I was more able in October that year — and maybe even more able today, several years later.
When we dig deep, we find the stories have a life of their own. Our job as writers is to let them emerge as they will, apart from our own manufactured timelines, and in defiance of our inner critics.
The world is waiting for those words that only you can tell.
Zomi Bloom is a poet and mother of three in Duluth, MN. Originally from the East Coast, she has called Duluth home since 2012 and has been inspired by the stunning landscapes and expanses of water of northeastern Minnesota. She loves coffee and sleeping and is the author of the collection “Coming to Duluth.”