Using Life’s Hardships to Make You a Better Writer

Today’s guest post is by fantasy author Ashley Carlson:

“I’ve been thinking lately, about our relationship,” she said, studying her nails.

“Yeah?” he answered, looking up from the couch.

“And how . . . I’m not sure . . . we should be in one anymore.”

This wasn’t a scene from my latest WIP, though I sorely wish it was. No, this was a conversation I recently had with my boyfriend of two yearsUsing Life’s Hardships to Make You a Better Writer—a man I lived with, a man I’d imagined marrying. A man I’d slowly come to realize wasn’t the right one for me.

It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had—a night I’m still smarting from. Not only did it throw a giant wrench into my life—I’d literally just quit my job to write full-time, my boyfriend agreeing to financially support us—but my car had broken down a week before and needed to be replaced. I was knee-deep in the first draft of my novel, and after this emotional roller coaster, the dream I’d had of finally cranking out that novel was slipping like quicksand through my fingers.

The strangest thing about that night was that as we discussed separating, tears streaming down my face as he sat in stony silence, I couldn’t help but notice that a corner of my brain was documenting the experience.

The tones of voice, the dialogue, our body language. How he suddenly drew back when I tried to hug him. It was horrible, and also . . . . would make a really good scene.

At first I thought I was sick or something, analyzing and cataloguing the facets of our breakup, filing away the details for later use—but the thing is, I’d never had a breakup like this before. I’d never experienced the deterioration of a relationship, the little faults and resentments that pile up in your subconscious, eroding the closeness you once had with someone, until all that remains of your relationship is that it’s “easier” to stay together.

And now I had, and was full-speed into the climactic discussion of our demise, not to mention the many awkward, heart-wrenching moments as he moved his stuff out, room by room.

Have I painted a picture for you?

Are you possibly thinking back to a time when you had a bad breakup, maybe with a few similarities to my own?

That’s what this post is about—something I’ve come to realize through uncomfortable, even downright terrible events that made me squirm in my body, mentally repeating, Can this just be over? I’ve learned that the most traumatic experiences in our lives, the ones that keep us up at night, replaying in our heads, or the ones we dive headlong into distractions to forget—they are what make us better writers, for a number of reasons:

1. Your characters will experience trauma

At least they should, if you want to write a compelling story. Loss, rejection, illness, maybe even the death of a loved one. The way they handle things, their entire perception of the world, is colored by experiences—which don’t necessarily have to be a part of your story—but will resonate in everything they do and say. I’ve had significant romantic rejections in my life, and it’s something I can strongly identify with. A current MC of mine also struggles with this; since I’ve been there myself, I’m able to infuse a believable amount of uncertainty and self-worth issues into her behavior.

2. Dialogue should be believable

Go back to the bit of dialogue I wrote in this post. Notice the word choice, the nuances in him lying on the couch, and her picking her nails. These details hold specific meanings, among them:

  • She is nervous about the conversation.
  • He is not expecting what she says.
  • She is not angry, or yelling. She hesitates, stating, “I’m not sure . . .”

Though you don’t know the specific context of the situation, what happened before, and what happens after this scene, you can gather those things from that bit of dialogue. I think that it is successful in conveying those details in three lines of dialogue because that’s exactly how it happened to me in real life. It wasn’t an explosion of emotions, a stream of curse words and broken cell phones. They were quiet, tentative statements—a perfect example of how complacent we’d become in our relationship—easily conveyed to readers, and understood by them.

3. Hardships strengthen you

As we all know by now, the publishing world is a tough one to break into. Tales of J. K. Rowling’s hundred rejections for the first Harry Potter book circulate among writer-hopefuls, tempering dreams and leaving manuscripts abandoned. Because of this cutthroat, rejection-riddled climate, it takes a certain type of masochist to pursue writing as a career—and the best ways to prepare for your own rejection slips are happening right now: your daily life struggles. Financial uncertainty, unexpected illness, separation and divorce. These things are thickening your skin and toughening your resolve, so that on your path to publication you can continue to tell yourself, “I am talented and worthy. My story is worth telling,” even when others say it is not.

4. Writing AND reading are therapeutic

Delving into traumatic experiences—whether you’ve had sufficient time to heal or have been in denial until that very moment—can change your life for the better. You may be able to finally work through those personal issues by writing them down.

Also, when you can write with authenticity, with knowledge because you’ve been there, a reader may identify with your book so much that her life is changed. You impact her in a way that no one else could—pushing her to finally address the pain and suffering she’s also undergone.

And isn’t that the best thing of all about writing, why we do it? To potentially reach someone’s soul?

When I’ve read books that spoke to me beyond the words, spoke to my essential humanness, my personal experiences, I was forever changed. You have the power to do this—to write about your life’s hardships with validity that resonates in others, and might even stay in their heart forever.

Use your life’s hardships to make you a better writer.

Got any thoughts? Have you drawn from some difficult life experience and worked it into your fiction? Did it help your characters come alive, seem more believable?

Ashley Carlson headshotAshley R. Carlson is a fantasy author and editorial intern for Arizona Foothills Magazine and Midnight Publishing. Follow her on Twitter for thoughts on Tinder, animals, and self-publishing, and check out her website and blog here and here. Ashley lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with two dogs and a mean-spirited cat. Ashley will release her debut novel, a steampunk fantasy, in Fall 2014.

Feature Photo Credit: martinak15 via Compfight cc

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    1. Hi Charles,

      It is absolutely true. I think it’s important to remember that writing can be used either AS a form of therapy in the moment of a traumatic experience, afterwards to continue healing, and just to enrich our abilities to write with truth in mind. Thanks for your thoughts!

  1. Hi Ashley, I read your article posted with WND about how the hardship you went through motivated you to write. You really spoke the truth! My family has passed through many hardships which motivated me to write about them, and how to work through them. As a retired protestant pastor/missionary/chaplain I understand fully what you have gone through. I write and do poetry to encourage others who are passing through difficult situations. The Lord told me to initiate a one-on-one prayer fellowship when my wife and I retired from work overseas in Mali and Burkina Faso, W. Africa, just so I could come alongside individuals who need moral and spiritual support. It has been very rewarding. Do keep in touch: Bob Overstreet

    1. Hi Bob!

      Thank you for your thoughts; hearing your story makes me feel so very small indeed compared to the goodness you and your wife are doing. Being a Christian myself, it is also my hope to offer my thoughts and writing to hopefully help/encourage someone along the way–the Lord gives us trials so that we can grow and use them to help others, I think. Thanks again, and much luck with the wonderful things you are doing!

  2. What a wonderfully honest post, Ashley. You’re right, we can use EVERYTHING in our lives — good and bad. You’ve give great insights on how to do that. Thanks!

    1. Hi Marcy!

      Thank you for the kind words. The funny thing is, before I began pursuing writing as a full-time career, I was quite private about my personal life and struggles. This, however, did not enrich my writing nor my connections with other readers and writers. Not only has it been incredibly freeing to be so open about my personal struggles and heartbreak, but the encouragement and support I receive from wonderful people like you are what make it that much easier to work through. Thanks again and take care!

      1. You’re so right, Ashley. Writers are incredibly giving creatures, both in fiction and nonfiction. Besides, life experiences make our writing RICHER. Thanks for responding!

  3. Ashley, this post is so honest and bittersweet, but just the thing that I needed to move forward with a project. Thank you so much for putting these thoughts down and sharing them. Best wishes for happiness, contentment, and success in your writing and with the next chapter in your life.

    1. Hi Dianne,

      What nice things to say, thank you so very much for them. It has definitely been a struggle to go through some experiences life has thrown at me–as I’m sure you have had as well, and every one of us human beings–but I’m so glad to hear that sharing my story may have inspired you with a current project. It truly makes my day; good luck and warm thoughts to you and your current work! Take care and thanks again.

  4. One of the best posts to come along in a while … at least for me. As I have a “breakup” in my WIP novel, this post will now force me to go back and look at how I “handled” it. As a fellow Scottsdale writer, thank you Ashley.

    1. Hi Michael,

      A fellow Scottsdale writer! Such a pleasure to meet you. So glad this might be of use to you with your WIP, especially regarding the breakup scene.
      I never would’ve known what my particular breakup would “write” like until I experienced it; our imaginations can certainly fill in the details but sometimes it can be hard to convey the complete authenticity of something without experiencing it ourselves or having a detailed description from another. Much luck with your WIP and thanks again!

  5. This strikes home. When I was fourteen, my family’s dog Lady passed away (she had been with us since before I was born.) It was so sudden – she had a stroke in the middle of the night and we had to put her down – that at first I felt numb, and then I fell into a black pit of despair. Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but I was young and Lady had always been there. Always. Even reading couldn’t cheer me up, and for a bookworm, that’s bleak.

    Then Mom brought home a magazine article about National Novel Writing Month a few days before November. I’d dabbled in writing before but never written an entire novel, so I dragged myself to the keyboard and promised myself I would at least try to write something…

    I never looked back.

    Thank you for this post, which reminds us that even when we are sad, or grieving, or upset, or hurt, we can pour those emotions onto the page, and our story will be all the better for it. I’ve written many novels since that first one fueled with grief and despair…but never has one flowed so smoothly from my fingers (at least, that’s how I remember it happening.)

    Like an earlier commenter said: “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

    1. Hi Heather,

      I am truly sorry for your loss of Lady; I am a huge animal lover (and mother to three furry pets) so I can’t even begin to imagine the shock and grief that you experienced with Lady’s passing (and never want to, though I know the day will come that my own pass on).

      It is so inspiring to hear that you were able to use writing as a therapeutic tool during that time, and found your passion! That’s truly a gift to find the determination to write a novel when experiencing a loss as great as a loved one passing away.

      It inspires me to keep writing, even through the heartbreak, even through the tears! Take care and good luck. 🙂

    1. Hi Angela,

      So sorry to hear that something horrible happened, but it sounds like your mother has it right; many times the hardships we go through are what enrich our manuscripts for the better.
      Hope that everything works out regarding it, and good luck in your future work! Take care and thank you for your thoughts. 🙂

  6. I’ve ALWAYS had a silent unemotional observer in my head taking notes about what is happening.

    The observer has been there during bad and good times. She’s taken notes as I’ve sat beside dying family members. She was there during the most joyous moments of my life. She will be there when I am dying.

    She has even gone so far as to prevent me from changing a situation so she could take notes. (She wanted to know how the family would react when they realized they’d forgotten my birthday during the Christmas rush. My mom remembered and chided me because she knew my observer was taking notes.)

    Among all my writer friends, very few lack this silent observer. It’s part of why we are what we are.

    1. Hi Marilynn,

      Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience; being that I am still a newer writer, I was slightly unsure at first of whether it was normal to have that “emotionally removed” part of me cataloging the experience for future use!

      Glad to hear I’m not alone, and that this seems to be a trait many writers also notice. I think such a huge part of being a successful writer is being able to tap into the truly human part of our characters and their perceptions;
      and we gather that crucial information by noticing our surroundings during every experience, even terrible ones. Thank you so much for your input, good luck and take care!

  7. I capture these out-of-body emotionless scenes all the time when my husband and I argue. Sometimes I’ve been known to write out the dialogue into my computer file as the argument takes place! What fun minds we authors have! (Others might not agree.)

    I do believe that our hardships draw us into more authentic words. On a much more sorrowful note, my four-year-old son died from cancer treatments. Since his death, I have been writing from the devastation. I believe in “real writing” and like to read words that are heart-fully placed on the page—ones that cost the writer something. In my novels, I’m always hoping to get more real.

    Thanks for your article, Ashley, for the insight. Congrats on your new book!

    1. Hi Alice,

      Firstly, let me give my condolences regarding your son. I do not have children yet, but do have very dear nephews and the thought of losing them would be devastating; yours and your husband’s courage in continuing to find support from one another and others deserves recognition. Especially regarding your continuing to write; I honestly don’t know that I would have the strength to write after a loss like that, so I commend you.

      Yes, if anyone would understand what it would be like to “really” write characters going through a hardship, it sounds like you have a better understanding of that than myself or many others. I am certain that your work will touch other’s lives that are struggling, because you have the strength and ability to continue pursuing your craft. I look forward to reading some of your work (with a box of tissues in hand, most likely) and thank you for the kind words. Take care, I will be thinking of you and your family.

  8. Thank you for this timely post. I am experiencing my first long term relationship breakdown. It’s been even more challenging having to live through this from a distance. My partner temporarily relocated to his home town of Doncaster, UK with my blessing and I hoped that we would survive the perils of a long distance relationship.

    Unfortunately things have come to a head and, not unlike Ashley, I have finally acknowledged my truth and accept that he is not the right partner for me. Sadly, my partner cannot handle my truth and honesty, and recently severed all communication with me.

    I am graciously giving him the space he needs and focusing on practicing gratitude for all the healthy, functional aspects of my life. I also acknowledge that I enjoy being in a relationship and don’t want to be alone. I trust that I will attract a more compatible partner in the not too distant future.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thank you for sharing your story; I’m sorry to hear that things have been challenging for you. It was a strange reality to come to myself–realizing that someone I still love so very much was not the right person for me. I commend you for your bravery to go with your gut regarding the relationship, and know that it will work out for the best, in time. Hopefully you can find some comfort and therapeutic moments in your writing, and thank you again for sharing!

  9. Ashley, I have a story begging to be written, but it’s one I can’t write because it would hurt several people. First and foremost, my son, who loves his dad. The story is about the sordid details of my breakup and escape from my mentally deranged ex-husband. The death threats, phone calls in the middle of the night, the times he darted at me with his car when we met on the highway. But worst of all, the night I went into Walmart for a few minutes, came out to drive 10 miles home, and my brakes failed– three miles from home. And guess WHO followed behind me all the way.

    Yes! I pressed charges this time. Ugly divorce and the fear dominated my life for several years afterward.

    I REALLY want to write this story, but HE would recognize it, and I might be in for another ordeal. Just when my life has calmed down.

    1. I wrote a novel that is 99% autobiographical, called Conundrum, and it’s about my evil mother’s betrayal and how it nearly destroyed my family. Of course, I changed the names, locale, and occupations, which is what three things you must do to avoid a lawsuit, but I still worried my mother would do something (hire a hit man?) to me. However, I really felt led clearly to write this difficult story because people needed to read it. Both my agent and husband said it’s important for people to know they can sever ties with toxic family members and still come out victorious. It was a very hard book to write. I often wrote a chapter then went to bed and slept. It took more months than it normally takes for me to write a novel. But I did it and I am proud of it. It’s helped a lot of people. So sometimes we need to write our stories. I didn’t see it as a process that was cathartic for me; that’s not why I wrote it. And it was painful. But what we all need to ask when we draw on our life pains is, how can this inspire, help, or encourage someone else?

      1. Suzanne,
        I am really glad to see this article & read your words here. A woman I considered a mentor recently stopped talking to me because I made public some struggles I had with my mother. She didn’t know my mother or anyone else in my family. But she felt it was a betrayal to publicly “air my family’s dirty laundry.” It hurt a lot that she said this & the more I tried to change her mind, tried to get her to see my POV, the more entrenched and enraged she became. In the end, she said she wanted no more communication with me.
        I had to let it go, but this woman had helped me become a great teacher with all the advise and wisdom she shared with me. It really hurt me that she could not accept my gratitude and kept harping at that same incident no matter what else I said to her.
        I guess this was a lesson on letting go. I always thought I was pretty good at that but in this case, it certainly wasn’t so.

    2. Hi Laurean,

      What a terrifying story to share! I am thankful you are ultimately safe from him at this point but troubled that you had to experience this ordeal at all. It does sound like a compelling story that should be written, possibly not only to heal some of your past wounds but also to reach others who are in a similar situation… I would never want you to be in danger for writing it, nor to change your son’s way of thinking about his dad… A truly difficult situation. As Susanne mentioned below however, it sounds like writing something like this could be really inspirational and maybe even life-changing for others, and if you protect yourself by taking the proper precautions against a lawsuit, it could be a victorious feeling, like Susanne felt. I wish you much luck and continued healing in this matter, and thank you so much for sharing.

  10. I keep thinking that I want to write about an issue with a former friend, but any time I try, it comes off as sounding bitchy an inauthentic. I’m thinking I’ll keep working at it until it sounds real, because it was something that affected me, and continues to affect the way I view the world (and potential new friends), but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
    Great post!

    1. You may have to get to that place where you can distance your feelings a bit first. If we are really fuming or upset about something, sure, we can journal about how we feel, and it may just be venting. But writing fiction is craft, and so we want to use those experiences to hone our craft, and that takes a bit of levelheaded deliberateness without the emotional bias.

    2. Hi Beks,

      As Susanne mentioned, time away from an experience can definitely allow for a bit of perspective when writing about it. I honestly don’t know how I might write a break-up scene right now, being that it so recently happened to me. Though it might sound “realistic,” it could also be colored by my own perceptions and they might not be appropriate actions for the characters to have, etc. I think if you feel strongly about something you SHOULD write about it, but if it doesn’t feel authentic then maybe some time between the experience and writing about it will help. Thanks for your input!

  11. If life’s hardships make you a better writer, then a lot of us are going to become tremendoulsy great writers! The saddest memories are ones we can never forget. For example, when my wife and I were discussing taking my mom to the hospital for her dementia, it was one of the saddest days of my life, and I started crying uncontrollably for her. My mother, who up until then had been oblivious of the world around her, saw her son crying and tried to comfort me and cheer me up with a hug, not realizing I was crying for her, that I was sad for her. That made the moment all the sadder, and yet sweet as well, showing how a mother’s love transcends the limits of a mother’s illness. I can barely write this now without crying again.

    1. But hopefully, David, you will be able to draw upon these feelings when writing scenes that call for similar emotions. I found it interesting that many people commented about my novel Someone to Blame, saying I must have lost a child because I captured the emotions so well that the family went through. I haven’t gone through that, thankfully, and actually have never lost someone really close to me, but I’m a very empathetic person, which I am grateful for (yes, I cry at some commercials), and I can put myself in a person’s situation and imagine how they feel. Which is so important for a fiction writer to be able to do. A lot of male writers have a hard time with this (getting touchy-feely), but they really need to in order to write powerful stories.

    2. Hi David,

      Now see!? The way you wrote this comment was very raw, and very real. I felt like I was transported to the scene, and it was at once beautiful and heart-wrenching. The fact that you can live inside that moment, put it to paper, and write it in such an eloquent way that a reader feels that are experiencing it THROUGH your writing–is a gift. One that Susanne has as well; the ability to strongly feel and project onto the pages our human emotions is I think, what separates good writing from writing that stays in our hearts forever. My heart goes out to you, David, and thank you for sharing your story.

  12. As a writer, I actually have the opposite problem. I feel like I have way too little experience and hardships in life to actually have depth in my writing. But this article is so insightful and I still got nuggets of wisdom from it. You write beautifully. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Hi Nicolette,

      Thank you for joining in! And thank you for the compliment. 🙂 I also know what you mean about not experiencing “deep” hardships, because I do have yet to lose a close family member, and have been blessed to live in a wonderful country that gives me my freedom, and to have food on the table my entire life. BECAUSE of those blessings, I have actually been currently writing a character who comes from a privileged upbringing and IS naive to the suffering of others. Her story arc includes seeing these disturbing truths and trying to find ways to fight them. So, in that sense, you can utilize the feelings you might have about not “understanding” deep suffering and infuse that into your character, building that much richer of a story arc. Hope this helps a little, because I know what it feels like! Oh, and what Susanne said…get into some trouble! 🙂

  13. This really got me thinking about how, now that my life is finally going great, I look to my family, friends and in-laws & ex-in-laws & worry about the situations they get themselves into. You would think I could just be happy that I am so happy & comfortable. But no. I am fretting & wondering how I can help make this situation better, how I can help this person not go through all the pain she is inevitably going to go through if she continues down this path. She is ignoring all her family so if I say the wrong thing, I may be cut off too.
    And this is not a one-time thing. Last week, it was someone else I was trying to fix & the week before that someone altogether different. Family, friend, ex-in-law? It doesn’t matter. My heart is pounding with fear for what they are heading toward, but also thinking about what I might say to them to change their course.Since I have also discovered they don’t pay any more attention to what I say (in most cases) as they do what anyone else tries to tell them.
    There must be something about the writer’s soul that makes us want so badly to make this world a better place.
    As I watch this person now, digging herself deeper & deeper into a really bad situation, I hope I can remind myself that AT LEAST I can use these emotions in my stories even if I can’t help her get out of this situation.

    1. Hi Sherrie,

      Firstly, it sounds like there is a lot going on for your friends and family, and I just want to say that I hope and believe everything will work out for the better. It sounds like you are a very empathetic person, which can definitely help to write realistic, emotion-packed stories and characters. It can also drain you. So my recommendation would be to-as hard as it can be to do-make sure you are scheduling time to take care of yourself, and also not becoming entrenched in someone else’s problems when you really might not have the power to change their choices/the outcome. It’s wonderful that you are so caring and want to offer support; but there’s only so much you can do before it can be detrimental to your own psyche. Thank you for your thoughts and take care!

  14. Thank you for writing this post. Today was an awful day for me, but now I’m going to try to use today’s experience to make my characters in my WIP more developed. I completely agree with your post.

    1. Hi Nori,

      Firstly, I’m so sorry to hear that you weren’t having a good day. Glad I could be of some help (helpfully) regarding finding that silver lining of life and working it into your story somehow. My hardest days have definitely given me a lot of inspiration and emotions that I can weave into my stories. I hope things are looking up for you! Take care!

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