Write What Scares You (Without Scaring Away Readers)

February 7, 2023 § 9 Comments

Writing for readers when your story is “too much.”

By Heather Sellers

“Too overwhelming.” “Too dark.” “Too much.” Early on, I received these comments on my writing from from teachers and from fellow students in workshop. My readers regularly asked me, “How did you even survive?” Survive? I was just living my life and writing about what happened. When I got these kinds of comments, I felt frustrated, hurt, and embarrassed, ashamed of my own life, and ashamed of failing to provide a gripping and meaningful reading experience.

It was concerning to think that material that I saw as dramatic and interesting was actually traumatizing and worrisome to others. I’m so worried about this girl, I can’t even keep reading, one fellow student said to me. The worst part was this: I was presenting the material from my life I thought people could handle. I kept, and still keep, the darkest parts completely private. Were these people, my readers and colleagues, just too sheltered? Were they clueless about how many of us live, the wide variety of circumstances a person can come from? Or, was I so damaged that I couldn’t even tell what was upsetting and what was not?

“The reader just needs a little bit,” my writing friends told me. They cautioned me that including everything that happened—the high level of abuse and range of violence, the constancy of poverty and neglect, the extraordinary circumstances that resulted in ongoing fear and terror—was far too difficult for a reader to process. Hold back, they urged.  Less is more. I thought that’s what I was doing.

So I really struggled with their advice.  I felt both monstrous (how actually had I survived all that?) and unseen (I needed to share my story in order to understand its meaning and significance). I resented my writing friends; their cautions often hurt me deeply.  At the same time, I felt something was being communicated to me that I needed to pay attention to.  I wanted to understand my own story, my own self, for sure. I wanted to come to terms with all that had happened. But I also write in order to create some kind of connection between people. I want my work to deepen our awareness of the human experience.  I didn’t want to dump my tragedies onto readers. I didn’t need them to calm me, or comfort me, or feel sorry for me, or do anything for me at all.  By writing my story, I wanted to shine light—as difficult as this might be—on the parts of human experience we all experience, no matter how different our backgrounds might be: the pain of not being loved back by someone you love; witnessing, as a child, a parent’s failure to be their best self; our inability to know ourselves and to know each other in a full way.

I teach writing for a living, and over the years, in attempting to help my students move from confession on the page, towards something that truly engaged and moved readers, I developed a set of craft tools designed to keep the reader close. I believe that we owe this to readers, to create for them an experience that is, no matter how difficult, in the end, transformative. In other words, I wanted my students and I to be able to write memoir that could go to the most difficult parts of life, but I wanted our stories to serve a purpose, to be valued, to truly matter. And not scare people away.

My three strategies for presenting intense material are 1) Beautiful Containers; 2) Yearning for Good; and 3) Brevity.

Beautiful Containers My mantra: the darker the material the more beautiful must be the container you hand over to the reader. In graduate school, I trained as a poet, and when I’m writing nonfiction, especially material that is potentially challenging for readers to encounter, I use poetic tools to provide a “hold” for the material.  Anaphora, and other kinds of repetition (I’m thinking of Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses”) give readers a place to rest. Powerful phrasing, fresh imagery, and a focus on tiny, beautiful moments allow your reader to stay with you.

Yearning For Good My early focus was on rendering extraordinary difficult events in my family—animal murder, kidnapping, domestic violence, psychotic break, suicide attempt—one after another. My early readers felt pummeled. I now believe keeping my eye on what people in my story want, what they are seeking, rather than focusing on all the horrible things happening to them, lets my reader connect with a force or an energy that moves us through the experience, to the other side. Losses along the way, to be sure. But the focus is on the power of something good.

Brevity (!) When I was told, early on, my work was too much I bristled with defensiveness. “But this all happened!” over time, I leaned into less is more. By choosing fresh moments we haven’t seen before, I found I could create a new kind of portrait of a deeply troubled family. I set a rule for myself: each piece could have two terrible things, but not four. Beth Ann Fennelly, Abigail Thomas, Claudia Rankine, and others who are working in micro memoir forms create memorable, evocative moments in just a few sentences.

Writing difficult material is incredibly challenging. But it’s what I’m most interested in as an artist.  I am determined to write into the places the make me both curious and uncertain, and I want to keep my readers with me, and to offer up, if I can, something that matters to all of us, something stabilizing and relational and ultimately celebratory. That’s my quest.

Writing challenging material? Join Heather Sellers for Write What Scares You: Composing powerful essays, stories and poems that transform your reader, Wednesday Feb 8 at 2PM EST. Replay available for all registrants. More info/Register now.

Heather Sellers is the author of the award-winning memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, which tells the story of living life with face blindness. Her essays appear in Best American Essays, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and many other magazines. Sellers teaches poetry, nonfiction, and pedagogy courses at the University of South Florida, where she is director of the undergraduate and MFA creative writing programs.

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§ 9 Responses to Write What Scares You (Without Scaring Away Readers)

  • Stacey says:

    I’m going to start using these three strategies right away! Thank you for sharing this perspective.

    Reading your story, the feminist in me couldn’t help but wonder if male authors would have received the “too much” feedback. But I am not sure how to verify this idea other than my own experiences, which are obviously too subjective to be counted upon.

    Men who are reading this, I’m genuinely interested in your perspective. Is this feedback you have received?

  • Heidi Croot says:

    This speaks directly to me. A heartfelt thank you, Heather. I was also told “too much.” The advice was to begin with scenes that allowed readers to like and bond with the characters…early-day scenes that happened before things got to be too much. It required some shuffling of the chronology but feels right.

  • Mrs. B says:

    I, too, have been told “too much,” but I didn’t understand what the comment meant. Now I do! Thank you.

  • I was almost murdered by a psychopath in Egypt– a truly horrible scene– but was rescued and landed in a hospital in Aswan , lovingly cared for by Italian nuns and Egyptian orderlies. Seeing i was terrified, they posted a guard outside my door who said, “I am Achmed , your brother.” I immediately started taking notes. i published the piece i wrote in two different versions, but instinctively didnt give more than the gist of what had actually happened to me. I wanted readers to realize how incredibly kind a people who were generally distrusted in the US had been. So focusing on the aftermath with hints of the horrible–i described my bruised face and broken nose which the Egyptians fixed–was a good strategy in this case. Readers want survivors, I’m afraid. And Allison you obviously are one . And it’s restorative to think of and portray oneself that way.

  • Thank you for this essay, Heather. Another one for me to bookmark 🙂

  • Maureen Helen says:

    Thank you for this amazing essay. I didn’t think it would be possible for me to write traumatic experiences because they would be too much but you’ve provided the way to do this. I will try also to engage my writer’s role of a compassionate heart when I edit whatever I write.

  • Rebecca says:

    So good, so helpful. Dr. Sellers, you are my guiding light!

  • lgrizzo says:

    These three strategies are going into my toolbox right now!

  • The opening of this post shows the serious drawbacks of traditional workshopping, in which participants comment on the writer’s work without understanding her intentions or motivations for writing. Often the writer doesn’t understand those things herself. Workshop members should *ask questions* that could help the writer understand her work. Comments, opinions, stylistic suggestions, etc., are not helpful when the writer presents an early draft.

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