Ah, the masks we wear. We all have them because it’s impossible to be fully human and devoid of cracks. We are all wounded. Yet, therein lies the conundrum for those who long to become writers. We’re all cracked, damaged, dinged yet simultaneously bombarded by countless conflicting messages.
Media, culture, family, society are like a gaggle of cocaine-fueled stepmothers relentlessly determined to make us ‘perfect,’ only then to turn around and zing us for being ‘superficial’ and ‘fake.’
It’s okay to cry, darling. Just next time wear the waterproof mascara.You’re a mess.
Many of us are the walking wounded, encouraged to embrace our flaws, experience all our emotions…but then cover them up because no one wants to see that. Jeez!
This ‘logic’ is absurd enough in life, but for authors we must choose the painful path if we hope to write the great stories, the ones that change people and endure. Perfect, flawless, normal and well-adjusted spell death for fiction. Superb stories provide a safe place for readers to ‘feel and heal’ and our job is to deliver that 😉 .
Yet, this comes at a price. I know! Always a catch.
Funny Thing About Pain
I remember the first time I broke a bone. I was barely four. What stands out most is it didn’t hurt. At all. I remember gaping at my left arm in a spiffy S shape, unable to wrap my head around why there was NO pain. After many years and many more injuries I learned the wounds that hurt were never as bad as ones that didn’t.
Of course this is basic physiology. When an injury is bad enough it overloads the pain centers of the brain, short-circuiting our ability to feel anything. This gives time for the sympathetic nervous system to flood the body with hormones to keep us alive.
Heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, and our endocrine system unleashes a tsunami of fight or flight hormones. All these physiological responses—in the meantime—are necessary for us to survive long enough to do something about the wound. But, if the shock is not dealt with, the victim will ironically die from the very mechanism designed to keep the body alive.
Emotionally Walking Wounded
Something similar happens to us when we experience emotional trauma. Emotional disconnection—also known as denial—is the mental equivalent of ‘being in shock.’ Denial was never intended to be a permanent solution, just a stopgap to protect our psyche from overload. It’s the brain’s way of protecting us from emotional implosion (I.e. a nervous breakdown or psychotic break).
Like the body lowers blood pressure and heart rate to keep us from bleeding to death, the mind dulls our emotions and minds to keep us from unraveling. There will (should) be a time and place to face the trauma, but drinking demons from a fire hose is not our brain’s first choice.
The trouble, however, is that though we need to face these traumas, denial can become a comfortable purgatory.
For many of us who’ve been through trauma we are still too damaged to face our pain. We have become masters at hiding, stuffing or numbing our emotions into submission. Maybe we’ve endured our wounds so long we’re unaware they even exist because pain is our ‘normal.’
Dare to Be Wounded
As authors, we’re wise to appreciate that readers read for the same reasons writers write. Wounds. This is where things get…tricky. Many writers write because we’re wounded. Face it, writing fiction is way cheaper than a good shrink or solid criminal defense attorney.
Murdering imaginary people is legal 😀 . *double-checks on Google* Yep, totes legal.
Yet, we writers simultaneously happen to live in a culture that shames the ‘damaged’ which makes us hesitant to admit we’re wounded. Many of us learned in high school it was safer to bleed in the library because the sharks were in the cafeteria.
Trouble is, being afraid to face or admit we’re anything but perfect makes for some seriously dull as crap ‘stories.’ Yet, I posit this:
All fiction is about a wound colliding with a core problem in need of resolution.
Fiction (stories) must possess both wounds and a core problem. If we only have problems, we don’t have a story. We have bad situation after bad situation after bad situation. Characters passively flung like flotsam and jetsam on the cruel currents of Life’s Unfair.
When we wax rhapsodic about inner demons (sans core problem in need of resolution), that isn’t fiction either. It’s comes across as self-indulgence, journaling, whining, lecturing or even pontificating. Why? Because fiction the wrong medium for solely discussing wounds. Essays? Self-help? Blogs 😀
Cool…maybe. As fiction? Snoozefest.
If we don’t have a wound or a core problem in need of resolution, we have pages of nothing happening. I call this the Literary Barbie Dream House (or Literary Holodeck if you prefer). No matter how glorious the prose, how lovely the description, how spectacular the world-building, it’s words on a page not a novel.
Writers KNOW Wounds
We’ve all heard that nebulous and seriously unhelpful advice, Write what you know. Um, I’m writing about space battles. Huh? Maybe you’re like me and tried to write a suspense with a cop as a main character, then thought, ‘But I’m not a cop.’ Then our idea slowly succumbs to Death by Research.
This isn’t a pass to skip research but writing what we know is referring to wounds. We know human fragility and brokenness and often on a far deeper level than most. We see and sense what others miss. Many writers are extremely sensitive to the world and the feelings of others.
There’s a good reason many of us are introverts.
Dare to Unmask
We are all emotionally messed up to some degree. If you’re not at all messed up then you’re a) a robot b) in denial c) a sociopath d) not fit to be a writer. There is no normal. ‘Normal’ is a setting on the dishwasher. Normal is also normal (a.k.a. boring), ergo terrible fiction.
Perfect people are dull and we secretly resent them because we know perfect is a LIE. Readers cannot connect with perfect, but they will connect with wounds. This means we writers, uh, need to connect via wounds.
Also, the wounds we will write the best *tugs collar* will likely be the ones we hide deepest and….*mutters low* the ones we fear most.
My own writing was all Literary Barbies until I understood the gold is always guarded by a dragon. The larger the treasure, the bigger the beast. Emotional damage in fiction is GOLD.
This means, my relentless drive to hone my skills as an author has been a petal-lined path with unicorns, rainbows and daily facials.
Okay that was a total lie. WHAT? I’m a writer. I am PAID to LIE.
I had to face I am an OCD control freak, a rabidly critical perfectionist, and a Type A+ because Type As didn’t do the extra credit #Slackers.
So Many Masks
And so little time. If we want to excel at writing, first things first. What are our masks? What wounds are we hiding? If we are brave enough to do this hard work, this is when the great stories happen (which we’ll talk about in another post).
For me? My primary go-to mask is the clown. Shocking! I KNOW!
For me? Everything is funny. Like this (refer to image below). I saw this digital billboard while presenting in Dallas and fell over laughing.
All I could think was, Holy Moly! Lock up any moderately attractive males under thirty. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Also, SAIL? What exactly are these Seniors Active in Learning learning about? And does it have anything to do with the PSA about roving cougars?
Or is the Cougar Alert some new dating app like Tinder? Like if you’re a young man wanting romantic time with an older attractive woman, this can help you know if any are in your area?
Writer brains. Sigh.
Which humor is wonderful. I love to laugh and love making other people laugh even more. The problem, however, is that I use comedy to deflect, minimize, hide and, if pushed? Fight dirty.
Alas, there’s a good reason comedians have such a high suicide rate. They might be the funniest person in the room, but they’re often the most wounded. Jokes are a fantastic smokescreen for pain. This means most other people are oblivious to how deeply the ‘clown’ is hurting (I.e. Robin Williams). The self-defense mechanism ends up being the comic’s undoing.
Case in point, I was once in a horrible accident and had all the EMTs cracking up as they prepped me for the ambulance. My shame for actually ‘needing help’ spilled out in grand comedy, almost to my detriment. The first responders initially had no idea how badly wounded I really was because I kept them in stitches…since me needing stitches was *shivers* such a burden.
Though I hate admitting this, I’m fairly sure if I were shot I would either a) make jokes or b) profusely apologize for the mess as I tried to clean it up while stemming the bleeding…without using the good towels #Duh c) try to do surgery on myself with a glue gun and Batman stickers from Spawn’s last school project to save money or d) all of the above.
I learned to hide my weakness, needs, hurts behind a mask of humor and still do. When that doesn’t work? I have a vast collection of other guises to fake that everything’s fine. By paying attention to my own masks, I’m learning more about my wounds (many ignored so long they were forgotten).
Also, this is opening my eyes to others. What are their masks and what wounds are still bleeding beneath?
Born of Blood
Most humans are in some way driven by wounds (for good and bad). What we value, who we like, who we attract, our choices in clothes, friends, foods, music often have roots in an old injury (which is why The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is such a fabulous resource for crafting dimensional characters).
Setting my Comedian mask aside, here is the Controller. Trust me I deleted this at least seventeen times because vulnerability is not my strength. Since I am working on that, I am sharing about me *breathes in paper bag*.
I didn’t one day hatch an OCD control freak. I’m aware I possess rituals and habits other find silly or annoying. Fine. Ha ha ha. But that is MY finger above. Got myself while cooking last week. I always sharpen my knives before I cook. ALWAYS.
Even though I get teased about it.
Why do I do sharpen them every time? Because dull blades slip and this is what happens when I take someone else’s word the knife has been sharpened…and it hasn’t.
I’m way better than I used to be, and small stuff like a nicked finger rolls right off my back (when years ago it might have unhinged me).
Yet, while I’m better in some ways, in other situations, my OCD control freak behaviors escalate off the charts lest I suffer apoplexy. Why? Because there are still areas I’m deeply wounded. I’m terrified of large crowds. It’s why I chose a profession where I work from home. I always drive or at least keep the car keys once out of the car. Also, I shop alone.
Why? A number of reasons, but namely my father was a narcissistic sadist who found it extremely entertaining to leave me places…without me knowing.
As a kid, he’d take me to the grocery store, the mall, and even amusement parks and then just…leave. Like literally slip away when I wasn’t paying attention, go to the car and drive off. When I was eight, he found it very funny I spent the entire day at Six Flags looking for him instead of riding any rides.
I know. WTH? Dunno. It was the 80s and apparently not illegal to just leave a kid wherever so long as you eventually came back.
This said, while I still have lingering trauma that dictates the control behaviors, something else happened in me. I strive to be extremely considerate, careful, protective and there few people more responsible than me. In fact, I am over responsible.
I didn’t share this for any kind of self-indulgence (trust me). Rather, what I’ve learned is that writing can and has helped me heal a lot of issues and since my stories (I hope) are on a deeper level, readers might be able to experience healing as well. If I can find the courage to feel the old pain and bring it into the light, it can lead the way for the reader as well.
And makes a more interesting story. That jacked up childhood can be an anchor to drown me or an engine to propel me anywhere I want to go. Choice is mine.
The Wound Gives the Why
I’m challenging you guys to embrace the wound because humans are born of blood and so are the best characters. It’s what makes them feel so real. Sure we can have a tattooed felon or a homeless prostitute as an MC but that damage is more obvious. Those types of characters also won’t work in some genres.
Some damage can only be seen by noticing the mask. Masks aren’t always beautiful, but are always deceptive.
What if your heroine is a doctor dedicated to saving lives? Great. Why? She’s wounded. Why does your hero sign up for every dangerous mission? Take on only the toughest murder cases? Sacrifice his/her personal life to rescue inner city kids?
Does your heroine really need to make every holiday storybook perfect? What propels your hero run into burning buildings? Why do any of these “people” do all these admirable and selfless and courageous things? They’re wounded.
And if not, they’re dull as dirt.
Once we (Author God) know the WHY, then everything else makes sense. We now know why she’s a serial monogamist who’s only attracted to bad boys and players. Or why he’s a nester who always falls for women who bleed him then leave him.
***For more on this I STRONGLY recommend a class Cait is teaching tomorrow, Bad Boys: Dangerous Love, From Rejection to Redemption.
A character’s need for order, or habit of always being late, or putting everything off to the last minute now has DEPTH because these ‘behaviors’ are tethered to something more than ‘just because.’
Wounds will enhance all fiction. ALL of it.
That cozy mystery with the cupcake baking sleuth? Yep, her, too. WHY is she chronically late? Because when she was fifteen she showed up early to meet her friend at the family business. She walked into a robbery, startled the gunman and knows she’s why her best friend’s dad was killed. If she’d been late, BFF’s dad would’ve been robbed but alive. In her mind EARLY means people die. No, humans are not rational (and good characters aren’t either). But the job of the story is to reveal the lie.
We don’t need to write deep probing Russian literature to create stories with meat.
Also, when we know and explore the wound, PLOTTING is MUCH easier because we know precisely what problem will create the most stress and force the most change.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Have you been afraid to write in a way that makes you feel vulnerable? Afraid to feel? I know I have. Working on it. What novels, series or movies resonated with you most? Looking back, did you connect because of what we discussed today? Have you used your fiction to work on your own masks, wounds, issues?
What are YOUR favorite go-to masks? Why do they help? How do they backfire?
I love hearing from you, and I am NOT above BRIBERY!
What do you WIN? For the month of NOVEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And a quick reminder of class tomorrow!
Bad Boys: Dangerous Love from Rejection to Redemption
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $45.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, December 1st, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST
Some Bad Boys have tattoos and motorcycles. Others wear three-piece suits and eat mergers & acquisitions for breakfast.
Whatever Bad Boy flavor you like, there are key characteristics they all share…and there are some common mistakes writers make that will turn his sexy, wolfish grin into the simper of an anxious bichon frise faster than you can say, “How you doin’?”
This class will cover:
- How to leverage all the classic Bad Boy traits while making your character unique.
- Keeping the Bad Boy on the tightrope between attractively arrogant and annoying a$$hole.
- From macho to marshmallow: how to avoid the traps that turn your man soft mid-plot.
- Write like a man (because no Bad Boy should ever come across like a soccer mom with an attitude problem).
- Redemption vs. realistic redemption: creating the arc for a Bad Boy we can live with.
A recording of this class is also included with purchase.
About the Instructor:
Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.
This is such hit-me-in-the-head truth. I was nodding my head like crazy while I was reading it. Those wounds help us relate as writers, as readers. I love the humor in your writing. Helps me relate big time. Thank you for sharing.
I love the phrase “Death by research.” Great reminder, thanks!
Kristen, phenomenal post! Your ability, your gift to be able to share on the deepest level possible, of what it means to be ‘human’ through the written word is quite frankly, breathtaking! You did a magnificent job addressing the importance of working toward removing masks and facing our fears, which of course, if not dealt with effectively, are the chains that continue to wield power over us throughout our entire life.
Kristin, as usual you pack more psychological knowledge in to a blog post than it would take most people hours of therapy to figure out on their own. As for your narcissistic father, perhaps we’re long-lost sisters. Very sorry you went through that as a child. But you’re so right – the deeper we can tap in to our subconscious and our own wounds the deeper our characters and stories will be. Thanks for another insightful post!
I swear, you start out, and I merrily read along, absorbing and re-affirming writing stuff…then, this mental tickle happens and the suspicion slides in…”she’s getting into my head again, dammit”…and before I know it, I’m thinking of the now-deceased mom, who forced an abortion, which ensured I could never have children, but who I also tended for weeks prior to her passing. Jeeeez
But, you’re right — we’re all a mess of some kind or another, and as writers, I believe we take that mess and use it as glue to splat together stories that give different endings — or beginnings — to our own bits of pain.
Unfortunately, if we don’t watch out, our own denial will march into our stories and block any attempts at ‘outing’ our pain, even as a sublime insertion.
Thanks for your constant bravery in sharing with us. oyes — your leg looks gross… :O)
Thank you for this kick in the emotional butt Kristen. It helps me to feel more comfortable about being uncomfortable revealing my wounds, the biggest inserted last, in a book that I have written and is almost finished about widows’ guilt. Thanks so much I so enjoyed your Awakening push into the swimming pool
Seems pain and wounds part of non fiction as well esp history.
“My shame for actually ‘needing help’ spilled out in grand comedy, almost to my detriment. The first responders initially had no idea how badly wounded I really was because I kept them in stitches…since me needing stitches was *shivers* such a burden.”
Whoa. I could have written this. Although I didn’t connect it with shame until now, it absolutely makes sense. My #1 goal is always to put other people at ease–to be the peacemaker–because that was my role with my parents as a kid. I have a character who is the opposite. She’s obliviously selfish at times and it was super hard for me to crawl into her head. I was wondering why. Great post–and therapy.
Long ago in a galaxy far away, I used to take karate. I remember the bruises, too. They were badges of honor. Freaked my parents out but I was proud. As you mentioned, it’s the subtler, emotional suffering that we want to hide. Thank you for not letting us slide. Many, many thanks.
Kristen, phenomenal post! I like this sentence?”the wounds that hurt were never as bad as ones that didn’t.”. Pain & Wounds makes people grow.
You have great taste, LOL. That was my personal favorite, too. ((HUGS))
Long ago in a galaxy far away, I used to take karate. The bruises were badges of honor. Freaked my parents out but I was proud. As you say, it’s the emotional suffering that we want to hide. Thank you for not letting us slide. Many, many thanks.
Thanks for the great post and for sharing your stories, Kristen. As a writer of fiction that revolves around grief and abuse psychology plus family and social dynamics, I’m always on the lookout for relevant posts like this one.
Congratulations on your silver. Ouch, the leg. (I’ve done some BJJ through my taekwondo school.)
I have often been afraid and ashamed of writing about parts of my past that have made me withdraw into myself. I take inspiration from other people who are not afraid to bare the ugly truth about the human condition, and the thought of pouring this into my own characters makes me feel more confident. Thanks for sharing, Kristen. That leg, though… Ouch!
My current project is humor, about a “Yankee” newlywed trying to understand / fit in with her husband’s deep East Texas hometown. I use situational humor, misunderstandings, and hyperbole (an over-the-top “mean girl” or two, and a “cougar” character). My first-person protagonist isn’t perfect, but she often acts as the straight man to everyone else’s crazy.
I actually tried giving my protagonist an emotional wound, but it seemed to weigh down the story. To the point that a workshop instructor read my first 50 pages and didn’t realize my genre was humor.
So the question is, how much angst does humor need? Is there a different way of handling wounds in my genre?
ALL people are wounded. To the degree should fit with the genre. So as an example, birth order. If she’s a first child, with a younger sibling class clown she might be used to this….but struggle with letting loose and just having FUN. She doesn’t know how to JUST HAVE FUN. And thus the point of the book can be to let her learn to relax and the world won’t end if she has a NERF battle in Walmart and is asked to leave 😉 . She realizes she is not balanced, and that being responsible ALL the time isn’t healthy and not even necessary. Does that help?
Hmmmmmm… actually, I have made her something of a perfectionist. In my head it’s because her mother sort of stage-mothered her, and she feels insecure. Her character arc involves gaining confidence. She can learn to roll with her cultural faux-pas in the process. THANK YOU!!!!
Oh I loved this…… ‘the gold is always guarded by a dragon. The larger the treasure, the bigger the beast. Emotional damage in fiction is GOLD.’ Thank you. And I have to ask, are you a kiwi? I thought you were in the US but the butt picture had me wondering. 🙂
Nah I am a Texan. Pic was taken when I visited to speak in NZ 🙂 .
A core problem in need of a resolution is a great and succinct way to explain one of the necessities of good fiction.
All cops are wounded in some way or another. Marshal Branigan is my past of all things, including what could have been.
This post left me shook! I can’t stop thinking about it. So insightful and painfully true. Now you got me thinking about why when I try to identify and access my own deep wounds I somehow always remember something urgent I have to go do immediately or else everyone will die. No more! That bad habit is definitely hurting my writing. And ahem… my copy of The Emotional Wound Thesaurus arrives today. Thank you for writing this!!!
As the year draws to a close I needed to read ths. I had a first responder moment. Temp 104 and I am going “I’ll be fine”. For years I have written to keep my mind occupied so I didn’t need to look at my own emotional issues. Now I realise if I want people to feel from work I have to open up myself. This writing lark is hard but I love it. Thanks for your blog posts. Was great fun with you in NZ. Hope we meet again.
Your remarks about “normal is a setting on the dishwasher” makes me recall that in Clinical Laboratory Science (which I practiced for 40+ years) we formerly had a “normal value” attached to each laboratory test result. About 20 years ago, someone brilliant pointed out that there is no such thing as a “normal” human. So now those numbers are called “reference ranges.” Who knew?