Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I'm writing a story based on a difficult situation while I'm in the midst of it. Is this a good idea, or should I wait until later?

The answer to this depends mostly upon you—your temperament, your writing practices, and just how entrenched you are in this situation. Go with your gut. If you're inclined to write, then do it. You may find the emotional energy fuels your writing. Perhaps what you write while in the trenches of this difficulty will make for a compelling story. Or perhaps this writing won't make up the finished product, but will allow you to think though your experience and emotions and help you begin to process your intentions for the story. If you're inclined not to write about it, there's no need to challenge that. You may just need time.

Whether in the middle of the mess or long past it, objectivity is crucial. This is true for all stories. You have to be able to see all facets, not just those you personally respond to or prefer. And you need to be able to judge whether someone outside your mind, emotions, and situation will interpret what you've put on the page in the same way you intend it. Strong emotions can hinder our ability to do this. It's the reason some writers have a hard time cutting beautiful passages that don't belong or are reluctant to put formidable obstacles in the way of a likeable character. That emotional connection can blind us to the demands of the story. Imagine the pull when those connections are even more personal and immediate.

Andre Dubus III's novel House of Sand and Fog pits two characters against each other. Kathy Nicolo, a recovering alcoholic whose husband recently left her, is evicted from her house because in her depression she ignored letters about a matter she thought she cleared up. Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian military, buys the house and plans to fix it up as a way to begin a respectable life for himself and his family in the United States. The conflict hinges on each character's very legitimate claim on the home and, even more importantly, what is at stake for each in owning or losing it. In an interview with Bold Type Magazine, Dubus said in order to write the novel he couldn't pick sides: “When I was writing from his point of view, I was on his side, and when I was writing as Kathy, I was on her side." He quoted Hemingway, “The job of the writer is not to judge, but to seek to understand."

Sometimes the distance of time is the only way to gain this level of objectivity. But not always. Some writers might never gain the necessary distance. And some can find it right in the moment through the process of fictionalizing. Once you start thinking of the characters in your story as individuals in and of themselves—as opposed to character versions of the real people in your situation—you're working toward objectivity. Changing the circumstance of the conflict can help, too. Draw on the emotional core of your experience to support the similar concerns in the story.

Find an emotional space where you can suspend judgment and develop an open curiosity toward understanding. Without this, characters run the risk of feeling flat, stories can lose steam, and agenda can take over the nuance of craft.