Writing about Difficult Topics: Bringing Dark Corners into the Light

by Carla Sameth

“Bringing dark corners into the light sometimes is very painful and debilitating, but sometimes you have to do it.” Gerda Govine Ituarte

Sometimes you can’t help but do it…go into the room naked. Writing saved my life and writing has almost driven me mad. “They” say, show don’t tell, but sometimes you have to do both. In December 28, 2009, just before the news stories started to break in a substantial way about the culture of violence within the LA County Sheriff’s department (LACSD), a LACSD deputy broke my nose and something inside of me broke as I squatted in my own blood on the platform of the Highland Park Metro station. Three years later, I wrote about this in my cover story in the Pasadena Weekly, “One Day on the Gold Line”.

Years later, when my son struggled with addiction, I was told, “If your son was 18, I’d just send him home to die,” by an evaluating social worker. My son eventually went into recovery and I wrote about it in “Graduation Day at Addiction High” in Narratively. If I hadn’t written it, I’d be writing about my demise. It’s been this way since I was young, writing my way through life. And yet, I have to agree with other writers I recently heard on the panel,”Writing the Personal,” at the Association of Writers and Writers Programs Conference (AWP): writing is NOT therapy for me. On the contrary, as they said, we (writers) sometimes seek therapy to deal with the after effect of what we have written about.

I write for connection; I write for escape. I read for the same reason: to feel less alone in the world and sometimes to escape my own story. And in writing about something difficult, I hopefully arrive at a new stage of understanding. But feelings arise when going back into the experience (and this we must do to write scene, even dialogue properly). There are blank spots.

How do you write a traditional and cohesive narrative with the big memory holes that are created? Fortunately there are more possibilities out there for alternative writing structures; a linear narrative is not necessarily the best choice, more often than not. There is also the method of getting into the story wherever the “door opens” i.e. through a prompt, collage, lists, a letter, fiction and more, then rewriting as necessary.

What I have seen with younger trauma survivors, which is probably pretty much everybody in the juvenile justice system where I have been teaching creative writing, is that they are usually most drawn to writing about their real life experiences. Or if they read or write fiction, they want to delve into the grittiness of similar experiences. They are much less engaged when we try to get them to head into the realm of fantasy or science fiction or anything far from their own experience or knowledge. I think that our job as writers and teachers of writing can be to bring these dark subjects to light in such a way that the shame and secrecy is lifted.

My stepdaughter used to say “we’ve gone underground” when our blended, “we are the world,” family showed signs of un-blending. I go down under when I write about those topics that many people prefer to not deal with: addiction, racism and racial profiling, family violence, children dying before their parents, or before they have even been born into the world, police violence, the violence we do to ourselves, injustice and the painful shit spelled out in real examples in sentences that often start with “I.”

I might lure you in telling you about how I survived a burning boat in the middle of the Mediterranean with the goal of having a baby. But then after multiple miscarriages, just when I’m ready to give up, and so are you, I’ll tell you about the warm, sweet, musty smell of the top of my eleven year old boy’s head as he curled into me, about my step-daughter asking me if she could call me “mommy” while she held my hand and even tell you about Rosie’s cruise, the LGBT family honeymoon we took.

But I’ll also tell you about the dark, dark corners, the ones most look at and say, “oh that” and run the other direction. People that don’t adhere to tidy story arcs, real life characters that surprise us with their capacity to destroy. But like earthworms it seems, with each wound (and don’t let me tell you we don’t hurt and get hurt), we still regenerate. But some don’t. Young son’s die: they hang themselves and their mother’s discover them; step-daughter’s disappear, having been born into abandonment, they in turn abandon.

When I finally got to “study” craft in my MFA program, a brilliant young author, Elissa Washuta, spoke about the concept of “agency,” which is far different from blaming the victim. But it does mean understanding your role, your place, in the story you are writing. One of the most important parts about writing about difficult themes is being able to write about your emotions without being swallowed up by those really tedious ones such as: resentment, bitterness, feeling sorry for yourself. No one wants to read a narrative made up only of whining, blaming, regretting and a principal character as victim or martyr. The hard stuff is admitting who you really are. While you are writing about all the shitty stuff that happened to you or was “done” to you, you damn well better be attempting to articulate that you understand your “agency” in all of that.

Letting out the demons is not simply an exercise in self-help or exorcism, it is telling everyone else: it’s ok, it happened to me, I survived. You (the reader) sigh, you read and think, Oh, I felt that way. Oh, that happened to me. Or even, OMG! that is so much worse. How did she bear it? And then you are relieved to see that she did survive though not without scars.

I can only write about difficult issues in spurts. Tonight, I realized maybe my son saved me from becoming a heroin addict. I’ve been in pain a lot of my life, and I think if I hadn’t been able to succeed in having a baby after so many lost pregnancies, there would be little to keep me from going off the deep end. Once I found out that Demerol and heroin are identical in effect, it was hard for me not to think longingly about it. Although I never tried it, sometimes I think that I could have been capable of shooting up and going down that dark alleyway. And I guess this, too, is writing about the difficult stuff—admitting this truth. That my son may have become the addict instead of me, but we are not so far apart in our disease. To be fair, I never took Demerol recreationally though I did once take my aunt’s Oxy after she died, when my cousin was handing it out. I threw the rest out, not trusting myself to not abuse it. I can’t remember if my son had started using yet then. But the rush of wellbeing – I craved that, and crave that most of my life, that “everything is going to be ok.”

When writing about difficult subjects though it doesn’t have to be confessional in nature, in my case, I almost always go in head first, first person narrative, so I am writing about my role/involvement. And that usually means that I have to touch upon some hard truths. I can’t tell you that I stayed upright throughout. There are no “perfect victims,” I learned long ago working in domestic violence in my early 20s, prosecuting hundreds of family violence cases for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office. We have been hurt, we hurt and will be hurt again…trauma begets more trauma. But it is the silence that kills too.

Writing about those dark spaces that people prefer to pretend don’t exist means leaving yourself open to blows from the outside and inside. I started out working on my memoir about how my two children (four months apart) came into my life once I had the “appropriate” amount of distance to reflect back on what happened and how it happened. And then, let’s just say, people kept messing up my story arc. I no longer had as much distance from the story as I thought.
So why do it?

Top Reasons to Speak Up and to Write about the “Tough Stuff”

You can really impact people: multiple readers came up to me after I wrote, “One Day on the Gold Line” over the subsequent years and told me about their own experiences and why reading it they felt less alone. Many people told me that I had the courage to write about what they experienced but couldn’t write. In my opinion, this is one of the positives…giving a voice to those who don’t have one. Or at least that’s what those readers told me. Others said that they had previously assumed there was a “real story” excusing the violence by law enforcement or a death in custody (Hint: these tend to be white people, or other people who haven’t had occasion to be profiled or impacted). After reading the story about someone they knew and trusted (me), they realized it was a bigger systemic problem and not the victim’s fault.

I was recently at a writing retreat with about 20 women. I wrote about addiction issues and more than a quarter came up to me afterwards and said they had experienced addiction either through a family member or being in recovery themselves. In one case, a woman said her son overdosed 20 years ago, and she was moved by my writing. Not one of them said they wished I hadn’t written about these issues but rather that they wished more people would.

On the opposite, you might lose some followers – not just Facebook or Twitter – people who read your work and say, “Oh no, she is dangerous,” or the more subtle, “I wonder what REALLY happened?” Example: I wrote about having my nose broken by the LA County Sheriff’s Department when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket. I gave a detailed description of just how this happened. Once I found out more about the culture of violence and the fact the Sheriff’s Deputies are trained in the jails, then go out to the Metro to “practice,” I realized that it was a wonder this didn’t happen more often. However, you now can receive a lot of hate mail immediately via online posts and these can be anonymous. One woman followed me about, posting online under an assumed name, to use disparaging descriptions of me like “grifter” and talk about my lesbian lovers– I found out about “Bashing the Bashed,” or the phenomenon of anonymous Internet haters (or trolls) when you write about anything controversial or anything really.

It is true that when you take a stand and/or write about disturbing issues, there are some people that will just not stick around or more to the point hire you. So if you have a conventional job, there might be some economic implications. One time Patt Morrison did a keynote for “Women At Work” (a non-profit Women’s Career Center) and basically spoke about everything bad that ever happened to women. Some of the male donors who were attending walked out when she began to talk about clitorectomies, but the executive director of Women At Work and the rest of us thought she did a fine job. People just don’t like to hear about the bad stuff when they are eating. A lot of the same people probably don’t want us to nurse in public either.

You break the silence. In many cases, silence is a self-protective measure but it also prevents others from knowing the reality of these issues and getting help. William Cope Moyers (Bill Moyers’ son) wrote in his memoir, Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption, that in some ways, anonymity can actually hurt addicts/alcoholics and their family and friends, because they don’t know where to get help and feel more alone. Writing and speaking up breaks this isolation. By writing your truth, even with all it’s ugliness and contradictions, you often voice universal and shared experiences. It may not be pretty, but it’s real.

When you write in the moment, it can be cathartic and powerful but you usually need a period of time to see what it really means…Writing about difficult topics in the moment is admitting that someday you’ll come out the other side and may want to be able to look back and write the story. Now you have a record. You make sense of what happened both for yourself and for others when you can look with distance and reflection.

Even so, you may experience some emotional backlash when you delve into these topics. You might think, “Oh that? I’m so over that.” After all, we are writers and this is not “self-help.” And then you start to read over what you wrote when it all happened or look at other documents, letters, etc. Kaboom! Enter the flashback or secondary trauma experienced by both writers and readers. Perhaps you were present in the middle of the outbreak of civil war in Sri Lanka (my younger sister) and you go to write your story and boom you are thrown right back into the trauma. You are also then in the midst of your own PTSD right when you are on deadline to finish and perform.

But here’s the gold: in some cases, when you write about redemption, or finding your own core strength, you access parts of you that were buried. In my case, I channel my former fourth grade self, tough, Tomboy, trumpet player, star athlete, “Sammy Boy.” One former classmate told my son that that I was his hero back then.

What emerges temporarily from hibernation and what has stayed with me throughout my life is some grain of humor, some words that find their way out, the rashness, the tenacity, or intrepidity of survival. And who knows? Writing about the gritty truths, I may pass on a sense of resilience and even rebellion to the reader.

unnamedCarla Sameth is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High” which originally appeared in Narrative.ly, was also selected for Longreads’, “Five Stories on Addiction.”

Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project.

3 thoughts on “Writing about Difficult Topics: Bringing Dark Corners into the Light

  1. T.K. Eldridge says:

    I wrote about some difficult events in my past and was told that I was crazy, that I was a ‘drama queen’, that I was looking for attention, that I lied outright, that I was sick, etc… but I also had people go ‘wow, you get it..’ and those are the people that matter. Keep writing about the hard stuff. If it helps one person deal with it…it is so worth it.


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