UCLA Extension

Writing through Difficult Times is Difficult

From left to right: Rick Bursky, Ed Lee, and Liz Stephens

From left to right: Rick Bursky, Ed Lee, and Liz Stephens

Carla’s Confession #947:  It’s true.  I’m not very good at maintaining my writing routine when life gets difficult.  By “not very good” I mean awful and by “difficult” I mean those incredibly tough times when life hits you upside the head and leaves lasting scars of pain, confusion, grief, and sadness.  When those moments happen—because this is life, after all, and by nature is difficult at some times more than others—my writing ritual is the first to go bye-bye. My follow-through in pursuing my writing passion flies out the window like a napkin would out the window of a car driving 75 mph.  I know writing could help me process, heal, and create, but the weight of life experiences buries me and the absolute LAST thing I want to do is relive them some more.

So I asked three of our Writers’ Program instructors how they write through the difficult times because professional writers have no choice but to write.  Rick Bursky, Ed Lee, and Liz Stephens were all kind enough to answer my questions and I’m thankful for their advice. Read on for their unique perspectives based off their own life experiences and writing genres.

How do you write in spite of difficult times? 

Rick Bursky, poet and author:  The same way you write in spite of good times. You pick up your pen and write a word and follow it with another word and then follow that with another word. There is no silver bullet or magic formula for finding the strength, energy or inspiration to write. There has to be a decision. And that decision is to be a writer. Once you make that decision the rest is easy, meaning it’s easy to write. Writing well is not easy. That’s always tough. But that’s not the point. Writers write. Good times, bad times, all the time – writers write.

Ed Lee, television writer:  When times get difficult, I’ll try even harder to stick to my practice. That means adhering to my writing schedule the best I can, to the point where the discipline gives me comfort. For those hours I set aside for writing, I know I can escape into the world of my characters and give myself a break from the “real world.”

Of course, this can be harder to do when events in the news or in life are particularly upsetting. In those times, I feel it’s perfectly valid to hit “save” on a project and take a mental health break. I’ll take that time to journal, talk to friends/loved ones, or simply just take a walk to organize my thoughts and emotions.

Liz Stephens, memoir writer and essayist:  I write because of difficult times. The happiest times I’ve had in the world and in my life, the halcyon, balmy, stars-aligned, right-with-the-world years – well, let’s be honest, moments – have been an absolute wash in the writing department.  There’s just not as much drive to write about joy. We are content in our skins then, nothing scratching to get out. Cats in the sun. But trouble gnaws. It feels like a rash, like indigestion, like broken hearts. There’s more of a refusal to be ignored in it. As well as a sometimes life-giving desire to have the last word over trouble. To get the official story down of our hearts, and sometimes, even, of our legal, emotional, physical trouble.

How is writing a healing process for you?

Rick Bursky: Writing is power. Writing makes me stronger. I have a tough time with writing as a healing process but I think there’s something to be said for writing as a way to figure out how you feel. Joan Didion said “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” Sometimes writing something in my notebook, slamming the cover shut and putting the book on the shelf feels like closure. Perhaps that’s a form of healing. I couldn’t throw away my father’s tennis shoes after he died. It was painful. But after I wrote about them sitting in a dark corner of the closet, well, after that throwing them out wasn’t possible because they would live forever as inky lines in my books. I might be saying that writing celebrates death. Hmm?

Ed Lee:  Writing can be a lonely process. But if I can get even one reader to feel the way I feel, it shows me I’m not alone in the world, that there are certain things that bind us together as human beings.

Liz Stephens: Writing about trauma is healing. You aren’t imagining that, if you’ve felt that power before in your own life. There are studies on this. Humans are storytelling animals, and the power of manipulating and determining your actual story is powerful voodoo. You say your piece, with the time to think events through. The time to grieve and rant and discover your own feelings as you name them. The time to dwell on the bits that horrified you and unravel why they did. And then, to walk away from it, and out into the world. “This happened,” the writing says, and so you don’t have to keep saying it. There’s a reason that many teachers go to prisons and juvenile detention centers and women’s shelters and volunteer to guide people to write.

Thank you, Rick, Ed, and Liz!

I feel incredibly grateful that I get to work with such disciplined, knowledgeable, and insightful writers and teachers.  You too can benefit from their wisdom.  Call our Writers’ Program main line to ask about the courses they’re teaching this fall at 310-825-9415.  Online enrollment opens on July 25th.

Carla Janas is the Assistant to the Director. Contact her directly at cjanas@uclaextension.edu or 310-267-4888.

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