When I am run down, I tend to lie in bed at night reliving every horrible or upsetting moment I’ve experienced in my whole life. That makes me a very lucky writer, and if it happens to you you’re a lucky writer, too, because that “stuff” is powerful writing material.
Think about it: those moments from our lives still evoke strong and vivid emotional responses years or even decades after the events took place.
So how do you turn those horrible memories into writing?
If you’re a flash fiction writer, you’re lucky. You can zoom in and write about that highly specific moment.
Poets have it good, too. You can work with those memories to write a poem without a lot of transformation of the material required (in most cases).
If you write longer-form stories, you have more work to do. A single awful moment may not be substantial enough to turn into a whole story on its own. But it may provide an inciting incident, or a story beat that makes the audience strongly identify with your protagonist, or a moment that raises the emotional stakes of your scene.
You don’t have to write down your own life beat by beat. Look underneath the surface of your experience for the underlying architecture. What were the power dynamics in that moment? What was at stake? What has made that moment stick with you? What do you wish you (or someone else) had done differently? What’s the universal piece of the human experience revealed by your highly personal and specific individual experience?–And how can you take that epiphany and apply it to a different scene with different characters? Look for the patterns, look for where the emotion comes from, and then apply that to your writing.
Next time one of those memories is on a replay loop in your head, I hope that looking at it as writing fodder changes your mental gears so you can get to sleep sooner, and hopefully turns up some good writing ideas for you, too.
PS I have to thank Lydia Mulvey for a conversation that inspired this post. Thanks, beautiful.