Help! Has Motherhood Made Me Too Sensitive to Write?
In the fourth installment of our Tarot + Craft column, Sarah Elaine Smith gives advice to a writer who is having difficulty putting their main character through trauma
Two years ago, I started working on a novel. A few months later, I gave birth to my first child.
I’ve always been a very sensitive person, easily moved and disturbed by the news or stories of suffering or triumph. That’s always helped me with my writing. But having a child has made me much more sensitive. For a long time, I had to avoid reading the news. Stories about climate change unravel me. Children separated from their families at the border. Children dying from diseases or accidents. I’m crying right now, just writing this.
Here’s the problem: My book is about a natural disaster, and there is death and destruction everywhere. There are dead children, missing children, injuries, panic, fear, etc. And I’m really struggling to write those parts. I’ve gotten the feedback that I’m too easy on my main character and don’t let bad things happen to her, and I agree, but every time I get to a darker moment in the draft, I either soften it or I put off writing it.
How do I put darkness and grief and suffering into my writing without falling apart and crying for hours? I feel like my mental state is already precarious (because babies and Covid-19 and climate change and immigration, and the world is such a sad and dark place sometimes) and I’m terrified of losing myself to that darkness.
The Ideal Outcome:
Emotional regulation is a lot like carrying a jug of water on your head: To keep it from spilling, you have to walk solid, even steps. Emotions are highly mobile; they can be contained, but care must be taken in deciding how much to bottle up and hold. The ocean, however, is always there to catch spillover.
The Ten of Cups
Make a list of ten difficult things that happened in the past. Then make a list of ten good things that came, perhaps indirectly, from the difficulties. They’re there, I promise, if you look long enough.
MUSIC AND POETRY Rx
“Gracias a la Vida” by Violeta Parra and “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic
’s a risk to write anything down, a risk to let anyone read it, and a risk to say what you really want to say.
Sarah Elaine Smith was born and raised in Greene County, Pennsylvania. She has studied at the Michener Center for Writers, UT-Austin (MFA, poetry); the Iowa Writers' Workshop (MFA, fiction); and Carnegie Mellon University. Her work has received support from the MacDowell Colony and the Rona Jaffe Wallace Foundation.
Smith is the author of the novel Marilou Is Everywhere (Riverhead Books, 2019), as well as the poetry collection I Live in a Hut, 2011. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she teaches Here Be Monsters, an online novel-writing and creativity workshop.