3 Tips for Writing About Heavy Stuff
Last week, I was hanging out with my dad watching YouTube videos and we decided to take a trip down memory lane. My dad was a stay-at-home parent for five years, and we spent a lot of time watching classic Nick Jr. (if you’re an ‘80s baby like me, you know what I’m talking about!).
Maybe it’s my sense of nostalgia, but kids’ TV shows were just better back then. When I watch today’s children’s programming, I feel like I’m on speed. All the colors are heightened, everything is fast-paced, and the animation is super sharp and clean-cut. Not so with the ‘80s. Choppy cartoons, borderline-scary puppets, bizarre mixes of live-action and animation, people dressed up as animals . . . it’s just all so great.
At least until it gets a little too weird.
One of our favorite options from the daily Nick Jr. fare was David the Gnome. The show followed the adventures of David and Lisa, two gnomes who live in a tree in a forest surrounded by their animal friends, including their trusty friend and frequent Uber transport, Swift the Fox.
In each episode, they have adventures in the forest and David teaches his young viewers important life lessons. It’s pretty delightful and as a kid, I really loved the animation and characters.
But back to the present day. I was hanging out with Dad and we started searching on YouTube for these kids’ shows we used to watch together and an episode of David the Gnome popped up. “Cool,” we said. “It’s a blast from the past. Let’s watch one.”
Except it wasn’t a blast. It was an episode we’d never seen before, one that I didn’t even know existed.
It was the series finale, which has a conclusion that would have most definitely sent four-year-old Kori into hysterics.
It goes like this: David and Lisa die.
Here’s a quickie synopsis. Because gnomes can only live to be exactly 400 years old, they have to leave their compound in the forest and travel to The Mountains Beyond, where they fade away using some bizarre computer animation and subsequently turn into trees.
There are also lots of grief-stricken animals, including poor Swift, who has a full-on meltdown when he realizes what’s happening.
Dad and I were taking this in with a general “what the crap” attitude. The whole thing was just bizarre, not to mention totally disturbing.
It also really affected me emotionally. I walked around for the next few days haunted by the death of some cartoon gnomes and it’s been thirty-four years since I last watched an episode of this thing.
I mean, death is an inevitability, and in the days before snowflakes and helicopter parents, people seemed to think kids were a lot more resilient than they are today. That’s how we ended up with the death of Atreyu’s horse in The Neverending Story and the entire movie The Land Before Time.
Still . . . I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the David the Gnome camp when they settled on this premise for ending the series.
I’ve got it! Let’s just kill ‘em. Yeah, the kids will be freaked out. But this way, there’s virtually no chance of a spinoff.
And this got me thinking about whether there is a right or wrong way to write stories about heavy stuff.
Sidenote: If you’re an ‘80s kid and are now morbidly curious about the deaths of David and Lisa and think you can maybe emotionally handle it, you can watch the episode here.
Writing About Tough Topics Like Death Sucks
Right now, I’m working on my third book, a collection of flash nonfiction pieces about my journey as a Christian. I was an atheist for most of my life, and I’ve had an unexpected and unorthodox journey toward being a believer in Christ and navigating my faith over the last sixteen years.
I’ve avoided writing about my personal life pretty much forever. It’s been easier for me to disguise my issues with poetry and fiction because that allows you some distance.
The fictional character you’re writing about isn’t really you. There’s just enough overlap between their life and yours for you to dip your toe in the water of processing your stuff, but not have to fully commit to doing so in front of a live studio audience.
Thus, writing about my personal journey is a new thing for me, and it hasn’t been easy. It’s forced me to look at the traumatic aspects of my faith journey, from a cruel relative who set my path toward atheism in motion to identity issues to being a part of a legalistic, abusive church that almost made me walk away from Christianity.
One of my fears in writing this book has been that I’ll come across as too self-righteous, whiny, or in need of pity. This is not acceptable because my whole point is that it’s people that hurt people, not Jesus. He isn’t the problem.
We have taken the single greatest message in history—that forgiveness, grace, and freedom are available to anyone through Christ—and weaponized it to hurt people and create power plays, especially in the case of leaders who are supposed to be caring for people and modeling the life Jesus commanded us to live.
I’ve overcome those struggles not because I’m a strong person, but because He is.
Still, writing about painful experiences and topics is straight-up rough, and the fact that I worry about sounding self-congratulatory and attention-seeking shows that there is plenty of bad writing out there.
How Do You Avoid Doing It Wrong?
If you share my concerns about writing badly about difficult topics, I’ve got some tips that I’ve learned from navigating this project that I hope will help.
It’s Not About You.
No matter what genre you specialize in, bad writing happens when you think about yourself instead of the reader.
The first question you should ask isn’t, “How is writing about my pain going to make me feel?” It’s, “How is knowing what I’ve been through going to benefit my reader and make their lives better?”
Focusing on what your reader needs will always help divert your focus from being self-centered in your work.
I wrote about this in a previous blog post about writing trauma-related nonfiction, but motivation is also a big part of this. If your motive for writing is to get revenge or tell “your side of the story,” you need to find another topic.
Focus on the Concrete Details
I’ve discovered that the best way to take the focus off yourself is to zero in on the details. It isn’t just about using good description—it’s about evoking the sensory elements that will put the reader right in the middle of your experience. The details themselves are often the things that are most memorable for people who experience the stories of others.
Recently, I watched a documentary called My Brother Jordan. Produced by filmmaker Justin Robinson, it tells the life story of his brother, Jordan Robinson, an ordinary guy who loved basketball and engaged in bizarre antics with his friends and brothers.
Jordan died of cancer at age nineteen, and the film sheds a lot of light on his illness. But his death is by no means the focus of the movie. Instead, you spend an hour getting to know Jordan—his fun-loving personality, passion for sports, and devotion to the people he cared about.
It’s those details that have stayed with me since watching the film. Not the way he died.
The details you choose to emphasize can make a difference in the effectiveness of how you relate the events and topics.
Don’t Be Jarring or Mysterious
You know what the biggest problem I had with that David the Gnome finale was (aside from how it stole the innocence of one of my favorite shows from childhood)?
It’s the fact that the ending doesn’t line up with the rest of the show. At all.
The fact that death is the focus of the episode is so downplayed at the beginning that I kept expecting David and Lisa to decide to not go on their journey after all and stay in the forest with their animals instead.
That’s because all the episodes had some kind of lesson or moral, and in this case, the lesson would be that being home with the people you love is better than setting off on your own.
Instead, I got totally confused about what I was watching, and as a result, the death scene was sloppy.
Maybe there’s a way they could have saved it and instead made their deaths be a satisfying ending. Instead, the setup was so bad that it made for a terrible way to address death with kids.
It also put parents in the terrible position of having to explain what happened. My dad’s primary reaction, aside from horror, was total relief that I saw the episode as an adult and not as a four-year-old, because four-year-old me would have had a total emotional collapse.
The moral here is to make sure discussion of heavy topics is earned. Provide proper setup. Don’t try to surprise the reader or add in some kind of twist at the end. Clever writing doesn’t have a place in writing about heavy topics. Save that kind of thing for genres where readers will expect it.
The bottom line is to treat serious subjects with sensitivity. You are honoring the reader with your story, and you’re not aware of what their history with the topic is. I’m not saying you have to get paranoid or worry about “triggering” readers. But a certain amount of decency in how you portray your topic is required.
I’d love to talk with you on a free Zoom call on how to do this. We meet for thirty minutes to discuss your writing questions and concerns and come up with a plan about what you can do next.
I like to call it a Virtual Meetup.
Click here to find out more and get a link to my personal calendar.