Writing about heart-wrenching things can be, well, heart-wrenching. Because it can feel like you’re experiencing the profound pain all over again. It can feel like you’re re-opening a wound or cutting through a scar.
For author Dana Bowman writing her second book about her relapse was really hard. “It HURT… I cried a lot of nights, after a long day of writing,” Bowman told me. “It was like I was going through it and processing it, yet again.”
It was also hard because of the societal perception, the shame and the sense of failure that often accompanies relapse. As Bowman said, “in initial recovery, we are treated like such heroes. ‘Wow! Good for you! You got sober!’ But when you squander that and relapse? People are not quite so thrilled for you.”
Bowman wrote about the initial stages of her recovery in her first memoir Bottled: A Mom’s Guide to Early Recovery. Her follow-up book, How to Be Perfect Like Me, reveals the messiness of recovery.
So why write at all? Why write when it stings so sharply?
Bowman writes because it’s “the only way to keep me from going nutty.” It is her way of being authentic and honest. And, she added, “Confession lightens us. It is freedom.”
For many of us writing is how we process and release what’s happening. It’s how we make sense of confusing thoughts and nebulous feelings. It’s how we put down the heavy weight we’re carrying. It’s how we stop holding our breaths. It’s how we exhale.
But how do we do the actual writing when it hurts so bad?
What helped Bowman write about her relapse was her faith and support network. “Without that, I would have been lost. My husband was there for me. My friends in recovery embraced me, helped me, listened to me and walked me through it,” said Bowman, who also pens a popular parenting blog called Momsieblog.
It wasn’t all rosy—but that helped, too. “I remember clearly my husband telling me, with a lot of frustration, just HOW ticked off he was about all of this. But his honesty was good. His frustration was good. I needed to hear it.”
Laughter also was critical. “[Comedians] so often are bringing us to gales of laughter, but that material? It all came from pain. Straight up pain. I think that is how we heal—through sharing it and (in my case) laughing about some of it, and healing.” In fact, humor plays a key part in How to Be Perfect Like Me. It’s about a very serious subject, and yet it’s also funny. Really funny.
Bowman leads workshops on writing and addiction, with a special emphasis on being a woman in recovery while parenting young children. While it’s tough to write about hard times, she believes it’s important and totally doable.
She suggested first noticing your thoughts. Are they angry? Are they filled with self-loathing? If so, you might need more processing time before putting your pain out there. (Of course, you can absolutely write about it, and explore it as much as you need to, but just keep it to yourself.)
However, she said, “if you are questioning or just looking back on it with more of a ‘how do I handle this? how do I work through this?’ I think that’s the time to start.”
And to start, take a deep breath, and dive in, Bowman said. She gives her students an exercise called “marathon running,” where she asks them: “Why did this happen?” Then they write for 10 minutes, without pausing or putting their pens down.
“You’d be surprised what beauty comes out of it.”
Remember, too, that you don’t need to spill all the details if you’re writing for publication. You may want to keep certain stories, moments and memories private. And that’s absolutely OK. And it’s a good thing. Bowman emphasized balance and boundaries. “Total revelation to the public is not necessary and sometimes it’s best to reign it in.” She also emphasized editing and editing some more. This is when an editor or a writing community can help.
Practically, Bowman, who’s a visual person, drafted the book’s ideas on Post-It notes, which she put on a poster board. She kept “endlessly moving them around. Oh it was an endless web I wove.”
“I think the main thing is to just keep at it, keep trying, and also? Understand that you are NOT ever going to have a perfect book,” ‘Bowman said.
One of her favorite quotes from recovery is: “We can do hard things.” “Sometimes that applies to basic adulting. Like, we got up, put on real clothes, paid our bills, and even answered the phone a few times (hard to do when introverted). Sometimes it means we stay sober for the next twenty-four hours.”
And sometimes it means you write about it.