We’ve probably all read books that hurt to read. They make us cry when they confront hard losses. They make us uncomfortable when they confront hard issues. They make us weep, make us squirm.
Those books also hurt to write. Speaking as an author, sometimes it’s amazing that they ever get published. I wonder if other writers debate as I do whether the books that hurt to write should ever be set free into the light of day, because they take us to places neither we nor the reader always want to go.
Most of the time I think yes, these stories need to be told. Especially when they also uplift us from the bleak depths and offer hope that might mirror our own circumstances.
It’s hard, though, not only writing them, but also letting these books go.
Every Book That Hurt Me
I can name every book I’ve written that hurt: The Ever Spirits; Heiress of Magic; I, Ruin; I Dreamed of Us. Every one in a different way.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t feel like I’m a writer so much as a conduit. That’s true. I don’t make up the stories that spill onto the page; the characters just appear in my mind and I have to find the right words to express them so that they wield an appropriate amount of power. And that sometimes hurts.
Most of the time I don’t realize it in the beginning, either. It creeps up until you’re in the thick of it.
What Pain Does
The first book that hurt me was The Ever Spirits. I wrote half of it before my husband told me he wanted a divorce and the other half after. The book itself didn’t hurt to write, but I was hurting while I wrote it. A lot. And I didn’t realize it until I picked it up again a year later.
I was trying to vicariously forge my own path out of pain. I’d mostly protected the heroine, but I’d destroyed almost everyone around her. I’d taken these beautiful, mystical opalescent birds and turned them into vicious killers. I’d taken good, loyal warriors and slaughtered them in brutal ways. I’d taken her family and put them through suffering beyond human bearing. And although I kept her love intact, I also broke it even while I gave her a happy ending (a hopeful ending?).
It was a book of polarities, the first half romantic fantasy, the second half a descent into the bloody dark. I had to work hard to even out the two sides, greatly lessening the gore of the second half while shading more darkness into the first, and some people can still tell the point where it goes from something without shadows to something steeped in them.
Some time after that, I read All Our Yesterdays. It had a love triangle in it and I HATE LOVE TRIANGLES! But the reviews were so good that I bought it and read it and was like WOW, that didn’t hurt at all! I can do that. And people love this stuff. All these glowing reviews.
I can do this, I thought. If love triangles are what people like, then I’ll write one.
So I sat down to work on Heiress of Magic and eventually a tale came to me of a melancholy young woman dancing while stars floated from her hair, a young woman enslaved by a guild and married to her dance partner, the handsome, aloof man she cared for but did not love. They were friends with a volatile fire mage who drank away a sorrow he never voiced and implied there was more to her past than she remembered, because a shadow in the night stole into her bedroom and took her memories away.
I started writing it, getting swept up in her story, her emotions, her trials and tribulations.
But as I continued, my insides started cramping and I started avoiding the book. I had to force myself to work on her parts. It got harder.
Then something happened that hadn’t happened to me while reading a book since I was twelve.
While writing one of her scenes, I started crying.
Then I kept crying. I cried again and again because I was inside her mind all the time and it freaking hurt and I was like why? Why does this hurt when the love triangle in All Our Yesterdays didn’t?
Because, as my friend explained afterward, you’re supposed to make the heroine fall out of love with one of the love interests. I’d made her fall into love with the one she wasn’t supposed to be with while she still loved the first one. It was an impossible situation.
Apparently I can’t do anything the easy way. Maybe because I don’t believe in it.
I tried, though, with the next book that ended up hurting me.
Trying to Suppress It Doesn’t Work
A year or so later, in the middle of a book about a girl with sparkly pink wings that flirted with her crush, I sandwiched in another story about her best friend, Cascade, a traumatized girl who’d been taught by her father to be an assassin. She killed not only criminals, but also, when necessary, good people with good intentions.
My editor suggested I take this darker character’s story out, but my gut wrenched against it. I thought I just wasn’t going deep enough and showing enough of her story, so I went deeper. And because her darkness didn’t mesh with the main heroine’s funny sarcasm, I split Cascade’s story off into another book, I, Ruin.
My editor said I still wasn’t going deep enough.
So I went deeper, and I knew I was pushing farther than I ever had before, and it hurt because of things Cascade’s father made her do in training. But I also gave her a love story that transcended her torment and survived all the odds despite her brokenness. A guy who braved everything and never wavered no matter how much he challenged and pushed her. His name is Lunar. And as I wrote it, I kept wondering what he was thinking. If he ever thought, She’s too messed up. How can I be what she needs when she’s got so much she’s trying to overcome and I’m just a normal guy?
Can You Ever Be Enough for Someone Tortured?
That question wouldn’t relent, and eventually I found an old version of Cascade’s story that I’d abandoned where Cascade was an innocent, not traumatized, and I picked it back up. That became I Dreamed of Us, where I wrote her and Lunar’s story reversed, in an alternate world where Lunar was the unstable one, the one who’d been traumatized when younger, and Cascade was just slightly self-destructive.
It was hard. It hurts still, thinking of it, because it’s told from Cascade’s perspective but we get Lunar’s suffering because she lives with it. She feels it. There are also diary entries from the point of view of a girl who has been sexually abused for years and is working against her abuser to protect the utopian city she lives in. My friend who read it said the whole story is emotional, intense, and DC-Universe dark.
I believe her, because today I went through a scene where we relive one of the things that happened to Lunar, and I realized it freaking hurt, and hurt a lot, and I questioned again not only how I could stand writing something so full of pain, but why I even published it. I realized then that the book isn’t about the pain. It’s not about the torment.
It’s about a way out of it. It’s about looking past the pain another causes you (out of emotional suffering, not out of abuse) and finding the hope that they don’t dare wish for themselves. It’s about daring to believe in that hope until they do, too, no matter how tortured they are. It’s about enduring beyond what we think we can and finding something better even if it’s not perfect.
Love Is Enough
Although I do write flippant, fun books, I feel it’s the ones that hurt me that define me more, and I still sometimes question why I write books like this rather than lighter reads where the suffering is perfectly tolerable and doesn’t tap into the deep, abiding pain inside. Books where the depths of trauma are barely explored in pages that never truly go to that deeply unhappy, squirmy place.
But the truth is I know why I write books like this.
Because I want to show that no matter how deeply we’re hurt, no matter how much we’re broken, ruined, abused, or how much we self-sabotage ourselves, there’s a way out of torment. But it’s NOT the love of others, in all its forms – the love of a mother, father, sister, brother, partner, friend – that can pull us out.
It’s our love that can save us.
Our love for them.
Our love for ourselves.
Our love for our dreams.
If we love something enough, we will follow it until we find a way out, protect it until we are stronger than we ever expected, and love it with a power that can carry us into a future we never hoped for.