Expert insight: writing emotionally difficult scenes

Tolstoy, writing, depression

Do we really need to draw blood to create?

“One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one’s own flesh in the ink pot each time one dips one’s pen”

Leo Tolstoy


The writing and editing of some emotionally hard scenes in my new WIP (Dirty Monsters, Book 1) gave me pause for thought this week, during which I asked myself some questions.


  • It was a hard storyline, yes, but why did I then want to avoid plot fall-out?
  • It was a hard storyline, yes, but why did I not want to explore it further?
  • Why was it so difficult to write and edit? Sheesh, it’s only fiction.
  • Do I still agree with Tolstoy?


I formed some amateur theories then called in the cavalry, in the form of Kate Savill, a transactional analysis psychotherapist whose clients work mainly in the creative industries. Here’s a transcript of the interview.


If the creative process opens old wounds or challenges us to face fears, how can we remain true to it without being hurt?


KS: The short answer is, you can’t create wonderful, deep work without being hurt.

It should be understood that creativity and your feelings and experiences can’t be ring-fenced from each other, they are not exclusive or isolated. In order to investigate and celebrate your creativity, you must make a deal with yourself to embrace your dark side.

Carl Jung said you should embrace your dark side as if it was an old friend. It’s part of you, and to create effectively you must be whole – your dark and your light together. It’s very difficult to explore your creative potential if you’re scared to go there.

Channelling is how some people view creativity, as something higher than themselves. You are the key to accessing the creative channel; the whole of you, including your shadows. There will be pain and you will get hurt, but it’s important to recognise there will also be healing as a result. The healing process is a naturally occurring part of creativity, because the positive creative energy transforms the negatives of hurt and pain and grief and shame.


Are there tricks, working habits, rituals that creatives can use in order to write about tough issues and feel okay about it afterwards, i.e. not go into a depression or ‘get stuck’ in old emotions?


KS: One way I get clients to safely channel emotions/experiences for their creative lives is to get them to understand the difference between feeling and thinking. There is a distinction – be aware of possible incongruence between these states; this often takes people by surprise and can lead you to explore the reason why. The ideal situation for channelling creativity is to be aware of both states: notice when you feel and when you think; be conscious of the shifts from one to the other.

It’s a good idea to prepare for the creative session using visualisation. Acknowledge what you intend to do and imagine how you might feel after you’ve finished. This way you accept that there may be pain, but you can also project that you might feel satisfied that you’ve met the challenge and explored your shadows. Check back with yourself afterwards and make sure you do indeed feel proud of yourself. Take control to enable and foster a productive creative process; don’t go into it blindly.


What about after-care?


KS: Support is essential for creatives who are digging deep. This might be in the form of a psychotherapist, counsellor or friend; alternatively, you can support yourself.

For work that’s emotionally challenging, it’s vital to schedule in support for the hour afterwards, then again 12 hours after that, and finally about 24 hours afterwards. Planning support like this is important because it’s impossible to guarantee a time-scale for the emergence of emotions; you should never assume you’ll be okay with a five minute chat just afterwards.

The supportive friend should be chosen carefully. Actions or advice are not necessary, there’s a requirement only to listen – the healing comes naturally, simply by talking, by speaking aloud: the spoken word is very powerful.

If it isn’t possible to talk to a friend, then try recording yourself – just start talking and keep going for an hour if you can. Then listen to what you said. There are usually three or four powerful insights within these kinds of sessions – a therapist would pick up and work with these, but if you’re doing this alone then you might notice revealing repetitions, certain phrases, clues that will help you understand and heal, as you listen back.

Make sure these sessions are in a safe, quiet environment where you won’t be disturbed, and have things handy that will help. I recommend hugging a cuddly toy as a great way of comforting and sustaining your inner child, especially relevant if the recent creativity has been related to childhood issues or traumas.


Do you have any other advice?


KS: First, the biggest con is that some writers pretend they are not their characters. Be aware that, to a greater or lesser degree, your characters are parts of you and you use them to explore both yourself and the world.

Last but not least, it’s crucial not to under-estimate the power of creativity. Anyone who says it’s easy is either lying or not accessing/channelling it properly. Creativity is something to be respected – huge respect, it’s such a potent force. And not everyone can do it – many people close their eyes to it, which is perfectly fine too.


The interview with Kate confirmed a few suspicions, but absolutely opened my mind to the value of emotional preparation and after-care, rather than just gritting my teeth, immersing myself, then chewing the keyboard afterwards.

If you have any tips, rituals or experiences to share, please do so below.

And as a postscript – yes, I still agree with Tolstoy.

Thanks Kate!


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