Carolyn Kaufman Psy.D.

Psychology for Writers

Using Personal Disasters to Inform Your Writing

Your personal disaster can help you write better crises for your characters

Posted May 17, 2013

Bad things – sometimes terrible things – happen to us all. While they’re happening, we’re focused on surviving them.

But after we manage to do that, for better or worse, we've learned something new about the human condition. And if there’s one thing writers do well, it’s share how hard it is to be human.  

I have this little voice inside that I call The Writer. When something really awful happens, it’s the part of me that’s yelling “Oh man, you can totally use this in your stories!” Don’t get me wrong, a lot of times panic and horror mostly overwhelm the Voice, but for me, it’s always there.

Whether you have a mouthy Writer voice or not, after you survive the emergency, disaster, or tragedy, you’re going to have to process it. Most people do that by talking with others, but as a writer, you may also want to…well, write about it.  Whether you’re journaling in the first person or incorporating your experience into a character’s journey, if you do a good job of sharing what you went through, including your struggle to find meaning in it all, that will resonate with your readers.

The loudest I ever remember The Writer being during a crisis was during college, when my long-term boyfriend got into a fistfight with his identical twin brother. Everyone had been drinking, my boyfriend took the keys away from his twin’s girlfriend, and his twin took offense. Hence, the fistfight.

That was the first (though certainly not the last) time in my life that I was genuinely hysterical. Most of me was freaking out, trying to decide how to intervene, but in my head The Writer starts jumping up and down and shrieking, “Wow, this hysteria thing is fascinating. You’re laughing and crying and feeling like you’re half-outside your body. We have got to remember this so we can use it in our writing!”

So now when I have an hysterical character, he or she gets to be hysterical in pretty realistic form.

Another example:

Last October I got out of bed, put in my contacts, and promptly started to go blind.

Over the next few hours, my surroundings appeared to be filling with more and more smoke, which nobody else could see. I changed my contacts. That didn’t work, so I got online, Googled it, and concluded I must be getting a migraine. I’ve never had one with hazy or cloudy vision before, but the magical Internet assured me that such things happen. I’d had both my eyes and my physical health checked the previous month and I’d come through with flying colors, so a migraine made the most sense.

The problem was that I never developed the migraine pain, and over the next few hours, everything became so hazy that I couldn’t see myself in the mirror. I went back on Google and (with great difficulty, at 300% magnification) searched some more. If you’re going blind and it isn’t a migraine, the warnings on the internet are dire. Scared to death, I had someone take me to the ER.

Though the storyteller in me would love to give you all the gory details about my visits (plural) to the ER (I was misdiagnosed the first time I went), that isn’t really the point here. My point is that I now know all about multiple conditions that can cause sudden cloudy and blurry vision, as well as blindness. I know how the ER handles emergencies like this. I know what kinds of medications they recommend (antibiotics for your eyes), what kinds of specialists you’re supposed to see (ophthalmologists and neurologists), what it’s like to get a CAT scan (pretty cool), what it’s like to feel you’re your eyeballs are on fire (very not cool), and what it’s like to get your corneas dyed so the doctor can look for abrasions. I also learned that sometimes when you go blind, everything doesn’t go black. It goes white.*

Now my characters can experience all of these things realistically. Likewise, your characters can experience the types of things you have. Sure, we had to go through something miserable to learn what we did, but since we had to go through it…we might as well figure out how to get a story out of it!**

*If you’re wondering what the final diagnosis was…turns out I had managed to chemically burn both of my corneas with a detergent I’ve used for years to clean my lens case. (Now I just buy new lens cases!) Interestingly, it didn’t hurt a bit. The pain came later, after I’d removed my lenses. The theory is that blinking sloughed off the burned part of the cornea over the next few hours, which eventually resulted in dead-of-night second-trip-to-the-emergency-room agony.

** After we survived The Great Scorched Eyeball Incident, my mom said, “I bet you’ll at least get a blog post out of this.” She clearly knows me – and The Writer – well! 

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.

© 2013 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today