Writing nonfiction, writing the hard topics

Often when someone chooses to write a nonfiction book, it’s because something has moved them. Something has changed their world. Often, it’s for the worse. Nonfiction books are often written because there’s something terrible in the world that the author wants to shine a light upon.

These are things that cause us grief. And it’s good that we talk about it. Grief is healthy. It’s a visitor that we all have to sit with in our lives.

But grief is also duplicitous. It will tell you you’re the only one feeling this. That you’re weak to handle this so poorly or to be so upset. That you are, and always will be, alone.

Of course, this is all bullshit. But it’s hard to remember that when you’re looking at everyone’s Instagram-worthy life. No one’s posting pictures from their mother’s funeral.

This is exactly why writing personal books about things that have left scares are so vital. It’s a way to reach people you may never meet, hold their hand, and tell them that we’ve been where they are. That we can walk this path together. That they are not alone.

All that being said, writing a book about hard topics is difficult. Especially if it’s something you have firsthand experience with.

If you have chosen to undertake this, God bless and go with you. It is hard work, but it can be so worth it. In writing about hard topics, you’ll exorcise the poison inside you from them. But it’s still hard. 

If you’re writing about something you’ve experienced first hand, it is terrifying to wade back into that. If you’re writing about something that impacts others, it’s still emotionally taxing to delve into these stories. So you need to take care of yourself when you’re working on these kinds of projects.

Start with boundaries

Boundaries are vital in all aspects of your life. Especially when dealing with difficult work. So the first thing I suggest is having specific break days. Mark these out. Don’t work on the project at all. Don’t take notes or meetings, or do any research. Not even one little slip. If this is the only day someone can meet for an interview, then they don’t get interviewed. These are days for you to rest. For your psyche to recover from the beating it’s getting.

 Because this work can be so much more draining than writing fiction, I suggest you don’t set strict deadlines. If you need a break, then take it. Don’t add that extra stress of a deadline that you emotionally might not be able to make. Deadlines, even if they’re ones I’ve put upon myself, make me a little anxious to start with. This helps push me to get work done. But it’s not a great idea if I’m pushing through emotional trauma. 

Just like it’s important to have days off, it’s vital to put your work away at the end of a session. While I get that it’s easy to let writing bleed into the rest of your life, I don’t suggest this being a project that does that. When you’re done writing for the day, put your work away and do your best not to think about it until the next session. 

Finally, you need to have boundaries about what will and will not go into your book. You don’t have to put everything in. I’m not suggesting you lie, or hide part of the truth. If something is difficult to write about, that might be the exact thing that needs to go in there.

But we all have those moments that are truly personal. Things that we just want to keep to ourselves. 

Yes, a large part of writing nonfiction about hard topics is to share those hard moments. That doesn’t mean you have to lay your entire life bare. If you’re wondering whether or not to add in a particular story, think of it this way. Will it help someone to read it in a way that isn’t covered by another part of the book? If not, then you don’t have to put it in.

This is your life, you get to decide how much of it you share. Because you’re going to have to keep living it after someone else has long finished reading about it.

You might need some help

Writing tends to be a solo gig. But writing about hard topics is easier if you don’t face it alone. Let’s talk about building a support system.

We’ll start with a close friend or family member. Someone who knows you well enough to watch you for warning signs of depression, anxiety, or just overall being not okay. Talk with that person. Let them know what you’re doing and how they can help you if they worry you’re getting in too deep. Then, if they say they’re worried, listen to them. If you can talk to a therapist about this, do it. But I understand that not everyone can do that.

The next part of your team is your editor. If you’re working with a publisher, great you have an editor. If you’re self-publishing, get yourself an editor as soon as you can. Because here’s a nasty fact that you don’t want to hear. A hard topic book still has to be as polished and well written as any other book. And I know, the thought of such paltry things as grammar when talking about serious topics is laughable. This is why you’re going to have to rely heavily on your editor. They’re going to be the level head and steady hand when you can’t be.

Finally, don’t forget that you’re not the only one working on a difficult book. Reach out to other people who are doing this work. Find other writers online or within your community. Ask them how they’re coping. 

That’s all I have for the nonfiction series right now. But I’m open to doing more. If you have any questions about nonfiction writing, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

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