Writing Big Events in Life: Wisdom Rules

Writing about big events in your life—whether traumatic or just amazing can be powerful—if you allow enough time to pass first.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips for writing about consequential life events:

Five Year Rule

A famous writer once told me not to write about significant life events—especially traumatic ones—for five years. At the time, I was writing about my family’s journey with addiction, and we’d just had a pretty traumatic event.

I asked this writer why—after all, my emotions were intense. She replied that I was still too close to write in a way that readers would identify with. She recommended five years as a general rule, time to develop objectivity and wisdom.

Wisdom? At the time, I chafed against the advice. Yet five years later, I’m convinced that writer was right. After this much time, I’m able to look at life from both sides now, as Joni Mitchell put it. I see more than just my opinion and have compassion for more than just what I consider wrongs done to me. Five years seems like a long time—and maybe for some it’s too long. Yet it seems wise to leave a significant amount of time to pass before you tackle an emotional trauma.

No Victims

When we write about the trauma of our lives (or the fictional lives of our characters), wisdom becomes important to avoid victimhood. If we write as a victim, we open ourselves to rants or whines that will turn off many readers. These readers are looking for ways to relate or to gain wisdom about life trauma.

Readers seldom enjoy a “pity party” or a poor me character—another reason to avoid sounding like a victim. If you’re writing about a loved one’s or your own cancer, one of the only reasons anyone else wants to read about it is to glean wisdom or to find redemption or strength through your story. If the writing lacks this wisdom, it may end up being a tedious chronicle of unpronounceable medical terms with some poor me thrown in.

To avoid sounding like a victim, wait until you’ve had a good amount of time–at least one to two months–to process your experiences. Remind yourself that writing about personal experience is never a license to whine, bellow about life’s unfairness or hold a pity party—UNLESS you weave in some relatable wisdom which readers can take away from your effort.

Wait at least a couple months before you write about trauma.

Extraordinary Ordinariness

New memoir writers often want to write about the biggest events of their lives. If not enough time has passed before you write, your effort may wind up sounding melodramatic. The day the car blew up, the time you were robbed at gunpoint or received a terrible medical diagnosis—all these types of experiences are more difficult to get right, especially if they occurred recently.

Highly skilled writers often evoke the most honest emotion from ordinary moments. Why? Because they can showcase the ways life has changed for that person since the trauma. A quiet scene where the trauma is referenced but not chronicled, might pack the more powerful punch. And what you have learned after the fact might be most valuable to readers. Side note: ordinary scenes might lead you to use few if any exclamation points. Exclamation points add to a feeling of melodrama, which most readers eschew in favor of honest emotion.

When you experience a life-changing or traumatic event, write all the details in your journal. Laugh, cry, rant and rave all you want. But wait to write these events for publication. Give yourself time to develop objectivity and wisdom. If you’re trying to write about something where you are still too close, put it on the backburner until your eye is clearer and you’ve learned a thing or two.


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing Big Events in Life: Wisdom Rules

  1. Good advice Linda! I recently ran across a letter I had written to a person who was close to me about an incident that had occurred . Fortunately I never sent it as it expressed all my emotions at the time. Upon reading it again I realized I had not looked at the other side. This person had a disease that I had not taken into perspective at the time and was only thinking of how it affected me. Waiting was a good thing. That person is no longer on this earth but I have kept the letter to remind me to wait when I feel a need to confront or write something that might bring on consequences that can harm or hurt someone. The advice is good not only for those aspiring to authorship but for every day life. Thank you for the timely article.
    Sincerely, Vicki Haines

  2. Vicki,
    We are all so very human. I too have written stuff that I was somehow saved from embarrassment. I’ve had many students who were so urgently writing about their trauma, but unable to give readers any takeaway. Wait is often good advice! Thanks for commenting.
    Keep Writing,

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