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When You're Writing about Pain, Create a Safe Haven

A writer friend of mine is struggling. She is writing about an abusive relationship she is now out of, and is finding herself stuck. It is important for her to write her story, but sometimes she gets overwhelmed by sadness and fear as she writes. As a result, she often has trouble getting started on her daily writing. “I just sit there and can’t get going,” she told me recently. “I know once I do, I’m going to have to relive that relationship, and I just don't want to go there.”

I always advise writers to wait until they are ready before they write about painful experiences, even if it takes years. But many writers—like my friend—want and need to get their stories down. So what can you do when the pain of a memory blocks your writing or takes you places you don’t want to go? One thing I suggest is creating a “safe haven.” Here is how.

From Writing as a Sacred Path.

Set up a retreat site. Before you begin your journey, create a place you can retreat to when fear takes over. Make it a real place—the corner of a room, your garden, a favorite chair—not just an image in your mind. Don’t choose the park a mile away or the beach you have to drive to. Your safe haven has to be easily and immediately reachable from the place you write.

Make it safe. The most important thing about a safe haven is that it must feel protected. The minute you enter that room or sit down on that lawn chair in the backyard, you must know that you are out of danger. It isn’t relaxation, joy, or laughter we are trying to evoke here—although they may come—but a sense of safety.

To make the place a shelter from the storm, put objects there that make you feel secure. If a picture of your spouse, dog, or favorite picnic spot evokes feelings of protection, put one in your safe haven. If the fragrance of cedar or cinnamon comforts you, have a scented candle or some essential oil there.If you remember your childhood as a time of security and nurturance, a favorite doll or stuffed toy might do the trick.

Sound can also bring about feelings of protection. This might be a Tibetan singing bowl, a trickling desk fountain, or a favorite piece of calming music—but if a recording of the Three Chipmunks singing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” makes you think of summer days with your family, by all means use it.

When you know there is a space you can go to bring yourself out of the fear, away from the pain, it is much easier to dive into your writing—even when you’re writing into very dark places.

There are more than 85 additional exercises for building your writing life in Writing as a Sacred Path.