Dear Writer: Advice on writing from lived experience
On taking control of what you share and finding a format and tone which feels comfortable, from Lucy Webster of The View from Down Here
We asked Lucy Webster for her advice on writing personal truths and tales taken from your own life and its events. In her newsletter The View From Down Here, Lucy writes about her life as a journalist and “what it’s really like to be disabled.”
Lucy is working on her first book—a memoir—about the intersection of disability and womanhood. She is a former political reporter for the BBC and, as a freelance journalist covering disability, writes for The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Times, and Tortoise Media. Read on for her response.
Dear writer, how do you feel comfortable writing about difficult personal experiences?
With these things, the how follows from the why. I write about disability—from my perspective as a lifelong, full-time wheelchair user—in the hope that I prompt people to reexamine their assumptions, challenge their prejudices, and, eventually, become allies in the fight against ableism. I’ve been doing this work long enough by now to know that when it comes to something like disability—something few people outside the community have ever really thought about—it takes a personal story to draw readers in and to help them relate. Without the emotion of a firsthand experience, the topic is too abstract, too out-of-reach. I want people to care, and so I share.
I want people to learn about ableism, so I write about the ableism I experience. And I want as many people as possible to do that learning, so I write in a very personal way, as this is the kind of writing that gets shared the most (at least on Substack). So, motivation is important. I doubt I would share the things I do if I didn’t think doing so was actively helping me towards those two goals. In other words, when it comes to writing about difficult personal experiences, I ask myself: is it worth it? If it is, this helps me put aside doubts (whether I seem weak or attention-seeking) and fears (will the response be horrible?) and simply do the job that needs to be done: putting words on the page. It gets easier the more you do it. These days, most of the time, I barely even think about it. So if you’d like to write about difficult personal experiences but you’re feeling daunted, ask yourself why you’d like to do it. The answer may be all you need to get started.
That being said, I don’t share what I don’t want to, and neither should you. I generally don’t share things if I don’t think they’ll help make my point, but I also choose to keep some things back purely for emotional reasons.
Sometimes an experience is too raw or private, or I simply haven’t worked out what to say about it yet. As a nonfiction writer, you owe your audience the truth, but you don’t owe them the whole truth immediately. You are allowed to pick and choose. This is true even within certain topics. For example, back in March I wrote an incredibly personal piece about the emotional toll of having new people join my care team. Many of my readers commented on how raw the writing is. But while that is definitely true, there are parts of the experience I deliberately left out. Doing so allowed me to write and publish an important piece about an experience we often shroud in silence, without stressing myself out. It also allows me to put some of my interviewees at ease. I tell them to flag if there’s something we talked about that they don’t want shared and I’ll either leave it out entirely or summarize the discussion, as I did in this incredible interview with disabled author Rebekah Taussig. Remember, you can tell the truth about a difficult experience without baring all.
If you’d like to write about difficult personal experiences but you’re feeling daunted, ask yourself why you’d like to do it. The answer may be all you need to get started.
Making these decisions about what and what not to share helps me feel in control. This is a key part of being comfortable writing about difficult personal experiences—I only ever do it on my own terms. That’s one of the reasons I do this writing on Substack; I don’t have to contort my experiences or share more than I want to in order to meet the demands of an editor or, worse, an algorithm.
There’s also something to be said for how you write about difficult personal experiences. I don’t believe in whitewashing. Some things are just bad and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But I also don’t believe that unrelenting misery is an accurate or useful form of disability representation. So I try to pepper my writing with humor (OK, if I’m honest, sarcasm). This is mainly because I would like readers to actually enjoy the newsletter, but also because using humor makes the writing easier. It’s a way to put a little distance between myself as someone who has experienced something bad and myself as a professional writer. This separation makes me feel much more comfortable sharing my work; I’d recommend leaning into the gap as much as possible. It helps that a lot of ableism is so absurd that I don’t have to reach very hard for the punchline.
These techniques, and the editorial control I retain, help me to be perfectly comfortable writing about difficult things, like accepting that my life won’t be like my friends’. But at the end of the day, I am happy to share because I hope I am doing good. It’s all about “why.” Well, that, and the fact that I’m a chronic oversharer in real life too. Perhaps, if you’re still worried, talk to a friend about what you want to cover and see how you feel. You may find you’re much more confident than you imagined.
This is the eighth in a recurring series of longform writer advice, following Scott Hines’s advice on cultivating connection in the internet age, Robert Reich’s advice on sharing your personality, Helena Fitzgerald’s advice on isolation, Alicia Kennedy’s advice on learning to listen, Kate Lindsay’s advice on creating trust with your readers, Anna Codrea-Rado’s advice on learning to celebrate how far you’ve come, and Mason Currey’s advice on creative growth.
Could you use some advice or inspiration from a fellow writer about creativity, motivation, and the writing life? Submit your question for consideration for a future advice column by leaving it in the comments below.