"Finding Light in the Deep Dive": A Craft Talk by Ashley Marie Farmer
Photography credit: Ryan Ridge
Last year, I published Dear Damage, a collection of essays about my family. At the center is a tough subject (a mercy killing/attempted suicide, gun violence, and the shifting American Dream), and although I tried to balance heavy content with lighter material, it’s a book that explores darkness. Prior to writing Dear Damage, I’d mostly written fiction and poetry, so a true, personal project of this sort was daunting—even though, the day this tragedy happened, I knew I’d eventually try to put it into words.
What I love most about writing stories or poems is the sustained daydream: conjuring a character as she flies down the road or calls her goofball ex or turns into a bird. However, in tackling nonfiction, it felt like imagination had been usurped by responsibility. I had to be correct, precise. No making things up. Moreover, I felt a personal duty to render my family’s story with care and be fair about a complicated subject—all while crafting something a stranger might want to read. The first essay I wrote and published from the collection was something I’d obsessed over, scouring it hundreds of times before it felt finished(-ish).
All of this is to say that, at first, it was hard to find magic in this process.
Even if you trust that the rewards of personal nonfiction are worthwhile—the ability to connect with readers or shine a light on topics we don’t always talk about—those ideals don’t mean much if you dread opening your laptop. In order to see a project like this through, I had to find some modicum of pleasure in the writing process. So, while I’m not one to give advice, I thought I’d share a few things I uncovered that helped make writing tough stuff less onerous—even allowing me to find improbable fun in it.
Give yourself time.
People have asked if writing this book was cathartic. I understand the question, but it wasn’t my experience—largely because, at the suggestion of others, I didn’t write it until I’d processed things on a personal level. It’s not that I’d reconciled everything complicated about this situation when I started the book, but the turmoil had ebbed, the times had changed, and I was freer to explore it from a creative place rather than a therapeutic one. Maybe you’re someone who finds value in writing through the heavy thing as it’s happening. However, if you’re like me, time and distance might be your friend. Not feeling so tender about an experience could make for a lighter, more inherently creative endeavor.
Find rituals that make the process satisfying.
Maybe this is no different than any other writing project, but having a good soundtrack, enjoyable snacks, fresh-air breaks, a nearby pet, a nice light bulb, or a pleasing public space to post up in can make it less of a chore to hammer out vulnerable or complex ideas. Before working on this book, I was mostly glad to scribble words wherever I happened to be. But I took more care this time in making my own setting appealing and infusing the process with tiny pleasures.
Allow for elements of formal play.
I made a deal with myself: Because I had to tell the truth—a tight constraint—I allowed myself the pleasure of experimentation. This might not work for everyone, but if there are aspects of craft that entice you to write or techniques you find fun in, allowing yourself to incorporate those elements might make the difference in whether you want to sit down to the page or not. Even though I was writing about grief and pain, the ways I allowed myself to write about it—in this case, trying out different essay shapes, collaging found documents, and incorporating audio transcripts—energized me.
Let in the light.
Even the dark eras we endure are infused with bits of beauty that can be worth writing about. In my case, they were a favorite song on the radio, my adjunct commute above the Pacific, and sitting with my mom on her desert porch. I found that exploring those lighter moments that had occurred within that difficult time served multiple purposes: It made the crafting process more pleasurable and, in terms of narrative development, these slivers of light added a layer of complexity (I hope) to the story.
Don’t give it all away.
I had the benefit of working with the brilliant editor, Sarah Gorham, who encouraged me to do some of that aforementioned letting-in-of-light. She also helped me see that some other elements of trauma and heartbreak I’d included in my first draft weighed things down too much. I ultimately scrubbed some of those adjacent, but not crucial, stories that I wasn’t sure I wanted out in the world anyhow. In the end, I’m glad I cut them. You can tell the truth without saying every last thing—you don’t owe the reader a full panoramic view. (And you can always write those other stories later, in another context, if you change your mind.)
Take care of your manuscript.
Find homes for your essays with care—don’t send them just anywhere. Ditto your finished manuscript. While, in the past, I’ve tossed errant poems or stories out to whichever journal I thought might give them a glance, I looked for people/places who felt like a true fit for these important-to-me-pieces. Because, not to be precious about it, personal writing is precious.
Take care of yourself.
Be patient. Know that it requires a different kind of energy. It might mean a different process, too—one that makes you wonder if you’re getting anywhere. But trust the value of your words, even as you trudge through the dark. Hang onto the bright parts as you go.
ASHLEY MARIE FARMER is the author of the essay collection Dear Damage (Sarabande Books, 2022), as well as three other collections of prose and poetry. Her work has been published in TriQuarterly, The Progressive, Santa Monica Review, Buzzfeed, Flaunt, Nerve, Gigantic, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Best American Essays notable distinction, Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Review’s Short Fiction Award, as well as fellowships from Syracuse University and the Baltic Writing Residency. Ashley lives in Salt Lake City, UT with the writer Ryan Ridge. You can find her at ashleymfarmer.com.