3 reasons not to fear your writing haunts
Writing through Trauma to Truth instructor Shawna Ayoub Ainslie defines recurrent themes in her work as “haunts,” but explains why you shouldn’t let that characterization scare you off.
In graduate school, one of my writing workshop instructors waxed poetically about writing haunts every time she reviewed my work. I had several. My short stories often contained abused female characters trying to break free of their cultural or parental bindings.
In retrospect, the reason my writing was haunted by these subjects is because they reflected my off-the-page life. Being aware of my self-reflectiveness is ultimately beneficial information; but at the time, all I saw was myself writing the same story over and over ad nauseum. I became bored by my own work and eager to write outside the ghostly box, rather than embrace it. Here’s what I learned:
Knowing your haunts is important. While you may not be writing through trauma as I was, your haunts can give you insight about yourself, your writing process and the story you are trying to tell. After all, a writing haunt is a topic you lean on often enough that were someone to read multiple pieces of your work, they would be able to identify the haunt as a theme of return.
Move past insecurity
While it is great to challenge your haunts, there is no need to avoid them. Haunts are often more than just themes of return. They can be passion subjects, ideas you are exploring subconsciously or areas of strength for your writing. In my case, it was all three. And when my haunts were exposed? I felt embarrassed. I did not like the idea that I was wrangling the same story over and over. I was spooked. My response was to write away from my haunts in an attempt to ditch them entirely. You might anticipate the result: I immediately began producing lots of sub-par work. Why?
Embrace your strengths
I was avoiding what I was good at; what I knew best. It’s okay to excel at writing on a specific topic as long as you are crafting fresh contexts for that topic. Consider the body of work by romance novelists. Many write serials relying on a time period, setting or characters. The same is true of Mystery, Science Fiction and Fantasy as genres. Poetry collections revolve around a theme or structure, among other options. Instead of forcing your hand, let new haunts develop naturally and, as they do, notice which ones are emerging with the most strength and skill. Stick with them!
Accepting that your writing features certain recurrent topics or emotional tensions, instead of resisting those elements, is, in essence, reframing the idea of a “haunt” as a theme or point of focus. And what writer won’t benefit from more focus?
What are your writing haunts, and how did you become aware of them? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: 3 questions to ask yourself when writing The Truth
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