You’ve probably heard the line about comedy being tragedy plus time. Time is a pretty powerful force in this universe. It makes cool things uncool; I wore a baseball hat every day of my life from the age of ten to the age of twenty-five, and now photos from that era are embarrassing, to say the least. Time also renders every experience you’ve ever had into grist for your stories, but you have to wait it out, because it’s not just time that turns your worst moments into interesting stories to entertain others. It also requires distance.
Not geographical distance (though, yes, that sometimes helps) but mental and emotional distance. Those usually come automatically with time, but not always; I think we’ve all hung onto a grudge or a painful memory for far too long, cherishing that drama and suffering long past its sell-by date. There are a lot of good reasons to work through past traumas and put them behind you (that is, get some distance from them) but the best reason of all is that you can’t write about them effectively until you do.
Ideas = Suffering
It’s no secret that a lot of writers re-purpose their low times into stories; that’s pretty much how this works. The trick is waiting long enough. You might think you’re ready to turn your heartbreak and depression into a darkly hilarious novel, but if you haven’t gained enough time and distance from it, chances are all you’ll produce is therapy notes.
How can you know if you’re ready? One sign is when you no longer seek to punish the other parties in your writing. Another is when you’re ready to mock yourself and see your own role in your troubles instead of insisting you’re the hero of every story. Another is when you frankly can no longer remember why you were so worked up in the first place.
The good news is, once you get there, you’re golden. You can mine the fossilized remains of your tragedy and render them into a combustible fuel for your writing.
Just remember: Change the names. Always change the names.