Writing Hacks: What Dementors are For

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

Writing short stories and novels and screenplays and comic books and memoirs and poetry is hard. It’s hard in the best of circumstances. Strong content can come from a lot of places, but for many, accessing their best content means opening up to difficult emotions. And even if your content comes from a place that doesn’t require some emotional wrangling, the moment to moment frustration of writing can be difficult if the rest of your life also involves a lot of moment to moment struggle.

Which brings us to dementors.

In the Harry Potter series, dementors are the guards and sometimes bounty hunters for the wizard prison. They have dark hoods and long scary fingers and they fly around like dark ghosts. But what’s really awful about them is that when they get near you, they bring up all of your most terrible thoughts.

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin describes them like this:

“Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you….. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

And if that sounds like a description of depression, you’re right. From J.K. Rowling in The Times UK:

 “Yes. That is exactly what they are,” [J.K. Rowling] says. “It was entirely conscious. And entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced….” “It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts, but it’s a healthy feeling. It’s a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”

To be clear, creating dementors did not get J.K. Rowling out of her depression. But Rowling was able to take her experience and use it to create part of the Harry Potter world. That’s one of the reasons that world feels so real. Rowling takes something as alien from our experience as supernatural guards at a wizard prison, and applies her own experiences with depression.

And the result? Dementors feel real. In a sense they are real. They’re as real as Rowling’s language and storytelling can make them. Even a story as big and broad and fantastical as Harry Potter can turn on a writer’s ability to transpose their experiences. It’s poetry. It’s real.

What dementors are for is a reminder that even the bleakest moments of our experience can be used to help our writing connect with other people.

So when you’re feeling blue, and you don’t want to write, remember the dementors. What can those blue feelings turn into? How can you use them to connect to other folks who have similar feelings?

See previous writing hacks here!

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