I’m writing a particularly dramatic book right now with its fair share of tragedy and sadness. The story concerns an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s but then goes deeper than that, into family secrets and how they hurt everyone involved. Although I’m injecting lighter moments into it here and there, there’s no denying it’s a depressing subject. Every time I write a serious passage, I can feel it in my body. I feel heavy, low on energy, pessimistic. I might leave the book to go do some household chore and still feel the looming heaviness of it, as if I’d just heard that someone was dying. I can pinpoint where it’s coming from, of course, but that doesn’t dispel it. Then I have to ask myself: Do I want to dispel it?
Personally I’d be surprised if any writer said they were not emotionally affected by what they write. If that were the case, I’d have to wonder if they were really writing from their core, and if they could communicate strong emotion to the reader if they were not feeling it themselves. But — I don’t know. Maybe I’m off base here. All I know is, I find myself deeply affected by what I write, and I consider that a good thing. After all, I’m tackling tough subjects; writing with a joking attitude or tossing off one-liners would not be appropriate. So feeling this heaviness is doing me a service, keeping me in the proper mood for my writing.
But what about when I’m not writing?
I don’t find it easy to turn the emotions off when I’ve left the book and gone on to do other things. Sometimes it surprises me how much the make-believe world that I’ve created can bleed into my real world. When I’m reading for pleasure, I consider that a huge marker of success when I have trouble dragging myself out of the world on the pages and back into the world around me. That’s when I know that story has reached past my logical brain and has touched me deep down in my gut. That’s when I know the story and the characters have been rendered so realistically that it’s only with difficulty that I can detach from them.
Only problem is, in my current situation, I don’t want the sadness I feel to permeate my household and rub off on my husband. He has no idea what I’ve been writing, what I’ve been dealing with. (He will, later; he’s my primary beta-reader.) He doesn’t know the tragedies I’ve uncovered, the emotional violence and battles I’ve committed to paper. All he knows is that I’m not talking very much and I’m not laughing at his jokes.
Oh, sure, I can explain, and he’ll get it. But it sets up a conundrum for me. How do I find the delicate balance between feeding my creativity the emotion it needs while not imbuing my entire life with the same emotion? And if I pull away from the emotion too much, what will I have to do to get it back once I submerge myself in the book again?
It reminds me of what little I know about method acting. I know some actors really like to get into their parts, staying in character even when they are not in front of the camera. Some, I think, fear they will lose that “spark” if they leave the character on the set. I can totally understand that. It sets up quite a push-pull, wanting to stay in the emotion of the book but still wanting to be open to the rest of the world.
The best solution, I suppose, would be to lock myself in a little monastic cell for the duration of the writing, eating only bread and water, whittling quills into points that scratch liquid ink across rough, homemade paper. No husband, no TV, no computer. No distractions to jar me from my self-imposed gloom.
Yeah, I got a life-sized picture of that.
So what to do? Keep the balance, of course. I may teeter a little bit this way for a while, then lean back the other way for a bit, but it’s all about staying on the tightrope. Walking that thin line between imagination and reality. Keeping one foot in one world, one foot in the other. That’s the only way I know how to write with compelling emotion. And emotion, of course, is what fuels our stories.
14 thoughts on “Dealing with Emotions as We Write”
Two things that always work for me are music, and hard, physical work. Light, boppy music with a good beat lifts my mood quickly while digging holes in the garden and shifting rocks around balances me out. Good luck!
Sounds like a good solution to the doldrums; only issue is when you want to stay in the deep emotions for the story’s sake. That’s where the balancing act comes in.
This is such a great and honest post, Melissa. I think memoir writing is possibly the hardest—people have to withdraw at times from what they’re writing, and that’s why manuscripts seem to take so long to complete, sometimes many years.
Yesterday I watched Brooke Warner’s (She Writes Press) interview of Mary Karr, author of “The Liars Club”. Mary brought out this very point, and also mentioned something I totally agree with: After writing “The end” of something that dredged up your deepest secrets, flesh and blood, you almost want to put the subject to rest and not continue to speak about it ad infinitum. But of course, public speaking is an important part of an authors life, so what can one do? Carry on, regardless!
Ester, I can absolutely see memoir-writing as a huge emotional and therapeutic journey. I ran into some of that with my biography of my aunt, the prisoner-of-war: how much of family history to tell? How many secrets to reveal? That’s a fine line to walk, and to figure out the most honest and necessary way to do it. I hadn’t thought too much about the aftermath, but I can see that, as well. Amazing how deeply our stories–fiction or non-fiction–affect us. And that’s a good thing! Thanks for commenting.
Where was your aunt a POW? How interesting—now you’ve piqued my own curiosity! I also just discovered that Lynton Robinson has a serious history in Asia—my own background. You just never know, which proves my theory that there are stories to be found in the most unsuspected places if you just scratch the surface a little. Haven’t we all heard them, at airports, in restaurants, on sports fields, and standing in lines? I love the thrill of discovery.
You’re so right; the stories are there, just waiting for someone to write them down. My aunt was a Japanese prisoner in the Philippines. Every time I appear with the book, I get inundated with other peoples’ stories. Every family has them.
OMgoodness! I had no idea. I’m guessing you’re aware I was a 3-year Japanese WWII POW in Shanghai, along with all other Allies. What’s your book called? I love this!
Ester, my book is Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan. I did not know you were a POW also. Small world!
You can’t create without feeling the emotions, unless you call painting by numbers creating. I’m not sure everyone achieves balance. There are lots of dysfunctional writers and other creatives. And many who turn to alcohol and other means of self medicating. As long as you’re aware and concerned about balance I think you’re more likely to find it. Great post!
Thanks, Candace. You make a good point. If I wasn’t worried about the balancing act, I’d be worried! God knows there’s enough fodder for the alcoholic, dysfunctional artist without us adding more. We can be functional and still create good work. It might just take a bit more effort. I’m happy to put that effort in. Thanks for adding that.
I can’t help but become emotionally involved with my stories. I describe myself as a writer, not so much because I see it as a career path, but because it’s who I am to my core. People have always accused me of being too sensitive, which I often was. But that both allowed me to empathize with other people’s emotions and kept me away from those who would do me harm. Sometimes writing gets the best of me. I started a psychological horror story a while back, but had to stop because I started scaring the crap out of myself. Because I become so deeply entrenched with my stories, writing is therapeutic. While it’s kept me from killing myself in the worst periods of my life, it’s also kept me from killing others. Any writer who says they don’t get at least somewhat emotionally involved with their work is either lying or spending too much time on social media.
Alejandro, I’m with you all the way. I think what makes the best writers (and readers!) is the ability to feel and convey emotion, and if you’re scaring yourself with your horror writing, you’re doing it right! (One of my favorite books is The Stand by Stephen King, but I can’t read it for that very same reason.) As for the therapy, that’s the side benefit our readers may never be aware of. I agree; anyone who writes without getting emotionally involved is probably not writing anything I’d want to read. Thanks for the laugh.
While navigating through the emotions of a sad story, I keep my eye on the “happy ending,”the one we don’t often get in real life. Without a happy ending, it would be much more difficult to get through a book unscathed.
I tear up a lot or even cry while I’m writing. Such is my attachment to my characters, who are more like close friends than fictional people.
Linda, good for you. I have a few places in some of my own books that always make me cry, and I’m happy about that. To my mind, that’s when we know our stories have real soul to them. Thanks for adding that.
Comments are closed.