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The Cost of Writing the Emotionally True

The Cost of Writing Something Emotionally TrueWhen non-writers scoff at the notion that writing is hard work, it’s simply because they don’t understand how it is hard. We sit at our desks safe in our homes. What’s so hard about that?

The hard part of writing is that we pull our material from our own experiences. Sometimes we turn over the darkest parts of ourselves to lend them to our stories. In other words, our baggage is our best resource.

Like a tongue searching out cracked fillings, an inner scan for writing ideas makes a beeline for tender parts of our psyche. That’s where the most potent material hides out. ~ Ralph Keyes

When we are advised to “write what we know,” the reference isn’t to our intellectual knowledge, but rather to our emotional experiences.  These experiences are deeply personal, but they make for true stories that resonate with readers. They also leave most writers feeling exposed. Afraid. Uncomfortable.

You’re letting your history out. That may be one reason you’re afraid. ~ Richard Rhodes

Novelists in particular often end up feeling the emotions they impart to their characters, because they are our own. It can be exhilarating. It can be draining. It can be cathartic sometimes. For some of us, an intensely emotional scene leaves us empty for a time, as if we’ve drained ourselves and left a void inside.

But it is this ability to put ourselves onto paper this way that leads to powerful story-telling and characters that readers remember. We just have to get over every fiber of our reluctance to do it. And that’s not always easy. Self-censorship is a real problem for lots of us.

That’s the bind writers face: their best ideas are personal, candid, and deeply felt. Yet such ideas make them feel sub-naked before the world. It’s as if not just their clothes but their skin has been stripped away so that readers can get a better look at their entrails. One reason we routinely turn away from topics we’d most like to write about (without always realizing what we’re doing) is that they’re so dangerously revealing. ~ Ralph Keyes

Because we are all different, the way we deal with this vulnerability is unique to each of us. I’ve heard everything from the preference for “two drinks before writing” to one theory that getting “in the zone” helps protect us while we write scenes that cut close to the bone. We all develop our own methods for dealing with the discomfort.

When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information. ~ Toni Morrison

The best motivation is probably the desire to improve as writers, and to write scenes that make the reader feel deeply. It doesn’t hurt if other reasons are present (writing a revenge scene, for example). The goal is to get the emotion onto the page. Good reasons help, but for me, distracting myself from what I’m doing helps as well. It’s the main reason I set timers during writing sessions. It’s entirely artificial as crisis goes, but usually does the trick.

To the degree that we can confront and transcend a fear of exposing ourselves on the page—any page—our writing will improve. That’s one reason such gripping writing grows out of crisis; occasions when we no longer care how we’re coming across and just write. ~ Ralph Keyes

Writing something emotionally true requires us to write our own emotions and experiences. It’s not for the faint of heart. You need fortitude to share the parts of yourself that are not so pleasant, and that’s only after you are willing to look at those parts yourself.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. We get to share our joys, satisfaction, and emotional highs as well.   We get to exact justice on childhood enemies, life events, and bad breakups. We get to enjoy the puzzle of transferring an emotion from one circumstance to our character, who may be in an entirely different circumstance.  We get the surprise of finding out, sometimes, how we actually feel about something.

Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads. ~ Erica Jong


How do you feel about the vulnerability of writing something emotionally true?


11 thoughts on “The Cost of Writing the Emotionally True

  1. I feel lucky to have “found” poetry and prose poetry during this stage in my writing career as I have found I am freer there with emotional vulnerability, and especially, let’s shame or regret. I tried fiction and it always felt inauthentic, but poetry allows room (at least for me) to speak the truth and let the reader decide if it’s fact or fiction or it that question even matters.

    • I’m with you on this one, Jen. Poetry has always been my emotional outlet. Something going on in my life? It tends to come out in a poem, even if I can’t manage to talk about it or write it anywhere else.

      I wrote last year in a post that poetry feels like the truest thing in the world. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head (cliche aside) when you say poetry allows us to speak the truth. There’s something about the way words fall together on the page in a poem — there’s nothing else like it in the world for me as a writer.

  2. I think that this particular offering could be a biography for me. I have three words that I think about whenever I sit down to write – emotion, authenticity, and vulnerability.

    Everyone at the Sarcastic Muse is feeding off each other well lately because I felt the same vibe from Amanda’s post yesterday. Ironically, for me, it is not the release of emotion and the revelation of my innermost thoughts to complete strangers that frightens me. It’s the uncovering of those same things to those close to me, those who should know, perhaps, but don’t. I sometimes feel as though my writing is uncovering things about me for the very first time, and it is often difficult for non-writers to understand that we don’t intentionally hide these pieces of us inside. It’s just that the process of writing draws them out into the world.

    Yes, it may be an expensive price to pay – revealing those deeply held secrets, but it is worth every single penny, laugh, and tear. Thank you Robyn, for another thought-provoking and motivating post 🙂

    • I totally agree that revealing those things to our inner circle is far more frightening than strangers. The personal aspect for me is having to go back and relive moments I’d sooner forget. It’s not something I set out to do, but when a character needs it, there I am. Afterward I feel drained, but happy and a little lighter. 🙂

  3. I’m experiencing this with my second novel. I’m writing for the first time in the 1st person (present tense!), including some particularly difficult things I went through as a teenager and it’s … hard. There are some scenes I’ve written I’m not sure I want anyone else to see. But at the same time, it’s realer than anything I’ve written before. I hope I’m able to let it go at some point!

  4. Robyn – you made me cry (very happily #HUGS)

    Your talent deserves to be recognized and rewarded – love you ❤


    PS: I would say more, but my heart is choked with love and gratitude #HUGS

  5. Ooooh, Robyn. Love the Erica Jong quote. I loved EVERYTHING you shared. It takes a brave and courageous soul to be a writer. It’s definitely hard work, but so worth it. xo

  6. Very well expressed – thank you. Part of what makes me feel so vulnerable about letting go into the emotion of the story is that in my fiction writing, so much of it is coming from the unconscious. Sometimes I am being deeply revealing about myself without being fully aware of it. It is very rich and I would not have it any other way, but for better or worse, I am becoming a far more exposed person than I used to be 🙂

    • I never appreciated how the main character in my first published novel brought out the isolation I’ve felt at times in my life until it was on paper. Writing can be emotionally draining, but usually in a good way. 🙂

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