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?