How to mine your emotions to fuel your writing
“The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.”
― John Champlin Gardner Jr., The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
My husband is a very vocal person. I suppose growing up alone can produce different outcomes. Whereas my circumstances made me choose to fade into the background, Husband made sure he was heard. He turned out more of an extrovert while I became an introvert.
Husband thinks aloud. For a “quiet type” like myself, who has never been properly taught to voice herself, this would often be quite challenging during our first years together. After almost 16 years I can finally say I have gotten used to it and stopped trying to reply. Husband in his turn nowadays hurries to add that he is not addressing me when he’s off in one of his monologues, nor does he expect a reply from me.
For my part though, I want to help. Even though I don’t particularly like people (a side effect to my upbringing as well as residual trauma from our years in the village — but that’s another story), somehow I always want to help. I need to help. As if their feeling better somehow pardons me. If they are ‘fixed’, their problem(s) solved, I can retire once again into my sacred mind palace (again, another story).
The thing is, I am not even that well equipped to help other people at all. Most of the time, I do not understand them or cannot relate to their problems as experience eludes me. But this is how I am wired. So of course I want to help Husband, or at least make him feel better.
As his live-in editor as well as his wife, I consider it my responsibility to inspire, motivate and facilitate Husband’s writing. This is harder than it may sound. He has a very distinctive style, which appears somewhat old-fashioned (he tends to use rather long sentences to get his point across), but which actually is quite brilliant and does not endure too much editing. He himself however does not consider himself to be brilliant. Because he is relatively new to writing, he often looks to me for guidance, which I can only offer in small doses. Not only do I have my own things going on, I sincerely believe, no, am convinced that every writer needs to find his or her own path. I feel I cannot possibly tell Husband how to write. I can, however, make suggestions on what to write.
As his emotions often run high, I remind him that all accomplished writers use their personal experiences in some form or another. If you are truly to write what you know, it follows that you draw from your own life. That does not by definition mean sharing your personal diary with the world or writing a non-fictional account of your walk of life.
As a writer, you create your own world. You can create characters inspired by people you met and have them play out events based on your own memories. You can add to or subtract from these memories and create something entirely new from whatever rubble you are struggling with. In that way, your memories and emotions are worth their weight in gold, as they fuel your best writing.
“The truth is, we don’t have an easy language for emotional life. That’s why we have writers.”
― Susie Orbach
Writing about your feelings has the additional advantage that you can work through them, bring some clarity to muddled issues and perhaps even finally put them to rest. In your world, you have the power. You can write a different ending to an unresolved issue. You can apply a ‘what if’ and explore how situations could have worked out if some variables change. You can write dialogues you wish you had had or scenarios you rehearsed in your mind but that never took place.
Such is the power of the writer.
But where to begin? My Husband often asks me this. My answer is always: start with what bothers you the most. What is it that haunts your thoughts, keeping you up nights and dominating your mornings? That’s what you start with. Sounds easy, right? It’s really not.
It is very hard putting words to feelings, to pinpoint exactly what the trouble is and define it. You may find you think there’s this one issue on your mind, only to find it connected to many others. This is where a mind map could be helpful in order to create structure to disorganized thoughts.
Giving voice to your emotions by recording them (on your smartphone, for instance) gives you the opportunity to hear them out loud and structure them into clear writing.
Other people may benefit from lists — bulleted or otherwise. This can also help with organizing and structuring those gold nuggets.
Whichever method you prefer, be sure to mine that emotional gold to turn into your best writing ever.
This post was originally published on Medium in my publication Hearts in the Write Place on February 11, 2021.