Sunday, July 18, 2010

Emotional Truth--What You're After in Your Book, After All

Each book we write, each essay or story idea we decide to commit to the page, signals a kind of journey for the writer that is very personal and unique.  It's a journey of emotional truth, and because of this it has everything to do with the writer, very personally.

It's simplistic--even foolish--to think we're just scribing stories.  If our books contain any emotional truth, it's because we've learned about ourselves in the process of writing.

A reader from another country recently wrote me a beautiful letter about my novel, Qualities of Light, which was published last fall.  These communications always arrive when I'm discouraged about my writing life.  They are the real reason I write books.  I love the miracle of a topic I'm deeply concerned about also touching another soul.

This reader "got" my book at its most complex level, the emotional truth.   He wrote a lot about how much the book meant to him, in its basic story, but also how it changed him inside.  Changed his view of the world and the people in it. 

That signaled to me that I'd succeeded, at least for this reader, in presenting something more than good plot, interesting characters, and a believable setting.  Yes, these ingredients make up the craft of emotional truth.  We must have a good situation to keep our interest, we must be involved with the people in the story and where the story happens.  But these don't deliver emotional truth by themselves.  They create a good read, but they may not make a book that stays with the reader for days.

Writing emotional truth requires both craft and art.

I find the craft aspect essential--don't get me wrong.  The writer must learn to clearly place the reader in situation, character, and setting.  These are discussed at length in other posts on this blog; there are also many good books on writing that deal with them.  They are teachable writing tools, shaped through revision.  They manifest almost mechanically if the writer is skilled enough and works hard at her craft.

The art of emotional truth is a bit less predictable.  It comes out when the writer is willing to face the edge of her own life.

I'll try to explain how it worked for me in Qualities of Light.

Writing Emotional Truth Begins with Exploration
Qualities of Light began as a personal exploration of a topic.  I wanted to look at love in a new way, at the idea that love affects more than just the lover.  That it can bring spiritual change to others.  Not a new idea, I know, but one that I needed to dive into.  I began writing the novel when I was in a very settled period of my life, far from the edge that my characters were exploring.

First I built the foundation via the three elements of craft mentioned above:  I made sure the plot was strong--that something big happened regularly.  I used a three-act structure to double check this.  I worked hard on the characters, developing even the difficult-to-know characters.  I visited the setting frequently and wrote a lot about the sensory details I experienced there.  This took years and lots of persistence.  Books aren't quick, as you know. 

Under all of this craft work, the art of emotional truth rumbled like an underground river.  I could tell it was happening because I was besieged by questions. At first I didn't have words for these questions, believe it or not.  Only images surfaced, every now and then. During these months and years, I found it very helpful to create collages and image-based representations of these questions, this topic I was chewing inside.  After I did this often enough, the words finally came to define the questions.

Here are a few that formed:

How would it feel, to be fully received by another, fully known?
How could that "receiving" lead to an unexpected blossoming inside?
Would it be possible that this blossoming could result in others around the person also being rescued from themselves?

I began a "questions" notebook.  This helped me stay available to writing the art of emotional truth.  I found that unanswered questions actually prompted deeper thinking.  I became a beginner with my topic, even though I think I know a lot about love.  This beginner attitude opened me to all sorts of new information about love.  I took notes, I made more collages, I asked for ideas in my dreams each night.  Slowly the emotional truth came forward in my story.

I know this all seems very vague.  This is why some writing teachers say that writing can't be taught.  I believe it can--at least the craft part can be taught.  The art is like any art.  It's a matter of receptivity.   

Writing emotional truth is a sort of dance, between what you know and what you are open to not knowing.  In your consciousness as a writer, you may not keep your images/questions in front of you.  The story just comes out its own way, in its bits and pieces, and you write it down.  But under all of it, if you are open to the questions, you'll get something deeper.

Rainier Maria Rilke once said something about loving the questions themselves because they will let you live your way to the answers.

That's what it's like to write emotional truth in your book.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Go back to a collage you've created for your book.  If you haven't yet done a collage, tear five images from a magazine and arrange them in a way that's pleasing to you.
2.  Write about what you see.  What could be the underlying questions you're asking yourself, that the book might be addressing?


  1. Beautiful, even for a not-writer to read - just puts into words so well the creative process in all art.

  2. Thanks, Rio. That's quite a complement. I appreciate that you visited!

  3. Such a thoughtful post. Thank you!

  4. Thanks, Julie. I appreciate your comment!

  5. Just got to this post today. Glad I backtracked. You are a ninja level instructor.

    Your words helped trigger an understanding of an aspect of my draft under revision that I had not internaly articulated.

    Thank you Sensei

  6. I just discovered your blog, Mary. It is truly a pleasure to read your writing, and this article in particular really touched me.

    Writing truly is about receptivity, and that can sometimes be scary. We build so many walls in our daily lives that must be dismantled if we are to be open to new emotional truths—or to revisit ones we have tried to forget.

    I look forward to returning here for more of your wisdom! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and discoveries!

  7. Thanks, Kathryn, and thanks for visiting!