Friday, July 29, 2022

Writing Out the Sadness and Anger--How to Get Strong Emotions on the Page Authentically

Sometimes I come to my writing with a lot of emotion--from my reactions to life events, the world, my own self. Maybe you've experienced this, especially lately. Do you find, like I have, that it is tricky to translate strong emotions into story, in a way that a reader who is living a completely different reality can enter?

It takes a certain writing skill, certainly. But I also find it takes some personal processing time, either on the page or otherwise, to gain the objectivity that makes an emotion universal.

In my early writing days, I didn't understand this. I "journaled" my own emotions into my characters. Basically, this is told emotion--we tell ourselves the feelings and thoughts when we journal. Not a bad thing at all, very needed when we are trying to make sense of our lives. But these emotions are often one step removed from the reader--they are too personal to our lives.

It takes time and distance before these strong emotions can effectively convey meaning to a reader.

I read a story recently about a young woman forced to move from her childhood home--an idyllic place, as she describes it--to a farm in the middle of nowhere. She was in her teens, leaving behind a best friend, a neighborhood she adored, and freedom via the city's excellent bus system. I moved myself when I was in middle school, leaving behind all my friends when my dad got a new job, so I related to this story.

My world back then suddenly filled with anger and sadness. Teens have plenty of strong emotions anyway, but this move put me beyond anything I'd experienced. My parents rented the guest cottage on an estate on the north shore of Long Island, which meant zero transportation to school events or friends' except after my mother got home from work. I was as isolated as the young woman in the story I read, and I knew just how it felt. The world, as I had known it, ended very suddenly.

Lucky for me, a neighbor girl my own age befriended me and taught me to play guitar. Her family was musical, and I loved to sing. I think that music kept me from deep depression as a young teenager. Art saves people, when least expected.

When these strong emotions surface, we need to write them without censorship--from ourselves or others--in order to get the distance to use them in a novel or memoir. In the story I recently read, this young person happened on a teacher who encouraged her to write without such censorship, to write every day she could, to write in private without concern about the strong emotions making their way onto the page. Some teens are seriously afraid of the intensity of what they feel--often adults can be too. Shame and fear ignite the inner critic, and writing does anything but process strong emotions in those circumstances.

But this girl had full permission to let it rip on the page. "Don't worry about punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, what you are writing," the teacher said, "just write what's deep in your heart."

It got this young girl through a very tough time, when her world--like mine at that age--had blown apart.

Later, she could look back and remember how she felt, use those emotional touchstones from her childhood in writing for publication. They'd been digested, the meaning understood to some extent.

I often try to write for myself, for processing, when I feel something strongly. When I am in despair about the world. When I am very frightened or angry. I try to get those nuggets of emotion onto the page as authentically as I can, with censoring. Then, when I am writing a character, I reach back and use the feelings.

But I don't assume that readers will get the meaning if I haven't digested it for myself--to some extent, at least, because the writing process often reveals more that I wasn't aware of. We write to know ourselves, after all.

Finally, as I write strong emotions for others, I try to be aware of what is told and what is shown. Best way to learn this, I've found, is through reading strong emotion in other writers' work. How does it hit you? Why does it work--or not? If the writer is creating emotion that you can feel, how do they achieve that? Usually not by telling you "he is sad" or "she's full of rage," right? We see it demonstrated.

The process of writing emotion authentically begins with feeling it. Then allowing uncensored writing about it--for oneself--and time to process and distill meaning. Then studying how writers you admire translate that told feeling to shown on the page. Then studying and practicing the skills to do it yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment