Emotion. It is the element that makes great books impossible to put down. Page turning fiction pulls us in and holds on, keeps us reading by letting us recognize the characters and their struggles. In every good book I’ve read, I see a glimmer of myself in one of the main characters. Something I identify with. Some common ground, whether it’s that the character knows the trials of being a mother, drives an old car she is always worried will break down, or is elated that she has finally landed her dream job. Maybe she’s tired of her Asthma acting up. Maybe she misses her dad, especially when this time of year rolls around. Maybe she has moments of clarity in which she realizes how very lucky she is to be blessed with love in her life, amazing family and friends.
All of these are connecting threads between reader and story. But without the emotion behind them, they’re just threads. I've known this since my first few creative writing courses in school. It’s fairly basic. Knowing something and putting it into action are two different things. I know I shouldn't have that chocolate ice cream before bed…but dammit, I really want that chocolate ice cream, and I’ll do better tomorrow! Right? It’s hard sometimes to do what we know we should, especially when it comes to infusing real emotion into a story. If it was easy, every book we read would be wonderful and leave us wanting more.
The best advice I've ever received was from an editor who’s been invaluable in helping shape my work. She keenly pointed out that, as a Registered Nurse working primarily in Geriatrics, I tend to keep my emotions in check. It’s a self-preservation measure that I suppose I've developed as a way to handle the sadness I am surrounded with on a regular basis. This ability to control my emotions, to put them away in a little box in some remote corner to be dealt with later, is probably what allows me to continue working in my field. But it can be detrimental to my overall well-being as well as to my writing. The editor’s advice? Write from my heart. Open the box and let those emotions out. As readers, we not only want to know the character’s joy or sorrow and what caused it, we want to experience these feelings right along with the character. We want to cry, that heavy dread that weighs us down even though we know it’s just a story, when the character feels as if her life is over; we want to rejoice, that heart-lifting, buoyant sensation, when she finds out it is not.
With a lot of soul searching and effort, I learned to flip the switch: keep my emotions in check as nurse, let them out as a writer. Or at least I thought I had. Nurse dayjob and Writer nightjob. Two distinctly different states of mind, obviously. What I find, though, is that opening the floodgates to my emotional reactions when I am writing has had a noticeable effect on my dayjob approach. As I've worked hard to allow my emotions through in my story-telling, the emotion has spilled over into my life as a nurse. So far this is a win-win. I really must remember to thank that amazing editor (you know who you are).
Of course I am still learning how to temper my emotions in patient interactions, but now I know that it’s okay if sometimes I hug a patient’s wife when she is distraught over bad news; it’s okay if the patient sees reflected in my own expression the sadness he is feeling. It makes me a better nurse, and I know I can handle this shift in my approach. After all, I've had twenty years of self-preservation. I’m pretty tough by now.
This entry isn't about what kind of nurse I am. Sometimes I get side-tracked.
The idea here is emotional writing. We all have different triggers, different passages or scenes that can make us fall apart with only a few words on a page. We feel what the character feels, and we wish we could step into the story and help. Likewise, the scenes that are celebratory are a whole hell of a lot of fun. We are right there with the character when the goal she’s been working toward for the last 280 pages is finally achieved. And we've read great books that can make us smile with satisfaction as tears roll down our face. What a great balance. That’s impossible without emotional writing. The events, scenes, character’s reactions in these instances are all hollow without the deep, intense feelings that go along with them.
In my previous blog post, the idea of total immersion was mentioned in the comments section, in regards to concentration. Total immersion is probably the single most important key to my ability to write emotionally. Normally, solitude is a basic requisite in order for me to write effectively, even if it’s solitude induced by my beloved earbuds and playlist amid the fabulous chaos that can be life with a spouse, kids, dogs, cats, or even in the middle of the ballet studio for my daughter’s 7th dance class that week. Most of the time I wait to write until the dust has settled and my house is sleeping, oversized orange tabby Rico by my side. Music in my ears, chores done for the day, I dive into the manuscript and tap into my feelings as I put word after word on the page. Sometimes it's like therapy. Sometimes it's exhausting. It is always fulfilling. My writing skills are so much richer for that editor’s advice. The upcoming The Fall of Our Secrets is a heart-wrenching, gripping emotional journey that follows two women, childhood friends, as they struggle to find footing in their adult lives. These two women are real because of the recognizable, emotional impact in their story, not because of the events that occur.
As a writer, I must not only put myself into my character’s shoes, but allow her feelings to overtake me as she experiences the highs and lows of her journey. These are not always my own specific feelings. In my current work in progress, my character often behaves and reacts differently than I would; she should, she is a different person than I am. But I have the groundwork for her emotions. The best study course for this is life itself, and allowing ourselves to fully invest in it. Where the character’s emotional reactions escalate from that basic starting point depends upon the events in her past that have shaped her life so far, and where she sees herself in the future. The emotional reactions of my characters are influenced by the love in their lives, or lack thereof. They’re altered by who supports them, who is working against them, and what drives them toward their goal.
Well written fiction stays with us long after we have closed the back cover—or pressed the power button. In the same way we worry about our friend who is going through a hard time, or we’re excited for our sister who looks to be setting foot on the path to success, in the way we think about these people periodically throughout our day, a great story continues to make us think after it’s finished. We've gotten to know these characters, rooted for them, cried with them, railed at the unfairness of the fates with them, and celebrated the ultimate achievement of their hard-won goal. In a great story, we've done all this from inside their minds, hearts and souls. We are them, and they are us, at least some small facet of us. This is the result of an emotionally well written story.