Burning Wild with Emotion: A Writer and Her StoriesI am a cryer. Make of that what you will, but my tears are my physical indicator that I am feeling intense emotion – sadness, yes, but also joy or anger.  When I cry, I have been affected profoundly by something, so I have come to think of tears about my writing – either about a character or some truth I’ve come to see in my own life – as a testament to how vulnerable and honest I am being.

Take, for example, my latest book, Charlotte and the Twelve. As I wrote one of the final scenes (no spoilers), I found myself sobbing audibly as I typed. I had tapped something real with my words, something that touched both me and my character Mary at a place that was raw and needed to be healed with light.  I knew, then, that I was nearing the end of that book, that I had found the truth I was seeking to uncover when I started, and I moved to the conclusion with the light of that moment as my guide.

So if you tell me you cry when you write a scene (or read a scene, for that matter), I’m going to tell you to keep going, to not be afraid, to not pull back. I’m going to tell you that you have reached, there, a truth that you needed to know and that your readers will also need. I’m going to tell you that you have done good work. 

The Heat of Tears

There is that adage, “Write hot. Edit cold.” And I hold with that because, in my experience, it’s true. Those first drafts need to pour forth like lava, and our revisions need to be like dousing that lava with cold water to give it shape.

Tears, cackling laughter, anger that makes you type so hard that the tips of your fingers hurt – those are indictors that you have gone down to the molten core and are letting the vivacious energy of emotion burst forth. You have become the vent on the top of the volcano. You need to let it burst forth.  Don’t pull back then. Instead, slice deeper into that stream and let it go.

As a society, we have decided – far too often, in my opinion – that raw emotion is a flaw. Because emotion is not rational, is not always controlled, we view it as a liability, a weakness. I find this horrifying in most of life’s components (probably all of them, actually), but I find it abhorrent when it applies to art.

Arts need to be burned by our tears. We need the fury of memory to scald our pages. We need the quiet whisper of bee-buzz joy to sing with our words. Emotion is not something to be squashed when it appears – it’s something to be wooed, to be courted, to be celebrated.

So if you find yourself overcome with emotion as you write, let yourself be overcome. Sing into it.  Burn wild, my friends. Burn wild. 

A Few Thoughts on How to Burn

When I was about to give my first public reading as part of my MFA program, the wise, tender-hearted, strong writer Gayle Brandeis said this, “If you cry, Andi, you just know you’ve hit the real things, the true things. And that’s beautiful.” Ever since Gayle told me that, I have sought my tears, my path markers that tell me I am getting to the true. Here are a few ways I seek them:

  1. I pay attention to my body. As I write, if I feel my throat start to tighten, if my fingers start to pound the keys, if I am leaning into the screen, then I know I’m going into something real, something powerful. I let my body lead me.
  2. I stay with the discomfort. If I’m writing and start to feel squirmy, if I start to feel uneasy (which for me is a tightening of the chest and a weight in my belly), I push into it instead of following my instinct to check Facebook. I let that discomfort lead me, and it almost takes me to something true and real that I hadn’t known to be so.
  3. I watch my characters. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I pay attention to what the people on the pages do. Are they getting antsy? Are they wanting to run? If so, I pay close attention because, sooner or later, they are probably going to move into that place of unease, and I need to be watching carefully for what will happen.
  4. I trust my emotions. For 20 years now, after sitting in a world views class and having a professor affirm emotion as a valid, important way of knowing, I have cultivated my understanding of my emotions so that when they arise I trust them to be telling me something important. Thus, when I feel angry or joyous or sorrowful as I write, I know I’m moving toward something good, and I lean in.

Now, all that’s not to say that you can lose control when you write. If the emotion is very powerful, you may need to take a breath, get your hands on the moment of the work, and then go back in. You are the creator, so you need to hold the reins. But maybe, just maybe, you can let the story run wild a bit. Then, grab hold of it again when you revise.

The cold time will come. Don’t deny the heat, though; it might just have something to tell you. 

Have you ever experienced an emotional reaction to something you are writing or reading? What is your reaction to that emotion?