Writers often find themselves confronted by the question, “What is emotional truth?” and the further question, “How do I put it on the page?” As someone who has taught and trained writers all over the world – and of course struggled with these questions myself – I find that writers go through predictable stages in their quest to convey authentic emotional meaning in their work.
At first, many writers have no idea that such a thing as emotional truth even exists. They are focused solely on making the plot work, making the jokes funny, or advancing the action from event to event. At this stage, there is little or no thought to a work’s deeper meaning or deeper human truth. call this the “run and jump” phase of our writing careers, when all we can really see, and all we can adequately convey, are the mechanical aspects of the work; the mysteries of the human heart yet elude us.
As we mature as writers, we become aware that there’s such a thing as emotional truth, but we have no effective means of transmitting this information from brain to page. Our first efforts in this direction often seem awkward, stilted, and self-conscious. We might try to write, “I love you,” only to recoil in horror at the awful, stilted, clichéd obviousness of that thought. We hate or castigate ourselves for writing so artlessly about subjects so important. We haven’t yet made, at least to our satisfaction, the connection between simple human truths and meaningful, effective, evocative presentation on the page.
But we get better. We do. We grow and develop, deepen our awareness of the emotional truths we wish to convey, and also acquire strategies and tactics for doing so in a satisfying way. We discover tools like text and subtext, and bring our writing to the point where one character may say to another, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” and have it understood to mean, “I yearn for you to the bottom of my soul.” We become writers with sufficient insight to detect emotional truth and sufficient toolcraft to capture and preserve it in words. So we’re home and dry, right?
Maybe not. Maybe we’re still afraid.
In conveying emotional truth on the page, writers must make certain leaps of faith. Sooner or later we have to recognize that writing about emotional things will necessarily expose us to the very feelings we’re trying to express – feelings we might not be entirely comfortable with. To write successfully at this stage, we have to become okay with just feeling what we’re feeling. We also have to be ready to accept judgment from others – family and friends, other writers, the audience at large. We have to be ready to take a stand and say, “This! This is what I believe! This is how I think the human condition works!” That’s a big step. Some writers can’t make it – their story absolutely ends here. For fear of confronting their feelings and for fear of others’ opprobrium, they just never find their way to being honest on the page.
Those who do overcome their fear enter a state of maturity in relation to emotional truth: They know it’s out there; they desire to express it; they have the means to do so; and they are not afraid. This, as far as I’m concerned, is the ultimate goal of a writer’s life: To know the truth; to speak the truth; and to be not afraid.
So then we can think of a writer’s journey to emotional truth as a road toward deeper understanding, better toolcraft, and freedom from fear. It’s useful to stop and ponder from time to time where we are on this road. I myself am currently exactly here: I have a pretty good hand on interpersonal truth – how people are with one another – and now I’m trying to tackle philosophical truth and spiritual truth. I’m trying to convey my deepest beliefs without sounding like a dork or a preacher or both. It’s not easy, and I’m not entirely unafraid, for who wants to look like a preachy dork? But I’m soldiering on, because it’s my understanding that this is what living the writer’s life is really all about: going deeper; and having gone deeper, going deeper still.
If you want to see where you exactly are on this road, just ask yourself this question: “What deep, dark secret about myself, my beliefs, my understanding, or my experience would I not want anyone to know?” If you find that you can already write about this secret, then you’re already writing within the realm of emotional truth. If you find that you can’t yet write about the whatever-it-is, don’t worry, for the path that’s laid out before you is a well-illuminated and time-tested one: If you keep moving toward emotional truth, trust me, you’ll get there.
Or don’t even trust me; trust yourself. Look back over your shoulder and see the things you used to be scared to write about, but aren’t anymore. There are many. There will be many more. That’s the writer’s life. That’s the journey you’re on.
As an exercise, if you’re game, write a thousand words about that deep, dark whatever-it-is. I think that once you put it on the page, it’ll scare you a lot less than you thought – and help you a lot more than you think.
Me, I’ll be right over here trying not to sound like a preachy dork. How is that going so far?