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Emotional Truth Revisited

so-far-so-good [1]If you were following WriterUnboxed back in 2013, you may have read a version of the column you’re about to read. (If you can remember having read it, you’re better person than I am; I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.) I was reminded of it recently, and inspired to share it again, while helping a protégé understand that the journey of a writer – a real writer – is the journey toward emotional truth.

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 logistics hold up, 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 understanding. I 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 don’t quite known how to get this information from brain to page. Our first efforts in that direction often seem awkward and stilted. We might try to write, “I love you,” only to recoil in self-conscious horror at the awful, inauthentic, clichéd obviousness of those words. We hate ourselves for writing so artlessly about subjects of such importance. We haven’t yet made – at least to our satisfaction – the connection between simple human truths and their meaningful, effective, evocative presentation on the page.

But we get better. We do. We grow and develop, deepen our awareness of the truths we wish to convey, and also acquire the means to do so. We discover tools like text and subtext, and bring our writing to the point where one character may ask another, “How about some microwave popcorn?” 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 take a certain leap 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, fellow 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 heart 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 facing rejection, 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 handle 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 deep; and, having gone deep, going deeper still.

If you want to see where you are on this road, just ask yourself the question, “What dark secret about myself, my beliefs, my understanding, or my experience would I not want anyone to know?” If you find that you can write about this secret, then you’re already writing within the realm of emotional truth. If you find that you can’t quite yet pull it off, don’t worry, for the path that’s laid out before you is well marked and time tested. If you keep moving toward emotional truth, trust me, you’ll get there.

Or even don’t trust me; just 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 dark secret you don’t want anyone to know. 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?

What’s the scariest thing you write about? What do you do to confront that fear?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!