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Fueling Your Writing With Feeling

Flickr Creative Commons: Giuseppe Milo

After a month of social distancing and the uprooting of almost everything that was routine in my life, I’m having a lot of feelings about this whole situation. I miss hugging my friends—heck, I miss seeing my friends. I miss the casual banter with the lettuce lady at the farmer’s market and the camaraderie of my workout buddies and running to the store on a whim to pick up the bread I forgot to buy earlier. My palms are peeling from all the hand-washing and I have dreams about Clorox wipes. My husband and my youngest daughter are fine people but now they are in my house 24/7, having conference calls and Zoom meetings in what used to be my private work space. I lie awake at night dreading my weekly visit to the grocery store, or worrying how I will survive if my 90-year-old mother dies and I can’t even have the comfort of a funeral. And then it becomes more personal—a friend’s mother dies, a college classmate’s husband gets sick and writes goodbye letters to his family, my daughter has a bout of asthma and we spend a sleepless night, worrying. My 17-year-old cat dies and I feel like I could drown in grief.

I am anxious and I am grieving and I am lonely and I am bored and I am frustrated and I am grateful—does any of this sound familiar? And as hard as it can be to focus, all I can think is that all this emotion is raw and true and real and is exactly what fuels the best fiction. So how do I take all this feeling and use it in my writing?

Write the scene that you’re feeling right now, not necessarily the one that comes in the next chronological order in your story. My father died suddenly in 2011, as I was in the midst of working on a major revision of my second novel. The book was under contract, my editor wanted me to try adding a second point of view to the book, and my deadline was six weeks away. Of course my editor and agent were understanding about my father’s death, and told me not to worry about the deadline. But I found that it helped to pour my grief and shock‚ raw and real, into my writing. I looked for points in the story where my characters were experiencing loss or sudden upheavals in their lives, and I wrote those scenes. I didn’t worry about how I’d work them in or exactly where in the chronology they would appear. I knew certain events had to happen to my characters, and I wrote the events that reflected the emotion I was feeling then. It led to some of the most genuine writing I’ve done. None of my characters experienced the sudden death of a parent. But they had their own losses, and their grief was mine. Once I finished those scenes, I wrote other, less intense scenes, and mapped out the story arc, and moved scenes and chapters around—the equally important but less emotionally charged work of writing.

Invite your emotions in and really get to know them. I ask students in my creative writing classes to write down an emotion they’ve experienced in the past week—any emotion, no matter how big or small. Then I ask them to write a welcome manual to that emotion, as though anxiety had just knocked on the door and was standing out there, waiting to be let in. I’ve had students write some of the most insightful, honest, creative pieces I’ve ever read, including welcome manuals to lust, insecurity, gender dysphoria, boredom, and fear. It’s interesting to try to imagine an emotion with a physical presence, an attitude, a manner of speaking. It forces students to dig deep into all the facets of that feeling, how it makes itself felt, how it changes the way we think and talk and carry ourselves in the world. Those are useful things to think through in showing how emotions affect our characters.

 Step back and calm yourself down. Maybe you’re overwhelmed with all this feeling. Maybe the LAST thing you want to do right now is take a deep dive into grief or fear or frustration or boredom. That’s fine. Write the scenes that are the calm after the emotional storm, or the character who is the foil to all the intensity another character is feeling. When writing that same second novel I created a character, an elderly man who had traveled the world, immersed himself in the natural world in his work as a botanist, and who was practical and no-nonsense and smart. Writing him, and writing the things he said to some of the characters who were emoting around him, centered me in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. His character had a genuine emotional truth, too, but a different kind of emotional truth. And it’s that spectrum—from despair to rage to exhaustion to calm to wisdom and back again—that defines the human experience. And that’s what good writing is all about. 

How are you using feelings you’ve experienced during the pandemic in your own writing?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.