How I Access My Emotions When I Write (And You Can, Too!)
Why do you like the writing you like? I think many writers’ work becomes popular because their writing touches readers on an emotional level. Whether writing makes you laugh or cry, whether you give the novel a place of honor on your bookshelf or throw it against the wall, it makes you feel something.
One of my favorite writers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been asked in several interviews how he writes such deeply touching stories and characters. How could a story about a bodega owner in New York City or one about America’s forgotten founding father bring people to tears? His response is consistent: if something he wrote made anyone cry, he was probably crying while writing it. I know his writing — and now directing, too — evokes tears from me in a way no other writer or director has.
Bringing real emotions into my writing is a skill I’ve aspired to longer than I’ve known why it was important. It’s also been one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face thus far. I’m an empathic person by nature, so when I feel things, I feel them hard. It also means that, if I’m going to make emotions stand out on the page, I’m going to have to spend some time feeling them. And that can be exhausting. It requires me to bring up some of the most painful moments from my past and think about how I would describe them. When I manage to do it successfully, it’s writing I don’t criticize as harshly, because I didn’t just write those words; I felt them.
It seems like great writers can do this on command, but what exactly are they putting on the page that we respond to?
First and foremost, emotional writing is about telling the truth. I find that, if I’m not telling the truth in anything I write, the writing simply isn’t good. I don’t care about it. And sure, that makes it easier to “kill my darlings” when it comes time for editing, but it also means I have more work to do in revision. Authors who are good at writing emotion write believable, human stories (even if the characters aren’t human). They take experiences that lots of people can relate to and apply them to their plot and characterizations, and they do it in ways that make us care about what happens to the characters as a result of their experiences.
Secondly, the emotions they describe are real human emotions. The author doesn’t need to have experienced the events they’re writing about. In fact, I often hope they haven’t! But this is how they connect with their readers. They take events and emotions they know are true to life and translate them into descriptions and dialogue that feel authentic. So even if the reader hasn’t experienced events like the ones they read about, they can understand how and why an experience is sad, painful, exciting, infuriating, hopeful, joyful, and so on.
Dos and Don’ts for accessing real emotions in your writing:
- Pick up a book that made you feel something and examine why the writing touched you. What was a scene that made your side hurt from laughing? Or caused you to burst into tears? Was there a part that made you slam the book shut and refuse to acknowledge its existence for at least 24 hours? Or one that made you want to shove the book in the freezer, like Rachel suggested to Joey in Friends? What did the author do that made you feel those things? Jot it down somewhere. Now you have a point of reference the next time you’re having trouble accessing emotional vulnerability in your own writing.
- Write when you’re feeling. The good news is it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling: you could be deeply upset or over-the-moon. There are lots of options when it comes to how and where you write, just as long as you can reproduce those feelings when you’re adding them to your work in progress. Things that work for me are journaling, freewriting, and listening to music that helps evoke the emotions I want when I’m writing. I also really like the idea of brainstorming adjectives and verbs that express how and what I’m feeling.
- Don’t stop working on an emotional description until it feels true. When it comes to bringing real emotions into writing, there’s nothing worse than the author simply telling you what a character is feeling without helping you understand what it means that they’re feeling it. Again, the experience doesn’t have to be one you’ve had for the emotions to feel real.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself. I recently had a call with my mentor within the writing program I’m doing, and the main concern I brought up was the emotionally difficult scenes I have coming up in my novel. I’m terrified of digging into them because some of the experiences I need to access are still raw, and I’m worried I won’t be able to pull myself out of the emotions and back into the present. After reassuring me I’m on the right track in my desire to immortalize heavy emotions in print, my mentor reminded me to do something kind for myself after going to those places. What makes you feel better after you’ve been deep inside your emotions? My go-tos are: running a bath and tossing in a pleasant-smelling bath bomb, putting on a playlist of what I call “good mood music,” and spending time with my husband and fur-babies. Whatever works for you, make sure you’re able to regulate the emotions you’ve been feeling and return to a more level state.
Finally, remember that nothing you put in a draft is permanent. Play around with different descriptions and phrasings until you find what works for you, your characters, and your story as a whole. Happy writing!