Some years ago, I volunteered as a studio monitor during a regional ballet association festival. I watched nervously as the teacher pushed and corrected the young dancers, but I was happy to see how he also encouraged and praised. Toward the end of the session, he told the dancers something I’ve never forgotten: Technique isn’t enough. You can be technically proficient, but without emotion, you’ll never be a true artist. He urged them to feel the music, to make their entire bodies expressions of emotion.
I believe the same is true of writing. Artistry on the page isn’t only about skill or eloquence. We study and master craft; we may have a gift for language and storytelling; but if we can’t re-create emotion in ways that allow readers to feel, the prose will most likely be flat, no matter how well it’s written.
I learned a long time ago that my best work comes from an emotional place where I often would rather not be. So, when I become aware that a story isn’t working, I look hard for what I’m holding back.
One of the first stories I ever published gave me fits while I was writing it. The story dealt with betrayal, an experience I knew firsthand. Writing about that trauma was fraught with deep emotion, and yet I struggled to portray the feelings on the page in a way that didn’t feel stiff and superficial. A wise reader told me I was too close to the story; the protagonist was too much me. I needed to find a way to step back and give those emotions away. I was aware of the autobiographical elements, but I hadn’t realized how they were confining me. Instead of asking “What if…” I was locked into “This happened.” Once I changed the point of view, the story came pouring out. During the week it took to get the draft onto the page, I went upstairs every night after I stopped working, locked myself in the bathroom, and turned on the shower so my children couldn’t hear me crying.
Tapping painful experiences isn’t necessary for every story, and probing our personal stories isn’t right for every writer. There may be places we can never go in our fiction. I read once, though, that in one way or another, a fictional character will always be the writer, whether we intend it or not. It’s important that if we’re dealing with difficult feelings, we create distance. If we can manage that, if we can step back and at the same time go deep and open our hearts in the harsh light of the page, if we can mine our feelings that way, then the emotions that weigh us down can become genuine gifts of connection with our readers.
This post appeared on Telling Her Stories at Story Circle Network on October 21, 2022.