Own the Emotion, Give It Away

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 enoughYou 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.

Credit: Samantha Hurley at Burst

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.

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.

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.

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This post appeared on Telling Her Stories at Story Circle Network on October 21, 2022.

Kasie Whitener: Can People in Heaven Read Facebook?

The Writerly Life welcomes Kasie Whitener, whose post delves into the impact of social media on our most personal—and sometimes most painful—moments. Kasie blogs at Life on Clemson Road, but she also teaches and is at work on several fiction projects. Learn more about her at the end of this post.

Can People in Heaven Read Facebook?

My Facebook newsfeed:

I ❤ POTUS! Leigh Johnson Reed changed her profile picture (and my cousin’s beautiful mug). Day 141 for my friend on assignment in Liberia: a picture of her dinner. A picture of Sarah Palin with a snide comment about John McCain picking her over Mitt Romney for vice president. And a ton of “TGIF!!!”

Then, “RIP, Kellye.”

And, “You’ll be missed, Kellye.”

We’ve become a culture that does everything publicly.

Our politics are online: we comment on blogs, share fair-and-balanced articles. Our humor is online: we re-post pithy phrases laid over 1950’s cartoons (“Not all women are moody. It’s just that some of us have had enough of your bullsh**”). We share YouTube videos, clips of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

Our business is online: we fan our employer, Like achievements and re-tweet specials and events to our customers. We’re LinkedIn to everyone we’ve ever met while wearing business casual dress and pretending to care.

We shop online, too: eagerly consuming hand-painted wineglasses, children’s clothing and anything and everything that’s been monogrammed (though that may just be a Southern thing).

Our families are online it’s the only way we’ve ever seen our cousin’s cute new baby. Our faith is online: we Like Bible passages and resurrection images and baptism photos.

So it is a natural progression, right? that we would mourn online? That our tribes, our communities, our families, our “friends” would experience with us the tragedy that has befallen us. After all, we went through theirs.

“I’m so sorry!”

“You’re in my prayers!”

“We love you all so much!”

Someone’s dog was euthanized. Someone’s cat went missing. Someone’s car was broken into, home burglarized, sister divorced, kid diagnosed with a terrible disease, father fighting prostate cancer, great-grandmother passed. People suffer and we suffer with them.

“Praying for you!”

Social Media Network
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At the same time this Facebook sharing is both disturbing and confirming. First, it disturbs me that these tragedies find their way into the same medium where we’ve posted Little League Baseball scores, kitten videos, and quotes from the Dalai Lama. How is “rest in peace” appropriate here when just yesterday I wrote, “Go Tigers!” in the same space?

Jewel Blitz wants to share my top score. Amazon wants to tell people I bought a new book. Target lets everyone know I Like it and Jiffy Lube wants to tell people Brando got his oil changed. All of this news goes into my Facebook status update.

So how is, “She will be missed!” appropriate in the same place my RunKeeper App just said, “Kasie finished a 3.75 mile run in 38:22.04”?

I tweet and Facebook repeats: leadership quotes, articles about editing, Clemson sports updates, book reviews and blog posts. I wouldn’t think to Tweet, “Kellye died.” So why would I put it on Facebook?

Are these wall posts meant to offer comfort? Her sister, Kerri, is reading messages from hundreds of people who knew Kellye, people Kerri may have never met. She’s reading how loved her twin was, how many lives she touched. Do those messages on Kellye’s page help Kerri heal? Shouldn’t they? Isn’t that why they are posted?

Or are they another example of our own over-inflated sense of self-importance? Those people who ignore the fact that yesterday this same status update said “I Hate Mondays” and use it today to share their sadness are stuck in their own moment. Facebook is nothing if not self-worship.

Still the sharing is somewhat comforting and I hope wherever Kellye’s faith took her she has access to Facebook. But really, I wish she knew while she was here what a tremendous impact she was having on all of us. I am inspired to tell the people I know how important they are and what good work they are doing.

The power of social media is in the sharing of this tumultuous experience called life. And part of that experience, tragically, is that one beautiful, wonderful, funny, determined girl is no longer with us. And we’re suffering. Together.

I don’t know that blogging about her is any better than Facebooking it, so there’s my disclaimer. What do you think? Are people abusing social media by broadcasting their pain? Or is it the necessary evolution of this new global world?

Kasie Whitener

Kasie Whitener is a freelance writer and professor of English at Strayer University and Midlands Technical College. She’s a member of the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE), the #amwriting.org community, and the Wordsmith Studio. She tweets @KasieWhitener and Facebooks. She blogs at Life on Clemson Road and is currently writing a collection of short stories to submit to literary journals during their acceptance window in the fall. She has several novel projects all of which deal with the moment the late David Foster Wallace described as when a fish recognizes what water is.

Guest Post by Khara House: Knowing What’s Real

Please welcome Khara House to The Writerly Life.

I met Khara through a platform challenge last spring, and I continue to be amazed by her poetry, her social media savvy, her wit, and intelligence. Khara is a dynamo poet, but today, she shares some wisdom about creating fictional characters. Thanks, Khara!

Knowing What’s Real

I recently chatted with a fellow fiction-writing friend about the nature of character creation. What we mutually determined was that writing fictional characters is almost a form of insanity. We get busy crawling into the skin of strangers, listening to their voices as we let them take over our heads and speak to us, and through us, in ways you’d be in serious trouble if you let it happen out loud! The only difference is that, if insane, we’d be creating illusions: in writing, we’re trying to create something real.

I took a class in undergrad on creative writing. For one assignment we were tasked with writing a narrative in which we paid a keen amount of attention to a moment, making that one moment last as long as possible. In my narrative, it was the story of a mother shopping with her young son, and the moment was the son dropping a jar of peaches. I received good marks on the story, but the professor’s one point of contention was that the mother didn’t seem authentic, because she didn’t “sound Black.”

“Mason Jars” by Josh LeGreve (chaos_j_a), via stock.xchng.hu

Maybe it’s important for me to point out that I am a Black writer here. But in that moment, I had never really thought of myself as “a Black writer.” I was just “a writer.” But because I was a Black writer, my professor had thought that my mother character was Black. And I think, in my mind, at some points I’d wanted her to be Black, too, or at least a reflection of my own mother. We couldn’t figure out where things had gone wrong in that depiction—her words were fine, her actions believable. And then it struck me, and I pointed out, “You know, I don’t think my mom ever bought a glass jar of peaches. We bought cans.” I hadn’t thought enough about who my character was, and because of that, some of the details created a conflict of understanding. It was nothing my character said that betrayed who or what she was: it was in the details.

One of the activities I gave a poetry class I taught was to write a character-I poem, in which they created a “new self” as the speaker and enveloped themselves in that character’s world. It’s a challenge, to let those new voices speak inside ourselves. It’s also a ton of fun. And the more we allow ourselves to be wrapped up in the worlds of the people we create, the more realistic they’ll be, whether we’re writers crafting Black or Hispanic or Asian or Middle Eastern characters, or any other creation. Often the authenticity is in the details—a mason jar instead of a can, a cul-de-sac or a lawn or a cement sidewalk or an orange tree in the backyard. A lock of hair or a loc. Bananas or plantains. Finding out what’s real for our characters is often more than what we have them say, or even what they do. Often, it’s in the details, just like the devil. And the devil of it is, we can make or break, solidify or shatter, a fictional reality just by adding or withholding that one right, or wrong, detail.

These days, when I go about creating characters, I’ll create a full dossier for each one. I interview them. I talk to them. I create the towns where they grew up. I talk about their pets and their favorite toys. I get a sense of who they are in as much detail as possible. I create listed details for their hair. I’ll interview their neighbors. I get to know all the details of their lives before I put their first words on the page. So by the time I’m writing them, I know not only the character inside and out …

I know, with absolute certainty, what’s real.

Call to Action: I encourage you to give the “character-I” activity a try. Either as a poem or prose, write a piece in which you engage with the details of a character’s life you’ve created. Don’t only envelop yourself in who he or she is … wrap yourself up in the details of his or her world. Learn to live in your characters’ skins, and discover for yourself what is “real” again!

Khara House

About Khara

Khara House is a poet, freelance writer, and educator. Originally from Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Arizona, where she teaches First-Year Composition at the university-level. Visit and learn more about Khara online at www.kharahouse.com.