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.

Story Surgery

A week or so ago, I re-read one of my short stories I hadn’t looked at in a while. I have to confess I’d felt a little smug about this one. (I almost never feel confident about what I write.) It’s unlike anything else I’ve written—a little edgy, playing around with POV and dialogue. Tight. Or so I thought. But I’d submitted it a few times with no luck–a sign the story isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not as good as it could be.

I had never been truly satisfied with the ending, so I started there. I agonized. I lost sleep. I worked on the last two paragraphs for days (yes, sometimes that’s how long it takes), and finally, the ending seemed to gel. No small victory, that.

Then I read the entire story again—one last time, I told myself. I looked at white space, checked for typos. I had already read it for clichés, sentence variety, scene/narrative summary balance, tension, character arc/change, “flow” . . . If you’re a fiction writer, you know the drill. As I read, though, I realized the story was still heavy with gratuitous details and phrases, even whole sentences that didn’t contribute much.

Cutting Room Floor

"Possible Cut" by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
“Possible Cut” by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

So I started cutting. By the time I was done, the story was almost 500 words lighter. Tighter. Stronger. Why had it taken me so long to see what it needed?

Sometimes, time and distance give me perspective. I agree with the advice to “put it away for a while,” then reread with a sharp, critical eye. I often puzzle over a story for a long time before I figure out what it really needs. (Occasionally, I never figure it out, but that’s another post.)

Someone—surely more than one writer of advice on story craft—has said that nothing should go in the story that doesn’t advance it in some way. Nothing.

That, I believe, is the crux of revision whether you’re writing short or long fiction.

Ask yourself: Does this scene/ paragraph/dialogue/sentence/image/particular word (yes, word choice) move the story forward and/or grow the character? What does it add? Strike it out and read the passage aloud without it. See if you miss it, not because it was a brilliant turn of phrase but because without it, something absolutely essential has gone missing from the story. If not, cut. Cut. Cut. Painful, but necessary.

Be wary of language that calls attention to itself. In this story, I threw away a metaphor I loved. It was a beautiful image, but it didn’t do anything for the story. Sometimes we do indeed have to “kill our darlings.”

Granted, it’s possible to chop the life right out of a story. I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes, if we cut a story to its bones, we find a better way to tell it.

Before and After

I want to share a couple of examples. This story, “Miracle of Doors,” is about a woman recovering from breast cancer. Out of context, these passages won’t mean much, but they illustrate the kind of cutting and refining I’m talking about. (Her cat, Miso, plays an important role in the story.)

Here they are, side by side:

Old_new_best.pdf
Before, after

This gives you an idea of my “tightening” process when I’m down to the last passes through a story. Sometimes it’s not the number of words but the words themselves that matter most. Maybe you’re able to write concisely or revise as you go. I tend to discover as I go; I write long drafts and whittle them down.

A story draft is the easy part. Revision is key to a polished piece of writing you can be proud of. Before you send the story out into the world: Refine. Make every word count!

Do you have favorite revision strategies? Share one with me!

Own the Emotion, Then Give It Away

Back in April, I volunteered as a studio monitor during the Southeast Regional Ballet Association’s festival here in Jackson, where some 800 ballet students and teachers gathered for three days of dance classes and evening performances. My sixteen-year-old granddaughter’s local dance company, Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet, hosted SERBA—a huge undertaking—and I wanted to help out. I also knew I would enjoy watching the dancers in class, so my motivation was partly selfish.

My duties? Introduce myself to the master teacher and the pianist, make sure the right dancers were in that studio, fetch whatever was needed, call for help if a dancer was injured, wipe down the barres after class. I knew what to do, but I didn’t expect the master teacher’s most important insight.

I’ve watched my granddaughter’s developing talent, hard work, and dedication over the years, so I wasn’t surprised at the young dancers’ talent and intensity. Some of them had arrived in the room by the time I got there, nearly 30 minutes before class began, and were already warming up. I sensed their nervousness; I was nervous, too, and worried that the teacher might be harsh or demanding. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I watched as he put the dancers through their paces, pushed, corrected, encouraged, and praised them.

Tutu, up close; a kind of artistry in itself
Tutu with hand-sewn ribbons

And then, toward the end of the first class, he said something remarkable: Technique, he said, isn’t enough. You can be technically proficient, but without emotion, you’ll never be a true artist. Repeatedly, he urged them to feel the music, to make their entire bodies expressions of emotion.

Artistry on the page

The same is true of writing. Artistry on the page isn’t about skill alone or even about eloquent writing. We can study and master craft; we can have a gift for language and story-telling; but if we can’t create emotion in ways that compel readers to feel, the prose will be flat, no matter how well written.

I learned a long time ago that my best work comes from an emotional place deep inside me where, quite often, I’d rather not go. When I become aware that a story isn’t working, I have to look at what I’m holding back.

One of the first stories I ever wrote and published (“Appendix,” published in the wonderful but now defunct Crescent Review) gave me a lot of trouble as I tried to write it. It dealt with betrayal, a subject that should have been fraught with emotion, yet no matter how I tried, I knew it wasn’t working. My husband gave me great advice: Step back from it, he said; change the POV, and give those emotions to somebody who’s the opposite of you.

I tried what he suggested, and the story came pouring out of me. And yet, even though I’d successfully created distance, I’d go upstairs after spending hours at the computer late at night (I was teaching full time then; that was when I had time to write), lock myself in the bathroom, and sob.

I’m not saying that tapping that kind of painful experience is necessary for every story, nor is probing personal experience right for every writer. For example, if writing about an experience brings back too many raw, painful feelings, give it more time before you tackle transferring that emotion to a fictional character. There may very well be some places you can never go in your fiction.

Going the distance

But my husband’s advice holds true. Take what terrifies you or makes you angry or sad or jealous and pour that emotion into a character who isn’t you. I read somewhere once that a fictional character will always be the writer in some way, whether we intend it or not. I believe that’s true. But if you’re dealing with difficult feelings, gain some distance. Give them away to someone very different from you, or turn the circumstances on their pretty little heads and write.

So, as with any art—dance or music or visual art or photography—writing techniques and skills must be mastered. We have to learn the rules before we can successfully break them. So we learn the craft. There’s no end to that, is there? We’re always learning! And then we reach inside and pull out our own hearts and examine them in the harsh light of day. We mine our experiences for feelings, and we make of them gifts for our readers.

How do you shape your characters’ emotions? Where do they come from?