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.

Find Your Voice, Make It Sing

Many years ago, when I was teaching English and creative writing to high school students, I attended a creative workshop for teachers “up East” where we learned fresh approaches to teaching writing. More importantly for me, it turned out, was the encouragement to write a story of my own.

I remember sitting on a bench in the sun, writing in longhand about a secret my mother had told me, one that if she were living, I would never have attempted to write about, let alone share. I couldn’t get the words down fast enough, and I cried when I finished it. I didn’t know then that my stories would hardly ever feel “finished”; they always, always go through many drafts.

I wondered if people were taken with my Southern drawl or just surprised that a forty-something teacher from Mississippi could put together a decent narrative.

When we shared our stories in the workshop, I wasn’t nervous. I was learning that a trusted cohort, even one of strangers, can be a blessed space. When I read my short story at the gathering on the last night, I was stunned when everybody stood and applauded. I wondered if people were taken with my Southern drawl or just surprised that a forty-something teacher from Mississippi could put together a decent narrative. It was heady yet sobering stuff, and I began to wonder: could I really do this thing called writing?         

That remained a question for a long time. After I retired from teaching, I read everything I could get my hands on about craft. I participated in as many workshops, conferences, and residencies as money allowed. Over the years, I managed to get published here and there, but I’ll confess I had little ambition to do more. I don’t regret those years. I couldn’t have written those stories outside the context of my then-life. It took time, experience, and some heartbreak before my stories could come together in a collection that was published in 2015. And now? I have a novel coming out in 2024. That little miracle is still sinking in!       

So here we are, thinking about this writing life. You may look at my productivity or the lack of it and scratch your head: only a handful of published stories and two books to show for a lifetime of work. No MFA. No Big Five publisher. No agent. No big advance.

That’s okay. The thing is, my journey matters and so does yours.

Some of you may be starting to figure out this writing thing, or maybe you’ve already achieved more success quickly than I have in a lifetime. Maybe you juggle writing, jobs, and families. Maybe you struggle with disappointments and circumstances that hold you back. Maybe some of you are like me: the late bloomers, into your second or third act, the women who have worn many different hats in your lives, and you’ve come late to the writing party.

Remember: it’s never too late. Find your voice. Make it sing.

~

“Find Your Voice, Make It Sing” appeared as “A Little History” September 23, 2022 on the Telling Her Stories Blog at Story Circle Network.

Listening Back

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

A friend encourages me to write memoir. “But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh, I’ve written nonfiction pieces for a blog or in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess that I find it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it feels good for them to be dredged up, examined in new light, and then they’re gone. But a memoir? I may have the material, but I don’t have the nerve. It takes courage to remember.

I used to believe I had a near-perfect childhood. I was a doted-on only child, but I was also an overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were not even close to perfect. I came out of that background idealistic and immature. I married a boy with “promise,” had babies, and lived for a while what I believed would always be the good life.

But life often doesn’t turn out that way, and that’s where remembering gets hard.

winter sunset / g. wilson

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as a metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly face the past head on, or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost. But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning in one place, unable to move ahead but unable to go back, either, which of course we can’t do: we can never, ever go back to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

“Listening Back” appeared on the TellingHerStories blog at Story Circle Network July 26, 2022 and originally appeared here in longer form.