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?

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.

Count No-Count, Mr. Bill, Pappy . . .


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of William Faulkner‘s death on July 6, 1962. So why, you may ask, would I write about an author who’s been dead for fifty years?

Here’s why:

I grew up thirty miles from Oxford, Mississippi, practically in Mr. Faulkner’s shadow. I vaguely remember the hoopla when Intruder in the Dust was filmed there (that’s a very early memory, mind you). The locals didn’t think much of him; they called him “Count No-Count,” apparently a reference to his laziness. His views, not to mention his often difficult, convoluted prose, didn’t cut it with the home folks back then.

Maturity Required

In college, I was forced to read Faulkner. Not until I was in my forties did I decide to have another go at his novels. One summer, I read The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Sanctuary, and Light in August in quick succession. Once I immersed myself in the language and the rhythm of the prose, it became less difficult, even mesmerizing. If you’re not a Faulkner fan, I know I probably won’t convince you to take him on. All I’m saying is that it took a certain maturity on my part, both in terms of life experience and as a reader, to appreciate him.

Later, I wound up teaching The Unvanquished and As I Lay Dying to high school students (I struggled to get As I Lay Dying on the reading list–too hard, other teachers said). Many of the kids responded well to a close reading of those books. There’s also an element of pride, I would tell them; Mississippi may be last in a lot of things, but we’ve produced some fine writers, and William Faulkner is arguably among the best. Ever. Anywhere.

Bring On Mr. Bill!

If you’ve never read Faulkner, think about taking him on. The Unvanquished is a portrayal of life (on the Southern side) during the Civil War. It’s an easy read compared to most of his other books, but it’s not “typical” Faulkner in terms of style. Try As I Lay Dying, which is a manageable read and a remarkable book. Then work your way up–maybe Light in August or Absalom, Absalom! Tackle Sanctuary (possibly his most controversial work), or The Sound and the Fury; its first section is written in the consciousness of Benjy, a grown man with the mind of a child who has no perception of chronological time. Someone–I don’t remember who–recommends you read the rest of the book first; then go back and read the Benjy section, and it’ll be more accessible.

There are many others. These are just my favorites.

If you’re not up for tackling a novel, start with a short story: “That Evening Sun” or “A Rose for Emily” or “Barn Burning.” But whatever you do, read some of Mr. Bill’s work, especially if you never have. (You can find the full text of these stories online.)

Faulkner = Home

William Faulkner. [Map of Yoknapatawpha County] from The Portable Faulkner (New York: The Viking Press, 1946).

Maybe I relate to Mr. Bill’s work because it resonates of home. I recognize Yoknapatawpha County, those hills, that hard red earth, the people. Not everybody has those ties, but you don’t really need them. Faulkner’s work has withstood the test of time for a reason. Go there. You’ll recognize someone.

Here’s a recent article you might find interesting: How William Faulkner Tackled Race — and Freed the South From Itself. And if you’re curious about the man, go to William Faulkner: Frequently Asked Questions.

I’m well aware that people tend either to love or hate Faulkner! Where are you on that continuum? What have you read?