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?