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Pressing Emotions

I am finding more and more that writing fiction is the best compress for an emotional wound.

Readers of fiction tend to be highly compassionate. Maybe it is because we are accustomed to and interested in delving into other people's perspectives. Writers of fiction are often introspective, sensitive, and analytical. It's no wonder that many reader/writers suffer from anxiety. I am no exception; I have an anxiety disorder that keeps me up some nights with tremors, an upset stomach, and insomnia. And my best treatment for those dark times is my writing.

My family and I have been through some very hard times during the past couple of years. We lost my father-in-law. My husband lost his job unexpectedly. And there have been other hurts that I can't share online except in the vaguest terms:

Someone close to me broke my heart by self-harming.
Someone hurt a person I love.
A stranger posted deeply offensive and threatening words online.

Often there is no appropriate external response I can make to the person who has caused my distress. Sometimes I am angry. I want to post wrongdoers’ misdeeds online to shame them. I want to hunt down the person who abandoned me. I want to strike out at the person who hurt my loved one. I want to fire at aggression with anger.

I know none of these things will help myself or anyone else. They are not acceptable or practical ways to respond. But I am filled with negative energy that pushes at my insides like a tumor, crushing the air out of my lungs.

And then I realize: That thing inside of me is not a cancer, it is not poison, it is not waste. I can transform this powerful energy into beauty in a way that fulfills me. I can put it in my book.

Emotions are always legitimate and always useful to an artist. As a writer, I can let even the most negative emotions bloom fully and then, instead of leaving them to rot, harvest them like botanical specimens and place them in the leaves of my book and press it closed.

Let me be clear. None of the particular events, words, or real people who have hurt me go into my book. Those are outside of myself. I do not own them, cannot control them, and have no right to them. But my feelings are my own, the feelings that have grown and swelled and stretched inside me. They are mine, and they are gifts, even the bitter ones, that I can use to infuse my own characters and the drama of my story with rich, true feeling.

For example, if someone has betrayed me, I can use that experience to deepen the emotional realism of a character in my book who has been betrayed. That character plays out my feelings even though it was a different "person" and a different occurrence that caused my character to feel the way I do in my true life.

My writing expands and unfurls, and my story pulses with life. It is emotional judo. I absorb the blows of life into myself and spin them around and around, into gold. There is nothing more gratifying than creating lasting beauty from temporary pain.

Writing friends, how does your craft help you work through your personal neuroses? How does your work benefit from your emotional life--and vice versa?


  1. Sometimes it can be cathartic, sometimes it can be counterproductive if it is anger that you are getting off your chest. I've had to delete whole scenes when the character I've created from it was good for me at the time, but injurious to the novel

    1. That's a good point, Mike. Sometimes a strong feeling can push you to write a scene that isn't right for a novel. But I think it's never counterproductive to write a scene that needs to get deleted (which is most of the scenes I write) because even exploring what your novel doesn't need is a good way to bring into focus what the novel DOES need.

      Anyway, better to write an extraneous fictional scene for your own viewing than, say, write a pissy Facebook post. Haha.

    2. Also, I find that I can only use a strong emotion properly in writing when I have passed the stage of shock and confusion and I'm very clear about WHAT I'm feeling and WHY. That's what I mean by letting the feeling bloom fully. If it's harvested too green, it probably won't result in coherent or meaningful writing. It's a touchy process that I'm learning to refine.

  2. Jeannie, what a powerful post. I love how you were able to look at these upsetting issues in a constructive way. Pretty inspiring stuff. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. When tragedy strikes, I keep a journal and will write down those raw emotions. I don't usually use them in my writing until much later. But you're write, it's fodder, and writing can be cathartic.

    1. Journaling is also great! I like to think of it as a storage unit for feelings and thoughts that don't yet have a place in a novel. It's doubly satisfying to express difficult emotions in words and also to think that they might become useful in a finished work later on, in some new form.


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