How To Write With Emotional Truth
In the household I grew up in, showing emotions was a weakness. Naturally, my first reaction when learning that I need to “write with emotional truth” was to run for the hills.
When I calmed down and came back, I started a long and exhausting process of figuring out what my emotional truth is. It took me a long time to figure out how to start the process. So, here are a few things that helped me get going.
TIP 1) Explore and Excavate Emotions
The first step is to figure out how you feel.
When you think about it, it sounds pretty obvious. I haven’t thought about it, and when I started writing fiction I was sure I could get away without ever touching on emotionally difficult stuff. Perhaps some authors can, but for me, it turned out to be impossible. I’m interested in writing about real-life experiences, and I found that I gravitate toward my own experiences. When I didn’t excavate emotionally difficult stuff, the writing was just flat and boring.
OK, but how do you go about exploring your emotions?
There are probably as many answers to this question as there are writers out there. For me, journaling every day works well. I free-write three pages, with a pen in a notebook, before I sit down to do “real” writing. I know. When I started writing I thought I’d never be able to write longhand.
Once I tried it, though, I found that what comes out with a pen in a notebook is different from what comes out when I type. I still type my “real” writing, the blog posts or short stories or novels (I also type much faster than I write longhand).
But for figuring out what I think and feel, writing longhand works best for me. I know people who draw or dance to explore their emotions, and it works for them. I think you need to try out a bunch of things, and see what resonates. MORE: Writers Ask: What Is Authenticity, Anyway?
TIP 2) Be Specific
Develop a rich emotional language.
In the 1980s Israel, repressing emotions was about survival. There was an actual, ongoing war, the trauma of WWII and the holocaust was very much with us, and my parents were literally trying to extract their livelihood from the desert soil.
Emotions were a luxury we simply could not afford. As an adult, the result of this is that my emotional language is rather stunted. I know the words, but connecting them to what’s happening in my body is a whole other thing.
I found the emotion wheel really helpful to tackle this.
Here’s a picture of one I like:
You can find other examples on the interwebs.
I like it because it helps me to drill down. Ok, I’m angry. What kind of angry? Is it more frustrated or more disappointed?
It also helps me to go the other way: if I’m feeling numb, I know what’s the underlying current. I can think about why I feel that way.
It’s also super helpful when I write a character: is my character sad or disgusted? Or maybe both?
It’s also interesting to think about why I react the way I do. Often it’s about past experiences more than it is about what’s happening right now. When my sister doesn’t return my call, my frustration is more about my experience of being an outsider in my family than it is about her schedule.
This has been a goldmine in terms of character motivation and back story, by the way. MORE: How To Write With Emotional Truth
TIP 3) Take Care
Self-care is not optional.
The reason my parents implicitly taught me not to show emotions is that emotions are fucking hard. The reason I stayed in the “safe zone” of flat writing for months is that emotions are fucking hard. Excavating emotional truth is an exhausting process, and if you undertake it you must take care of yourself.
An athlete watches everything she eats and drinks, any nagging pain in any joint, and any muscle soreness. In the same way, if we are exploring emotional truth we have to watch what goes into our minds and how we react to the process. It can mean taking a break from social media or the news. Or it can mean taking yourself to therapy if you need it. It means asking for help when you need it. MORE: The Uncomfortable Truth About #OwnVoices Stories
Bonus Tip: Trust the Process!
For me, the process of finding my emotional truth has been worth it.
I’ve learned a lot about myself, what triggers my emotions, what overwhelms me, and, most importantly, how to take care of myself. I’m still learning, and some days I miss the mark completely and go back to my old patterns, especially when my mum is visiting. But slowly, there are more days that don’t feel like I’m hanging on for dear life. And just recently someone told me I write with emotional truth, which is something that, only a few years ago, I didn’t think I could ever achieve. MORE: 10 Powerful Affirmations For Writers & How To Use Them
BIO: Gal Podjarny is a writer and blogger. She is fascinated by identity and how it evolves over the life span, especially how people handle different roles. Having lived in three different continents, she is also intrigued by the interplay between physical presence and belonging. Check out her blog at www.galpod.com.