Writing around the heart

The problem with writing about raw emotion is that feelings keep getting in the way.

A couple weeks ago, Lucius Shepard posted this question to his Facebook profile: “I rarely write about stuff that’s going on in my head at the time–it seems to take around ten years for life to manifest in stories and my protagonists are often a decade younger than I. There are exceptions provoked by extreme emotion, but this is the general rule. What’s your lag time…or do you have one?”

It provoked a thread of 60 responses. I found the question particularly interesting, especially his clause about extreme emotion. Because that’s precisely where I differ. I need time to pass before I can get enough perspective and clarity on an emotionally charged issue to write about it effectively. I if I write from a place of high feeling, the writing gets too heated. It’s as though I’m trying to convince the reader of something and I just won’t shut up about it. I have to throw in every last detail of how I felt or why I felt it so that the reader can understand it, and justify everything I’m saying. Justify me. It becomes an exercise in validation, which — in my case at least — does not make for good writing.

Last year I went through an experience that so filled my head — my thoughts, my imagination, the way I thought about the world — that I found it impossible to write about anything else. When I tell you what happened it will sound laughably mundane: I fell in love and it didn’t work out. It happens to everyone. And really, the emotional fallout from it was way out of proportion to how long things lasted. And that’s a great topic to write about. I knew it at the time, and I made a few attempts. But each time my heart would start swinging through my chest like a wrecking ball, just demolishing everything in there, and I’d stall out.

The reason was that the story is not simple. It would take time and, above all, clarity to write about truly and honestly. There were so many factors that went into it, and that went into my profound reaction to its failure. I could write a book. And, now that time has passed and I have achieved that clarity, I probably will.

Going further back, there are other moments of high emotion that are quite easy for me to write about, now that I’ve established emotional distance. Family drama from when I was a kid; my first few love affairs; events in the bar I worked at in New Orleans in which I was afforded a glimpse into both the strengths and weaknesses of my character, when I confronted real fear and am now able to study my own reactions to it. There are essays and blog posts aplenty about my New Orleans experience alone, let me tell you.

But if I had tried to write about any of it at the time, it would have been a feverish mess. I know, because I did try, and I’ve seen the results.

I wish I could be one of those people who can throw things down on the page in the high crest of emotion and have something beautiful come out of it. I think of the Romantic poets and I imagine that’s how they did it. (I have no idea if this is actually true.) I’m reminded of songwriters like Citizen Cope and Glen Hansard, who seem to be able to tap all that passion and tumult and turn it directly into art. Who aim their hearts at you like cannons.

But for all I know it took Hansard a month to get that song just right.

In any case, it takes me a while to settle down. It takes me some time to find a place I can look back from and see an event completely. And I can’t write about it the way I need to until that happens. I wonder sometimes if I’m more like a teenager than a grown man. I appear calm on the outside, but inside it’s all wind and high seas.


9 thoughts on “Writing around the heart

  1. thelittlesleep

    That’s probably a wise way to approach writing about personal stuff, Nathan. Unfortunately I think I tend to be more reactionary to the moment in my own writing. The most recent short story I wrote is very much in the moment I’m in.


  2. Livia Llewellyn

    I never did respond to Lucius’ question – for me, it’s so emotionally loaded a question about an emotionally loaded subject, that I need to ignore it. I don’t want to think about how long it takes me to write about something – in order for it to work, I have to leave that part of the process alone, and let it do what it needs to do. How long it takes is how long it takes.

  3. Here I thought it was going to be the BP criminal catastrophe.

    Love, requited and otherwise, is everyone’s catastrophe.

    Until it’s the triumph, of course. But that usually takes decades, alas.

    Love, c.

  4. Pingback: My guest blog spot at Joel Arnold’s livejournal | The Little Sleep’s Blog

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