“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
— Natalie Goldberg
When was the last time a book changed you? What stories have made you think, cry, fall in love, feel uncomfortable, left you in a state of awe or despair?
Pouring our deepest feelings into stories allows us to connect with other people across time and space. And in writing with emotional honesty, we better understand ourselves.
Writing About Your Own Inner Life
When I think of emotional fiction, I always come back to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The novel is about a young woman interning at a magazine in New York City. As she faces the intense social pressures around her, she sinks into a deep depression.
Part of what makes the story harrowing is that it’s semi-autobiographical, as the events and feelings are based on real parts of Sylvia Plath’s life. The protagonist tries to commit suicide, and it’s obvious Plath struggled with the same emotions — she, too, had attempted suicide and later killed herself at the young age of thirty.
I’ve read passages from Plath’s diaries, and the emotions in those pages echo The Bell Jar in so many ways. Here’s a quote from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath:
What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don’t know and I’m afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.
Plath mirrors that frustration of being unable to live multiple lives in her fiction, particularly in this passage from The Bell Jar:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
This type of semi-autobiographical work is sometimes called a roman à clef, a French term meaning “novel with a key,” where a novel about real life is presented through a fictional façade.
There’s an obvious appeal to this approach, given it allows the writer to create distance between the actual events they experienced and the feelings tied to them. Through the safe distance of a fictional lens, they can then inspect those emotions closely, and perhaps more objectively, since they’re pretending to see the experience through someone else’s eyes.
But how do we tap into those deepest internal wells and show those emotions on the page? It’s easier to summon this intensity in memoirs because we’re intimately familiar with our own thoughts and feelings. When writing fiction, imagining someone else’s mindset can be more difficult because those thoughts and feelings must be invented.
Let’s examine five tools in our writing toolbox for writing with emotion.
1. Borrow from Personal Experience
As writers, our lives inevitably bleed into our fiction, sometimes subconsciously but more often as a form of direct inspiration. We might hide our former loves in the pages, or inject emotions we’ve felt in real life into a funeral scene.
In his short story collection The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien draws heavily on his experiences as a Vietnam War veteran. The narrator and protagonist of these stories shares his name with the author, because Tim O’Brien “set out to write a book with the feel of utter and absolute reality, a work of fiction that would read like nonfiction.”
So, O’Brien blends fiction with reality. In his piece “Good Form,” he mentions that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth,” implying that the emotional truth of the narratives we create can be truer than the facts:
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.
Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.
What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.
I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.
“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”
Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”
O’Brien chose this narrative approach to show his own emotional truth, sharing in an interview:
“I can say that the book’s form is intimately connected to how I, as a human being, tend to view the world unfolding itself around me. It’s sometimes difficult to separate external ‘reality’ from the internal processing of that reality.”
In a way, writing with emotional honesty is writing what you know. Like Sylvia Plath or Tim O’Brien, you can pull events or emotions from your life and paint them in new colors. Even as you channel your emotions into the characters, you have the freedom to reshape scenes from your own life into a larger narrative and make up the details to better capture a particular feeling.
2. Explore Roads Not Taken
Through storytelling, you have the power to explore the paths not taken in your life and the feelings that evokes. Write Naked, Jennifer Probst’s book on her experiences as a romance novelist, talks about writing from your real self:
“My heroine flees her wedding through a church window — because her gut screams for her to run. I didn’t listen. But she did. I was able to play out those what-ifs in my fictional world, but doing so left me vulnerable. I opened up old wounds, examined them, and explored. The book reeks of emotion because I poured myself into the story.”
The scene she’s describing is the opening chapter of her novel Searching for Beautiful, and there really is an immediate connection to the protagonist because of her intense conflicting emotions. The novel opens with a woman named Genevieve getting cold feet five minutes before her wedding:
The inner voice that had been squashed for so long in fear of retaliation rose up from her gut and screamed one last word. Gen clutched at the windowsill. Ridiculous. She couldn’t run.
Right? People only did that in the movies. Besides, she couldn’t do that to David.
The past two years with David had taught her to sift through her rioting emotions and connect with the core of rationality that hid in every person’s center. Her fiancé despised messiness, impulse, and decisions based on emotion. He cited death and destruction time and again, until she’d finally managed to quiet that crazy voice that had once sung in freedom, slightly off-key but always joyous. Gen figured she’d beaten it back so hard, in fear and determination, that she’d never hear from it again. But of course, with her lousy luck, it had taken this moment of all moments to reassert its independence and general brattiness.
Run before it’s too late.
Her brain spun in a mad rush. Not much time left. Once her family came in, it was over. They’d calm her down, term it bridal jitters, and escort her down the aisle. She’d marry David. And she’d never be the same again.
Which would be good, right? She wanted marriage. Forever. Commitment. With David.
Gen looked behind at the closed door. The action she took in the next few seconds would set her on a course that would change the rest of her life.
Right from the novel’s beginning, the reader is drawn in with that intimate look into Gen’s conflicting emotions, which make her feel like a real person. In her book on writing, Jennifer Probst gives advice on how to “write naked” without taking off your pants:
“Even if you are composing a love letter, the best way to connect is to spill your deepest, darkest, embarrassing secrets. Reveal the stuff that terrifies you and keeps you awake at night. Talk about the monsters in the closet, and the ones hiding under the bed. Get in touch with the kind of emotions that drive the fear of abandonment, failure, and pain.
The best way to connect with your real self is to get naked. Strip your soul bare and throw it out there.”
3. Find What Scares You
Author and editor John Matthew Fox expresses a similar sentiment as Jennifer Probst in writing about what you fear:
“What terrifies you?
I’m not talking about psychopaths-in-masks movies, or the ravenous undead, or spooky moments coming home late to find your front door open.
I’m talking about true terror. I’m talking about the fear of a child dying, the fear of estrangement from a parent, the fear of working a career for forty years only to discover you’ve wasted your entire life on meaningless paperwork.
Because I find that writers are often avoiding their true subjects. They write about things adjacent to what they should be writing about, because they are too frightened to write about what terrifies them.”
He advises writers to find their greatest trauma, regret, or terror, and structure a story around it — and that story will have heart and heat.
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and 1984 by George Orwell are often fueled by the very human fear of society falling apart or surrendering our freedoms to a controlling government. But Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale draws on the particular fear of women losing their agency and becoming no more than babymakers in a religious totalitarian state.
Atwood felt motivated to write this story because of the political trends of the 1980s, in which the book was written, and during an interview, she said:
“This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many — such as a woman’s place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements — women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens. As a writer, you can choose to create a mainstream novel in which these issues appear only as the characters discuss them sitting around the kitchen table. But I decided to take these positions and dramatize them, carry them to their furthest logical conclusions.”
With her later novel, Oryx and Crake, she emphasized:
“As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress… So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.”
Atwood based her fiction on reality and her fears for both the present and the future. We can see that attitude reflected in the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale as Offred addresses the audience:
Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
At their heart, many books are about fear, along with its bedfellows of anger, despair, and apathy. Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers explore the consequences of science going too far. Angie Thomas’s young adult novels focus on racial tensions and police brutality. Shirley Jackson’s horror stories reveal “the quiet evil that pervades ordinary life,” as an article by Paula Guran put it. Jackson herself wrote:
In finding your fears, ask yourself those personal questions: What hurts to think about? What have been the most emotional events in your life? Are you ready to write about them?
4. Seek Contradictions and Ask Hard Questions
Charlie, the main character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, says, “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
Cognitive dissonance is the state of holding conflicting feelings or beliefs at the same time. A loved one dies, and you don’t grieve as much as you feel you should. Or you don’t believe in horoscopes and yet you would never date a Gemini.
That complexity is important when it comes to conveying the characters’ emotions, as Donald Maass describes in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction:
“What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived — they’ll ring false and fail to ignite the reader’s emotions. Skillful authors play against expected feelings. They go down several emotional layers in order to bring up emotions that will catch readers by surprise. There’s always a different emotion to use.”
Sometimes we hide our feelings because they don’t match up with what we’re “supposed” to feel, and we’re afraid to express them for fear of judgment, rejection, or scorn. Fiction helps us wrestle with these uncomfortable truths. As Donald Maass notes,“The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?”
Take for instance, Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. The idea for the story came to author Siobhan Dowd while she had cancer. After her death, Patrick Ness wrote the story of thirteen-year-old Conor who has nightmares of a monster calling to him. This is a spoiler, so skip ahead two minutes if you want to read the book without knowing the ending.
The central conflict hinges on the concept of cognitive dissonance, feelings that many readers can relate to. Conor’s mom is dying of cancer and, although he loves her, part of him just wants it to be over — for her to die so there’s no more suffering. In a climactic moment, Conor tries to wrestle with his own self-hatred as the monster delivers his final lesson:
The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.
“But how do you fight it?” Conor asked, his voice rough. “How do you fight all the different stuff inside?”
By speaking the truth, the monster said. As you spoke it just now.
Conor thought again of his mother’s hands, of the grip as he let go —
Stop this, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, gently. This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal. You must listen.
Conor swallowed again. “I’m listening.”
You do not write your life with words, the monster said. You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
Facing contradictions is about asking questions that don’t yield simple answers. It’s easy enough for us to read a story about a bad man being punished. But what about a person struggling to define right and wrong?
In an interview with WHSmith, Patrick Ness said one of the qualities he enjoyed exploring in the character of Conor was “his realization that he can think two contradictory things at the same time,” which was a step from childhood to adulthood. Above all, Ness wanted the story to be true, to have a story “with blood in the veins,” bad tempers and good tempers. He goes on to say:
“I think humans are amazing messes and I love us for our mess. And Conor is just realizing, okay, I’m a bit of a mess, but it doesn’t make me bad and it doesn’t make me wrong. It just makes me human. And if I’m honest with what I’m feeling, I’ll be okay.”
We all contain contradictions, and that’s what we can explore in our stories.
5. Create Beauty from Life’s Uncertainties
Ultimately, writing is a form of thinking. We don’t have all the answers; the best we can do is show the world as we see it and come closer to understanding ourselves. We can create beauty from life’s uncertainties.
An article in The Atlantic by Will Hunt entitled “Getting Lost Makes the Brain Go Haywire” explains that, when we are lost — say, in a cave — our brain is at its most open and absorbent. He paraphrases poet John Keats in saying, “To make great art, one must embrace disorientation and turn away from certainty.” Being lost is a door into understanding your place in the world.
For author Fredrik Backman, he felt lost in how to cope with his loved ones growing older and losing their memories. He grapples with that idea in his novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, which takes place in an older man’s mind, represented by a town square that shrinks every day. He’s visited by his wife, his son, and his grandson, although he doesn’t always remember who they are. In one of his more lucid moments, he tells his grandson, “…once your good-bye is perfect, you have to leave me and not look back. Live your life. It’s an awful thing to miss someone who’s still here.”
You can feel how deeply personal this story is to Backman not only from the emotions conveyed in the text but also from what he writes in the author’s note:
“This is a story about memories and about letting go. It’s a love letter and a slow farewell between a man and his grandson, and between a dad and his boy. I never meant for you to read it, to be quite honest. I wrote it just because I was trying to sort out my own thoughts, and I’m the kind of person who needs to see what I’m thinking on paper to make sense of it. But it turned into a small tale of how I’m dealing with slowly losing the greatest minds I know, about missing someone who is still here, and how I wanted to explain it to all my children. I’m letting it go for now, for what it’s worth. It’s about fear and love, and how they seem to go hand in hand most of the time. Most of all, it’s about time. While we still have it.”
But writing with emotional honesty doesn’t mean focusing on only the sad and scary stuff. It’s about mining those deeper truths and existential questions and larger-than-life feelings. Sometimes it’s impossible to label an emotion or explain why you feel that way — it just is. I love the questions that editor Mary Kole poses in her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit:
Zora Neale Hurston captures that enormity of our inner lives in the beautiful passages of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. One scene shows the main character Janie as a teenager looking toward her future:
But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things. What things? She didn’t know exactly. Her breath was gusty and short. She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to falling seeds and said, “Ah hope you fall on soft ground,” because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed. She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
There’s almost a stream-of-consciousness feeling to this passage, as Janie’s lofty observations flow from one to the next in a way that mimics a real thought process. She waits for something she can’t describe. She feels this communion with nature and God. She hopes for a different, better future as she grows from childhood to adulthood.
You don’t need to have everything in life figured out. Impactful books explore those uncertainties within their pages.
How to Know You’re “Writing Naked”
These tools can help you write powerfully, but how do you know for sure that you’re writing naked? Well, one actress, writer, and singer — Susan Blackwell, most famous for the one-act meta-musical [title of show] — teaches that the most important thing in writing is to find the “hot-making.” Meaning that if while you’re writing, your face starts to feel hot, it means you’re getting at something deeper.
Hot-making is a sign of resistance to digging that deep in yourself. And what you must do is push onward through it.
Let’s do some soul-searching. Write about a time you felt ashamed, enraged, conflicted, or lost.
- Choose one of those conflict-rich emotions and describe what happened, how you felt, why you felt that way, and what you did as a result.
- Write this journal entry to an alien who has never experienced human emotion — and try to convey the intensity of the feeling in a way that makes someone share in your emotions.
- Now, think about a fictional scenario or character that you could imbue with that emotion.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to share your writing with anyone for it to have value. And if writing about a particular experience is more painful than therapeutic, then maybe it’s best to step away from that subject.
If a story ends up being very personal for you, have your first reader be someone you trust who will be generous in their appraisal. Find your support system in others who share the same struggles or worldview as you do.
The Risk & Rewards of Emotional Writing
The pieces of ourselves we hide in our fiction give the stories life, and readers seek out those intense emotions. Perhaps that’s why many popular novels are autobiographical; there’s power in vulnerability. As Jennifer Probst says:
“But great risks mean great rewards. When people are asked about their regrets in life, they often list the things they didn’t do. The book they were afraid to write because it wouldn’t sell, or because the writing was too difficult, or because they were too busy doing things that were safe or marketable. Writing naked is the only way to write.
…Our writing tells readers that we loved, cried, feared, and experienced pain. We were important. This is what we saw and this is how we showed the world our personal view of what it is to be human and alive.”
I believe that good writing is the confluence of things you can write, things you want to write, and things that scare you to write. Find your strengths, write a story you’re passionate about, and fill it with questions that keep you awake at night.
Whenever I feel far from myself, I turn to Sylvia Plath: “I took a deep breath, and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”
What was the last book that made you feel intense emotions? Write me a comment about why it had that effect on you.
Whatever you do, keep writing.
This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!
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