Writing Emotionally Pt 1: About the Feels

This blog is my space for exploring random ideas with words. I blog about writing and life, and the way one interacts with the other. It isn’t advice. It’s how I roll, and you’re welcome to come along for the ride. Today’s topic: emotions.

Emotions are essential creative tools. A successful writer can communicate the feel of feelings and craft behaviors that ring true for readers, and the key to writing characters with depth is understanding what lurks beneath the surface. Writers have to feel and feel hard, and that isn’t easy to do.

Know yourself: that’s the first step. Feelings are private. We all have faces we show the world, and faces we show no one else. (Billy Joel wrote a whole song about it.)  Know your own emotions. Accept them. Feel them. It looks so simple, right? Following those little two-word directives can be the most difficult trial any creator ever faces, but it’s necessary. Until you can peel back the layers of rationalization we all use to hide ourselves from ourselves and face your own motives head on, your characters will have the emotional depth of dolls. They’ll do stuff. They’ll go places. Things will happen. Yawn.

Self-awareness and acceptance don’t mean “love yourself.” Not in the typical sense. My soul is rooted in anger and dark things. Cuddly, lovable and warm are words that do not describe me. Sure, I wish I was the kind of person who inspired hugs and back pats and warm fuzzies, but I never will be. I wouldn’t change even if I could. My bitterness, resentment, anger,  even the ingratitude–they make me who I am, and I like myself.  Getting wistful, when I see affection showered freely upon those who have the ineffable qualities I lack–that’s just another human emotion that I have in surplus. That’s self-awareness.

Empathy is step two.  Observe, absorb, and learn to respect and anticipate all the myriad ways other human beings respond to the world and the people in it. Ponder their motivations. Dig into their whys. As much as possible, look for resonance within your own emotions. You won’t get it until you get them.

True self-awareness came late for me. I remember to the second the moment when I first recognized, at the level of gut-punch revelation, that the way I thought of myself differed from the way others saw me, and I was eighteen. When it arrived, it came in strong, and I’ve always had a firm sense of self. Empathy remains more difficult for me.

One barrier is that personality I listed earlier. I know how to be courteous, and I play as nice as I can, but it’s work. It’s exhausting. (I sometimes dream of tracking down and pie-facing all the people who blithely insist that “Just be yourself” is great advice.  It’s shitty advice. Dangerous. Honestly, I wouldn’t like me, if I wasn’t me. But that’s another post.)

ANYway. socializing is hard work, which limits chances for, you know, observing people. It’s also terrifying. That’s a bit of a barrier. Most people have no idea how shy I am, because I also inherited thrill-seeker genes. I’ve worked with the public for decades. I despise many of the things I do well professionally with a deep abiding hatred that never, ever dwindles. Unexpected conversation never fail to make me jumpy. My hands sweat when I use the PA. My heart rate still soars, making phone calls. After decades.

(I do not react politely to being pushed towards new activities with the any variation on the theme, “If you want to grow as a person, do things that scare you.”  I do things that scare me every single day. On purpose. Seriously. Endorphin rush.)

Last, everything I know about the way others think comes from rational, conscious analysis. Yes, everyone learns by observation, but most have a stronger instinctive foundation than I do. I can’t pick my own baby picture out of a lineup. I routinely flunk, “What expression is this?” image tests. I do not recognize people out of context. Everything I know about recognizing emotion, I learned by trial and error, guessing wrong and building on my mistakes. Constantly analyzing tone and and unspoken messages, reading postures and glances…these are the only means I have. 

Getting a feel for what other people are feeling is a survival skill. I’m a survivor. I’ve become an expert, over the years. It isn’t natural, but I make it work, and I put it in my writing.

When empathy and self-awareness meet inside your skull, their magic will infuse your work. Your characters will do things because reasons, and that makes all the difference. They’ll go places out of duty, or for love or in desperation. The what happens of the plot will grow thick and strong, tied together by motives and driven by choices that make sense. People are story, no matter what happens.

Mastering the art of expression and motivation isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. There’s no wrong way to know yourself, and no point when we can stop observing and say, “Done!” It’s a lifelong challenge as we grow and change. Everything we learn about our hearts, the more we watch and struggle to understand others — it all improves our stories as well as our lives.

This comic is here because it speaks to me.  It illustrates excellent self-awareness and zero empathic understanding. Like Calvin, my coping mechanism is a sharp, prickly shell of defensiveness. Unlike Calvin, I understand exactly why no one recognizes my hints. That’s why I don’t expect hugs, support or warm fuzzies, and mostly fear them being offered, because responding “properly” to unasked peppy cheer-up advice is a grueling exercise in restraint.