30 September 2013

Digging deep & putting it out there

Last week a few things happened that got me thinking about the extent to which I do (or don't) dig deep and put real emotion into my writing.

1) One of my writer friends, Elizabeth Gibson, tweeted me, lamenting that some of her writing seems emotionless when she reads it.

Although I've never had this exact thought about my own writing, I think I get it. (Actually, for the last year and half I've felt pretty excited when I write something light-hearted and fun that I can read aloud without crying. It's happening less and less.) It's a fine line to walk. I mean, maybe you don't want to cut your heart out and pass it around on a platter, but you do want to give readers something to relate to, right? Something to connect to?

2) A mere day later, I came across this blog post by Tiffany Lawson Inman about putting emotions into your writing.

I agree with Inman that I am afraid of my feelings (see aforementioned celebration of writing things that don't make me cry). I've been working hard, though, to overcome that. To embrace emotions and see them as useful to me rather than as impediments or inconveniences. (Oh, how hard it is!)

And I also thought, after reading Inman's article, about how I imagine I can sense when a person puts part of his or her true self into a piece of writing. Vivienne's budding sense of awe and tenderness regarding her unborn child, for example, in Zoey Derrick's Give Me Reason. Or the stories the women told on stage at the end of Virginia Duke's Damage Done about surviving domestic abuse. Holy cow, those got me. All of the stories in Kelsye Nelson's Smart Girl, Dumb Love feel emotionally intimate to me, as though large parts of each story were based on Nelson's real life. And the reason I love Jay Ponteri's Wedlocked (I'll just say again) is because it does feel so emotionally raw and honest.

3) On Thursday night I heard Theresa Snyder read from her memoir at Rain or Shine Coffee House, and before she began reading the last selection she warned us that when she'd read it aloud at home she'd started crying. Even as she said it she choked up a little. "It's okay to cry," I called out to her. "That's what I hear," she replied, and proceeded to read and cry, and I cried with her ('cause that's just what I do, I guess).

That choked-up feeling is one I know well. The last batch of poems I wrote I can't read aloud without crying. "Eclipsed" in particular surprised me. While writing it I felt curious, fascinated; I knew only that I was searching for words and images that felt true. It was only after I read it aloud several times that I started to connect with the deep sadness in it. With the sense of not belonging, the disconnection, the alone-ness. And when I recently finished my short story "Zombie" (coming soon on thedarkerhalf.com) and read it aloud to my friend, I was surprised to find that I couldn't make it through without breaking down a couple of times.

Until Snyder's reading, I thought that an audience would only put up with an author's tears if they (the audience) were equally moved by the piece of writing in question. But that was not my experience. Synder began to cry harder when she described her seventh grade English teacher, and my heart went out to her, although there was nothing in the description that would have caused me to choke up had I been reading the excerpt to myself.

Of course it doesn't have to make me cry to have real emotion in it. My favorite part of writing my short story "The Usual" (Inaccurate Realities, Issue 1, 22 Oct. 2013) was getting in touch with that awkward teenage girl inside me (surprisingly close to the surface, truth be told) and writing how I would have felt in Callie's place.

I don't have a moral here; I'm still processing all this. I know that I find value in a lot of books that don't dig super deep emotionally. I also know that more and more of my own work does dig deep. And that one of the main reasons I am called to write is because I want to represent emotional truths and to connect with other people on that level. In order to do that, I have to go to the places I'm afraid to go - the uncomfortable places - and stay there. Wallow in them, even. Name the things that do not want to be named. Shine light on the parts of myself that have been hiding their faces in shame.

"And now for something completely different..."

Speaking of emotions, I finished another short story during #writeclub on Friday, which I am very excited about because I hate this story and I never want to have to look at it again. I've worked on it too long. This happens sometimes. In fact, I remember once, when I was teaching college composition, describing this feeling toward one's work as "you want to rip it up and stomp on it and puke all over it and throw it out the window."

Thank goodness for my reader, Diane, who is not sick of the story and in fact quite likes it. If not for her, this story would probably end up languishing in the digital files for an unspecified period of time until I'd forgotten all about it and could read it again as though I had not written it. But because of Diane, I will instead start sending this story out.

Dear Editors,
Please consider my piece of sh*t story that I hate with a searing passion and wish I'd never started writing. I would be honored if you'd publish it, especially as it would mean that I wouldn't have to devote another wasted second of my life to it. Whaddaya say?
Warmest regards,
A frustrated writer

Hm. I may have to work on that submission cover letter a bit more...

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