Light and Shade: Writing our emotions

Doesn’t it feel good to write it down? Whatever you’re feeling, whatever you’re sad or angry or anxious about, as soon as you put pen to paper and uncensor yourself, the words come flowing out. Sometimes they sound pretty good but that isn’t necessarily the point. It just makes you feel better. It can be a very therapeutic process.

Some writers would draw a firm line between the writing they write because it helps them, and the writing they want to use for publication. I certainly do, and I’m sure none of the more diary-entry-like writing I do has what you’d call literary merit. But sooner or later something may be written that nudges at that line. How do you know when to turn something deeply personal into something that another person might read, and even understand and enjoy, and maybe even want to publish? And how do you know when to keep it to yourself?

Allen Ginsberg once defined the poet’s role in the world as ‘making the private world public’ and certainly you can see these two types of writing as representative of these two worlds. The private world of the author and their feelings, the public world of the reader and theirs. But there are a few things to consider when trying to bridge the gap between the two, and I think they’ll give us all something to think about…

Share don’t tell

So how do you express all those feelings, now you’ve decided to put them across to readers? My advice would be to adopt the attitude of a shared experience. You’re not telling the reader how you feel, you’re bringing them into the experience with you – the experience being your piece of writing.

The sensory imagery, the details and colours, the rhythm of the sentences, the physical sensations, even the sounds of the words should all be working together to help the reader to empathise, to share in the feelings of the writer. Saying ‘I’m sad’ might not create the same response as ‘my limbs feel heavy and I struggle to get up from my chair’, for example. Avoid abstract nouns as much as you can; emotions are almost always felt in the body as well as the mind. Try describing what happens to your body when you’re sad / lonely / restless.

Know which truths to keep true

If there are other people involved in your story, it’s almost always best to fictionalise them as best you can. Change their names, genders, nationalities – give them an unusual hobby.  If they have hurt your feelings, of course, the temptation is to reveal them as the scumbags they are, but in the long run it certainly won’t do your relationship with them any good. Of course you may also face legal challenges!

Having said that, you need to keep the emotions honest. The interior feelings need to be as true to you as you can be. Sometimes the easiest way to be really honest about a situation is to make it dreamlike and surreal. Interviewed on Lunar Poetry podcasts (very highly recommended) the poet Caroline Bird says of her poems: ‘sometimes they’re so personal that you have to wear three masks in order to say what you want to say. It’s almost like being on hot sand and it hurts so much, all you can do is dance.’

Art and invention might be what’s really required to get close enough to the truth to tell it to someone. The situation can be completely invented, but the writing can still be emotionally honest. Maybe it’s easier to talk to a wooden spoon, for example, than your absent father, like in this poem by James Giddings.

Take the pressure off

Bear in mind that when you’re writing about your feelings, you don’t necessarily have to be writing something to share with the world, particularly if it’s deeply personal or painful and you shudder at the thought of someone else reading it. Everything you write is practice, every idea you have is more grist to the mill, and you’ll developing both emotionally and as a writer by articulating your feelings to yourself.

This piece was partly inspired by the Museums Sheffield exhibition Darkness into Light: The Emotional Power of Art at which the title photo was taken.

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