Monday, August 22, 2011

Sword Swallowing: Put Your Emotion On The Page

Successful stories can arise from many sources of inspiration. Sometimes technical devices such as an unusual point of view or structure can lead to the creation of an entire story. We hear about plot-driven stories and character-driven stories. We hear about genres and the strict guidelines that govern some of them. As my own writing has evolved, I find that, for me, emotion is most often my source of inspiration.

Emotion is a vague term. With any story, for example, there is an emotion that accompanies the characters. Reactions that lead to other actions are often based on emotion. But for me the emotion comes from within. Just like when I was painting, I write to try and release something that I'm feeling. I write because I need to communicate that something. As I get feedback on The Wild Grass, a comment I've been getting fairly frequently is that readers don't always understand the logical arc of my stories, but they feel the emotion. That's a criticism I'm fine with.

I think about actors who are capable of crying on command. It's something I've always wanted to do...sort of. To be honest, I tell myself I want to be able to cry on command, but often when emotions like that come up in my throat, I tense up and push them back down again. I think I'm constantly battling the people who raised me with the idea that boys shouldn't show their feelings. But writing is one arena where I do demand that I feel. As illogical as it may seem, I think that sincerity gets through to the reader.

Some actors have told me that the way they tap into their emotions is to always keep them near the surface. I've heard the great musician Bjork talk about something similar. My metaphor for it has always been related to sword swallowing. Or at least what I think sword swallowing must demand.

If you shove a blade down your throat, chances are you'll be tempted to resist it. But if you want to successfully swallow a sword, you have to train yourself against some instincts and learn to relax. It's the same way with writing for me. Sometimes when I'm at the keyboard, thoughts about what other people will think or how much pain I might feel by confronting certain emotions make me want to resist. I start to write this sterile prose that serves nothing else but to get my characters from point A to point B. When that happens I need to catch myself. I often stop writing and just close my eyes and relax. I coax myself to slowly approach the subject matter again and face it without getting tense.

I have to be in this sort of relaxed and sensitive zone to write my best work. It's almost like a trance to me, as silly as it sounds. But I do think it makes a big difference in my writing.


  1. Nice post! I like the emotion you put into your writing, it's easy to empathize with.

    I tend to add in emotional weight after completing the general story. I'm no painter, but I used to watch Bob Ross a lot, and it would be like one of his landscape oil paintings:

    The first step is the mountains and clouds in the background, then the stream and trees in the foreground. That's like my story. It's not very colorful, but the primary construct is there.

    Next comes the color...the snow on the mountains, the moss on the trees, the streaks of sunlight peeking through the clouds, and the shimmer on the water...these colors are like the emotional weight I add in during revisions.

    It's a delicate balance, because too much moss can kill a tree...

  2. Rick, thanks for talking about your own process. Bob Ross was cool. I was amazed at how often he could paint his landscapes and be so sincerely happy about it. He was a delight to watch.

  3. I also have to be in the right frame of mind to get honest emotions onto the page. Sometimes the right frame of mind is like riding a bull. Sometimes it's like being a bull fighter. It depends on if I want to directly experience the emotion or let it charge past, raging. But the main thing for me anyway is deciding that I'm going to just accept the honest truth of it for what it is, messy and ugly as it might be.

    One of my long-term writing goals is to learn the difference between "how people write about love (or whatever)" and "how to write truthfully about love (or whatever)" because they aren't the same thing.

  4. Davin, I made it though Scott's crack security, finally!

    (Scott, that would make sense IF you were on twitter.)

    I'm really glad you write this way, Davin--that you are able to let the emotion come through you because it makes for some really evocative and beautiful writing. It's the difference between feeling like I've read about something, and feeling like I've experienced it. And that's kind of, you know, huge.

    Also, fwiw, this reads an awful lot like you have some experience with sword swallowing.

  5. Scott, the idea of letting the emotion charge past is really interesting. I don't think I'm able to do that, but I wonder if that has to do with how you and I differ in our ability to learn. I seem to be a more intuitive learner. I don't really trust my brain to know information until I feel it in my gut. I think that's what makes me slow. Maybe you learn in a different way?

    Go, Hacker Zobair! It took me a long time to get to a place where I could write emotionally. And, honestly, I still feel fairly clumsy at it when I compare myself to artists like Giacometti or Bjork. Some artists make their art feel so pliable, and I strive for that.

    I don't swallow swords, by the way. But I've read about it a lot in the last few weeks. Sometimes stuff like that captivates me. Like cannibalism!

  6. Letting the emotion rage past is sort of what I mean when I write about characters in third-person who are having moments, as if I'm standing right next to them or maybe even holding on to them, but the emotion's not mine. It's powerful but it's not mine. If that makes sense.

    Hey, I put a historically-accurate cannibalism reference in my WIP during lunch.

  7. Roosters and cannibals in the same book? Bailey, if you manage to swallow my entire body of work with one story, be prepared for some literary backlash! I'm gonna bring it!

  8. Actually, it's cybernetic Buddhist cannibal roosters. Nothing to do with you. And there's a three-eyed girl with a butterfly tattoo. My work is wholly original, Malasarn.

  9. Did I mention that my next novel is about a guy named Scott G. F. Bailey?

  10. I'm too wily for you, Malasarn! You have to get up two days ago to fool me tomorrow!*

    *"McHale's Navy" reference.

  11. Writing about emotion is difficult for me, since I am a robot, but I must perfect my imitation of sentiment if I am to infiltrate the human resistance movement and destroy from within.

  12. You must learn to imitute us exarctly.

  13. I absolutely put myself in "the zone", not just for emotional scenes, but for the entire book. That's why it is so frustrating when a family member comes in and asks, "How's it going?" Ahhh...!!

    I know they mean well, but now I'm going to have to start back 3-4 pages and reread the section to pull myself back down into that zone.

  14. Lynette, I know what you mean. Whenever someone talks to me when I'm writing I get really startled. Now I have to find little spaces where I can write without feeling like someone is going to sneak up behind me.

  15. Ooo... walking up behind me... I hate people reading over my shoulder when I'm writing! I think that comes from too many producers offering changes to something that's not to the point of needing an opinion yet. I end up so self-conscious, I can't continue until they step away --and then I read back those 3-4 pages... again...!

  16. It doesn't sound sound silly at all, Davin. I believe everyone has to be relaxed enough to convey emotions on the page.

    And it is very hard to do. It can't be overdone. Just enough to let the reader taste it. Then the reader feels the passion on their own. And if we do our jobs, the reader reads it over and over.

    Excellent post. :-)


  17. Although I do appreciate your post, since this isn't the easiest thing for me, I have no plans to relax quite enough to try sword swallowing.

    ; ) Beth


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