Dont Hide From Your Feelings

Closely related to frightened self-criticism and worry about family or friends is a more subtle fear that some writers carry to their work without ever realizing it. That is the fear of strong emotional feelings. I have met several enormously talented students who never sold their stories because their copy was devoid of real emotion; these writers feared strong feelings in real life and simply couldn't face such feelings in their writing.

If you want to succeed as a writer of fiction, you must never hide from your own feelings because they provide for you your most essential contact with your story characters - and potential readers.

Now, in real life many of us were brought up to distrust or even ignore our innermost emotions. Our "training" as children or young adults may even have been so strenuous in this regard that we do not recognize the self-censorship.

Do you recognize any such distrust or blocking of emotions within yourself? Perhaps as a small child you gave in (quite naturally) to infant feelings of fear and abandonment; perhaps you had all sorts of problems coming to terms with your baby-impulses to have what you wanted or needed, now, and a growing and unpleasant awareness that Mother or Dad suddenly expected you to "behave", "be patient", or "be responsible. " Maybe you had a temper tantrum and were punished; or you cried in frustration of your wishes and were studiously ignored; or you yielded to some vengeful impulse and were severely scolded (and therefore scared all the more).

It's a ghastly process, when you stop to think about it, this business of growing out of infanthood into childhood... the later process of "acting your age", "being a good soldier", etc. You're little. You're helpless. You're scared. If Mother doesn't attend to you instantly, your fear rises that she won't help you at all; and without her you're dead At a very young age you resent this, and want to be on your own; but you can't be, yet, and even if it were physically possible, all sorts of psychological drives push you desperately toward reunion with Mom at the same time a little bit of you ... maybe... resents and even hates her.

Many of these primitive feelings are unacceptable. We know it at a very early age, and God knows our parents start telling us about it very soon. So we are torn, and our very survival seems to depend on our "doing better. " We learn to do better either by hiding what we're feeling, or denying-even to ourselves - that such unacceptable feelings are inside us.

These same mechanisms are reinforced later, in school and with friends and associates. We continue to learn about our feelings, and unfortunately a lot of the lessons in life tend to tell us: Be cool. Don't feel that way.

But if you do feel that way, don't show it.

And so sometimes we really and truly block out many emotions - perhaps blocking out some "good" ones with all the seemingly "bad" ones - and perhaps we become "adult" by really and truly not feeling anything at all very much anymore.

Or we still feel... some... but hide it from everyone else, and feel guilty and try to deny even to ourselves.

It may be that you are one of the lucky ones, in touch with your feelings in all their ranges, and capable of expressing such emotions in a healthy way at least part of the time. Even if you are one of these, however, I suspect that when it comes to your fiction writing, you may have an impulse to "cool it" somewhat in dread of looking odd to your reader, or "dumb", or "too sentimental. "

We still live in an age that looks askance at direct confrontation with many feelings, especially elemental ones such as rage and fright. But you as a writer of fiction must never hide from such feelings because they are absolutely essential to good stories.

You must observe yourself... your innermost, secret workings... and consider your feelings, working always to be more aware of them. Remember: You do not have to act on whatever feelings are there; but the more clearly you are aware of them in all their nuances, the better you can know and understand yourself.

You must observe others around you, using your references in your own emotions to try constantly to understand what they must be feeling emotionally, what primitive fires must be goading them.

And you must confront such feelings in your stories. Fiction characters who only think are dead. It is in their feelings that the readers will understand them... sympathize with them... care about their plight in the outcome of your fiction.

William Foster-Harris, a wise writing teacher who preceded me at the University of Oklahoma, used to talk endlessly about the necessity for a subjective view of reality if one were to write decent fiction. Foster-Harris, like a good parent, seems to me to grow in wisdom with each year I grow older. Strong emotion - so often ducked or ignored in real life-must be at the center of your stories.

The first roadblock, of course, is that you may not know your own feelings very well. I have known young writers who had to spend a brief time with a professional counselor or therapist to overcome this kind of blockage. However, such a step usually is not necessary. For you, it will probably be enough to make a strenuous attempt, in your private journal, to write down an honest and blunt description of your emotional state every day. Additionally, you may try to write brief descriptions of the exact emotional state you observe in some other person -or imagine in your character.

When you write, you may not write so overtly about the feelings... or sometimes you may. You might develop ways to show the physical effects of strong emotion - tears, a palsied hand, or clenched fist-and so define the imagined emotions indirectly, through the presented evidence. But in any case you cannot write fiction without being aware of the feelings inherent in your story people-and then having the courage to put them down on paper in some form.

In first draft, I think you would be wise to avoid any chance that you might still duck confrontation with powerful feelings. In other words, I would much prefer to see you write "too much" of feeling in your first draft; you can always tone it down a bit later, after sober reflection, if such trimming really seems to be called for. On the other hand, a sterile, chill, emotionless story, filled with robot people will never be accepted by any reader.

One more word on this topic: whether defining a character's inner life or planning a powerful and harrowing scene in your story, you should avoid the impulse to "play safe. " The world's greatest literature has been produced about people on the edge - by writers with the gumption to walk on an edge of their own, on the precipice of sentimentality, melodrama, or some other literary excess. "Better safe than sorry", goes the old warning. But in fiction it just doesn't work. "Safe" will always be sorry for the writer dealing with character emotions and strong plot situations.

Face feelings. Then take the risk! Walk on the very edge of some situation or scene that will be horrible if you write one word too much... carry it one step too far. For it's only on the brink of the abyss where great fiction is written. And nobody ever really had too much fun playing it safe all the time, did they?

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