High emotion: putting pain in a story

My final #FridayFlash for 2010 engendered reactions that made me think about how much pain and emotion I put in my stories.

Readers described it as "prickly", "blinding", "dark", "potent" even "brutal". One reader said that the story really hit home because it was his father in a nutshell. Another reader found so much in the story that she sent me a message, asking if I was okay, if this was autobiography.

There's a school of thought on writing fiction which says that you should bare your soul, pour out all your emotion onto the page, make the words come alive with the truth that lies within you. By infusing your prose with the real intensity of real emotion drawn from real experiences, the story will grip the reader and never let go. Long after they close the book, they will be haunted by your words. Your writing will be unforgettable.

This, of course, is the promise of ALL schools of thought on writing.

Pouring out all your emotions onto the page isn't fiction writing or biographical writing - it's therapeutic writing. I've done that in journals for years and years; helpful for establishing equilibrium and making sense of the world, but not for writing fiction. In my more grandiose moments, I'm sure that someday, biographers will produce new revelations about the great Tony Noland by matching up dates in the journals with those of key events in my life. It'll be amazing, shocking, amusing, and helpful to posthumous book sales, which my estate will appreciate.

However, my private opinions on, reactions to and musings about people, events, etc., are just that: private. They may provide grist for the mill, spice for the soup, or some other comparable metaphor, but I have no intention of doing a straight braindump of the sweepings from the dark corners of my mind and calling it prose on the page.

Could I make up stuff wholesale and still have it be engaging? Keep the various truths of my life completely out of the writing? Well, no, I don't think you can. You need to start with some kernel of truth, or you'll really have no idea what you're talking about. However, once you've begun with truth, you need to carry it forward with outlandish lies well crafted fiction.

Perhaps I'm not putting enough of myself in the work, playing my cards too close to the vest. I'm going to work on this more in my own prose.

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  1. I think there is something to be said for both schools of thought. I mean, if you continually poured everything of yourself into your fiction, you'd run the risk of both having nothing left for yourself, and one day running dry. Yet at the same time, if you don't use your own emotions in your work, how will it ever feel authentic?

    Personally, I think your work is just fine as it is. :-)

  2. Personally, I think your work is just fine as it is. :-)

    Thanks, Icy! What you said about running dry is really the big fear that I'd have. If you rely on transmitting truth, eventually you either run out of things to say or start repeating yourself.

    "Did I ever tell you about the time my parents dropped me off at a Saturday morning school function, then forgot about me until I didn't show up for dinner that night? And then were mad at me for a week for making them look like bad parents?"

    "Yes, you did. Twice."

    No, much better to keep that stuff in the bank so it can keep earning interest. And providing interest for my writing.

  3. I think you have to find your own answers to that ... "This above all; to thine ownself be true, then follows as night the day, etc."

    Be your own best self, Tony. I've never seen any absence of emotion in your writing and I don't see any immediate need for you to change. (This from someone who, in the immortal words of Steely Dan, "cried when I wrote [my #FridayFlash]" this week because I was digging through something in my life and using it for the story.)

  4. "...No, much better to keep that stuff in the bank so it can keep earning interest..."

    I think the kernel there. Not keeping it bottled up, but the reflections on such a thing, or the simple fact of experiencing the emotions involved in such a thing, allows the writer to write the emotion truly.

    On occasion I've looked at my writing and thought, "Ah, I know where that came from." Is what I wrote what happened? Hell no.

    It is useful for a writer to be in touch with emotions - or all shapes, sizes, hues. For the purpose of being better able to get them down on a page in a way that rings true to the reader.

    Much like a good actor.

    The truth is how true the emotion rings, how true the character is in whatever the situation is. My own personal truth - sorry, it's in far too short a supply to fill all the pages I want to write.

    Good post, Tony, with which to open the year.

  5. Tony, great post. First of all, I was a huge fan of your Flash this week because it was so clever and so real. I didn't assume that it was your own experience since from a fiction perspective, writers have the power to create.

    I agree with Icy on this one: there are two schools of thought about this. My own style is to write about what I know, but really stretch myself to create new scenarios that do not pertain to my own life. I like Kevin's analogy of the actor, that works well. Just like an actor, a writer is affected by emotions that he or she has experienced. In the end, the goal is honest writing. And just like life, that could be happy or sad or mundane moments.

    Great post.

  6. This comment is so true you have put yourself into your writing and feel like your bleeding and broken just don't dwell there afterwards

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, guys. I've read stories that drew from the different styles; a rational balance has to be the way to go.

    I don't want to spend my soul out in the writing of one blindingly, searingly emotional book - I want to write a whole bunch of them. You've got to pace yourself.

    Besides, I don't want my readers to have to wonder if I'm sneaking in revelatory autobiographical details in my stories. Read and enjoy them for what they are.

  8. This is a fabulous post, Tony.

  9. I don't think a writer needs to lay his soul bare to write well. One does need to draw on the emotional experiences of their life, but they really don't need to tell it like it was. Your personal emotional experiences should flavor your writing, like fine spices season good food. I'd rather not chew on the raw oregano of life.

    Similar to your concerned reader, I often have trouble reading and interpreting people's poetry. There have been several times I've read someone's poetry and wondered if it was a cry for help. It's hard to figure out if they are in trouble or just writing poems.


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