Emotional Writing

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The first book that ever made me cry was Charlotte’s Web. At age ten, I wept for a dead spider, my tender initiation into literary grief. I still remember the cathartic feeling of those tears and the sense that I’d touched something profound and mysterious to the human experience. Did E.B. White intend to change the course of a little girl’s life? Hmm…the power of books…

As an adult, I earned a degree in pastoral counseling and volunteered in several capacities as a grief counselor. I journeyed alongside children and families who’d suffered the death of a parent or sibling, and the elderly who would soon embark on their own profound and mysterious transitions. The unsolved murder of my youngest brother in 2003 brought the whole experience home, up close and personal.

So, what does this have to do with writing? As a reader, emotional authenticity is key to my immersion in a story. I swear I can tell if a writer is baring his heart on the page, or regurgitating sentiment witnessed on a movie screen. This doesn’t mean that we as writers must personally endure every painful loss that our characters’ experience. Loss is loss, fear is fear, and they’re often transferable with a little imagination (of which we artists have plenty).

What it means to me is that we have to be willing to fully travel those paths when they present themselves, in life, and yes, in those great books (and movies) that strum our heartstrings. We need to be explorers of our emotional pain, brave enough to embrace it, to pick it apart and feel its sting. We need to dig into the fear that underlies our emotional wounds and speaks ultimately to the human condition—that each of us is here only temporarily. That we matter immensely and matter not at all.

There are days of writing and crying, snot-nosed and puffy-eyed, breathing through my mouth with a roll of toilet paper at my elbow. When I write about loss or pain or a main character’s death, I know where my tears originate. I hope that if someday you read such a scene, you’ll be genuinely moved. Then I’ll have done my job.

Writing for the audience of…me.

pixabay image compilation

pixabay image compilation

Days before Sunwielder first hit the press in 2014, my publisher emailed me a question. “Sunwielder has a little of everything: war, romance, love, friendship, violence, and humor. What audience did you write it for?”

Good question.

It’s a blessing she and I communicated by email, or she would have seen the clueless, dumb-ass look on my face, my mouth forming my snappy, cutting-edge reply, “Uh…Oops.”

Without a doubt, the inquiry got me thinking, and to be honest, it wasn’t the first time I’ve contemplated the idea of writing with an audience in mind. I suppose many authors do, and from a marketing perspective, having a target consumer in mind is…um…what’s the word…imperative?

But I can’t write that way, at least not intentionally. My stories feel more organic than that, coalescing in the puny nutshell of my brain and suddenly cracking open into consciousness. I can only write from the inside out, and therefore, I wonder, is the audience…me?

The answer in a way is “yes.” The stories and characters compel me to put them to paper; the themes invade the little globe of my life. They can’t help but reflect elements of my worldview, my real and imagined experiences, my despairs and hopes. If I consider this question logically, why would any artist put heart and soul into a work of art she or he didn’t like?

As a person entering the last third of life, I spend a portion of my idle minutes musing over past choices and the myriad shifts they prompted in the winding path of my own story. This sunny-afternoon, garden-gazing pondering definitely informed Sunwielder. Those who most “get” the book, it seems, share this stage of life with me and the accompanying tendency toward reflection. So, yeah, the audience is probably “yours truly.” Thankfully, I’m a fairly run-of-the-mill human being to which a few souls out there can relate.

So, why does Sunwielder have a little of everything? I suppose because that’s how I perceive the complexity and poignancy of an authentic life. What human life isn’t a conglomeration of different bits, a pie chart of multiple, disparate wedges forming a whole? Gryff Worden, the Sunwielder, needs to be relatable, and though the details of his story may differ from ours, I’d argue that the reality of the way choices sculpt his life is universal to us all.

Sunwielder will be reissued within the week as a self-published book. Stay tuned.