Just Write Your Feelings: How Writers Work
On Wednesday The Atlantic published an opinion article on the danger of talking about writing poetry as poetic, reducing an intellectual pursuit to one of pure emotion. Mostly the article detailed why the author hated The Dead Poets Society, but it resonated with me.
Recently, I’ve been going through an existential muddle, and have been reaching out to a lot of people to discuss it. More than once I’ve received that advice that, as a writer, I should express my feelings in writing, to ‘let it out.’ To me, this is a sign that the conversation is over because the person clearly doesn’t understand how a writer really writes, and often doesn’t want to hear the truth.
For instance, in the most recent example, I actually tried to argue with the person.
“Some people enjoy writing emotionally,” I began, trying to be diplomatic, “but I’m generally very calm when I write. It’s a release because I enjoy it, but not because the writing itself is emotional.”
“But you put yourself in your writing. You express all these emotions and that comes from you.” The person insisted, explaining, as if to a child, the discipline I’ve practiced most of my life.
“Well yes, because I made it, but not because I feel that way when I write it.”
“Well, certainly your personal experiences educate your writing. See this as a chance to use those feelings to make something.”
“Well okay.” Clearly they weren’t listening to me. “But it will be really shitty writing. That’s not how I write. Writing is cerebral. It’s strategic.”
“I’m just saying try it.” They answered, certain that they helped.
And that’s the rub. Writing is strategic, but it’s not seen as strategic. It’s seen as twitch in brain chemistry that happens to produce something valuable. In truth, successful writing represents years of hard work, study, and discipline. It’s a lot of sitting alone and planning and outlining, and then writing. It’s a lot of staring out windows trying to figure out how to get a character from a doorway across the room, and why.
This misconception changes how people see writers and writing. Many writers and teachers encounter an aspirating writer who seeks out critique and then counters it by saying that writing is expression, so the critique doesn’t really matter. They want very much to be told that their ramblings are appropriate and inspired simply because they were written down. They have no concept of the writer in irritated repose, crafting something with painful slowness and then editing with further painful slowness.
This is, of course, because they have been told their way is how a writer writes. They have had classes that teach free, emotional writing. They have seen movies where Emerson hunches over his work, sweating and crying and Poe walks up and down a street, ranting “The Raven” with perfect rhyme. Many writers in my undergraduate classes wrote on typewriters, drunk, by candlelight because they believed that they just needed to trigger the right switch in their brain to make the writing come out. I mean, if this works for you, fine, but it’s not a magic spell that will make people like your flat characters and cliché prose.
This type of person has fallen in love with the idea of a writer, especially a genius writer, and adjusting their expectations is often painful. Writing, the slog of it, isn’t very attractive or cinematic.
This flawed view also affects how other professionals view us. By talking about writing as a purely emotional state, writing receives the reputation of something anyone can do at any time. They need only attain the correct emotional state (re: candles and crying).
Professional writers know this isn’t true at all. In fact, far from it. The emotional state of the writer often doesn’t reflect the emotional state of the story. Writing is a skill. It is practiced, molded, and formed through hard work and a great deal of thought, reading, and training (even if it is non-traditional). It is one of the reasons the Humanities gets such a bad reputation. Sure, we aim to create an emotional response, but we are actually studying what combination of words, what pacing, what character arc, etc, will create those emotional responses. Writing in sadness does not create a sad story. It has to be crafted.
There may be some writers who write emotionally, though I’m not sure I know any. My own brand of writing is more like design. I work like an architect, planning and balancing long before I start building. You would never tell an architect to design a bridge to ‘let it out.’
Writing, for me, is no more cathartic than plumbing (if I loved plumbing). It’s a trade. A practiced skill. If done well, it works and I’m proud of it, but it isn’t a release and it isn’t naval gazing. It’s work. It’s work I love, but it isn’t a magical kind of work that heals the worker.
I’m not saying emotional writing doesn’t have a place either, I’m just saying it’s a different thing from what I do. They have completely different goals. One is to produce a piece for an audience, while the other is for release, made for the primary enjoyment of the writer. Clearly writing is a passion. Clearly writing is borne from our own experiences and emotions, but we need to do battle with this idea that we are magical fairies that produce writing when we cry. It doesn’t help us when we are in a fragile emotional state, and belittles us as hard working, driving professionals.