When a Story Leaves You Feeling Emotionally Drained

Does this mean you can take a break?

My heart hurts.

I have a tendency to write a post or make a video about things like this as I am experiencing a thing and then proceed to forget it happened. So when it happens again I am always amazed at how easy it is to forget how emotionally draining writing a book can be.

Have you ever felt this way while writing a story — as if the emotions your characters are experiencing are actually yours? Maybe that’s, sort of, a good thing.

If you’re feeling it, your reader will feel it. That’s the hope, anyway. The mantra is true — you can’t please everyone — and in the same way you can’t expect everyone to have the same emotional reaction to something you write. Not even the one you necessarily intended.

But if you’re sitting in front of your laptop bawling uncontrollably because you’re having a completely legitimate emotional reaction to the thing you have just written (or are about to start writing, or are still writing), it’s much more likely that someone reading this part of your story will also experience the urge to cry. At the very least, the hope is that they will feel sad, which is what you want them to feel even though that makes you sound like a terrible person. Welcome to the writing life!

You don’t want to tell a story that bores you or doesn’t move you. If that’s how you feel as you’re writing it, there’s a much greater chance it will be how a reader also feels. And no one wants to read a book that bores them or doesn’t stir anything up inside them.

Something can be very well written and still lack emotional impact. That’s the problem. Sometimes we focus a little too much on making the words sound good and forget to give them emotional weight. It happens — this is part of the learning process. The more you write, the better you become at finding the elements of a story that trigger empathy in the people who may one day read it.

How do you find a story’s emotional “pull”? If you want to tell a story that tugs at a reader’s sensitive side, you have to really take the time to get to know your story, your characters, and the message you want the story to send to the masses. This requires spending a lot of time writing, and in many cases (depending on the type of writing), research.

But often you have to start with yourself, and focus on the things in your life that have moved you the most. You know yourself and your life better than anyone. What kinds of things have made you overjoyed? Upset? Furious?

The best way I’ve found to learn how to do this is to rely on things you have experienced and remember how they made you feel. If I’m going to be writing about a dog getting hurt and I want the reader to hurt more (yeah, I went there), I’ll think about the time my dog got her foot stuck in the space between our pool and the wooden boards on the deck and freaked out. One of the worst dog mom moments of my life. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Now I’m in the right mindset. And also I need to stop writing for a minute and go hug my dog.

Think about things you know tend to make people feel happy, sad, relieved, angry, inspired. Put your characters in situations that trigger these feelings. It doesn’t have to be about making people sad, though there are plenty of storytellers who do this well and it almost feels like you’re willingly exposing yourself to torture (I’m talking about you, Shonda Rhimes). You can make them happy too. Please do. There are a lot of people who need a good happy story to lift their spirits every now and then.

What if you get too emotional? I highly doubt that I’m the only one who has had to step out of my office for a minute to give myself time to grieve over losing a character.

There have been stories that affected me so deeply as I was writing them that I actually felt as though I was the one experiencing the events of the prose instead of my characters. That often becomes too much, and when that happens, I have to decide what is more important: Making more progress on the story right now, or practicing creative self-care and allowing myself a much-needed break.

Most of the time, I choose the break. It’s not a long break. But I give myself some time to process my feelings and go easy on myself, because if I don’t, I’m going to burn myself out emotionally and this is something I don’t want to experience a second time in my life, thank you very much.

This just happens to be one of those instances when it’s okay to stop writing for a little while. I know I preach productivity and persistence and consistency and all that, and that’s not going to change. But sometimes we forget that we carry the burdens of the people whose stories we are telling, whether they’re real or imaginary people, and if you don’t pay attention to that, you’re going to wear yourself out.

Is it normal to feel so emotionally attached to a story that you, for example, walk away from it feeling sad when you have no real-world reason to feel this sad? Probably. Is it a good thing? It can be when you remember that if the point of telling a story is to get an emotional reaction from its audience, your reaction is a good sign that others might respond in a similar way.

It only becomes a problem when you don’t deal with those emotions. It’s kind of like a therapist who has to go to therapy to manage the emotional weight of their work. You have to take care of yourself too, or you might not be able to perform at your “job” to the best of your ability. We write best when we’re healthy. This includes emotional in addition to mental and physical health.

Feel all the feelings. It means your story is relatable and realistic and potentially impactful. Just don’t forget to take care of yourself. You got this.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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