As a writer, it is pretty much your job to tell stories that somehow reflect the human experience. And that often means taking real-world emotions and inserting them into the settings and characters of your craft in order to give readers something significant to connect to.
We talk a lot on this blog about the creative process, and dealing with things like burnout and time management and all the roadblocks that attempt to get in the way of creative expression. But what I know I do not talk about enough — no one really does — is how a writer is supposed to deal with the emotional impact of their own work.
Even if you have only written a few things here and there, you have most likely experienced some kind of emotional reaction to a story — yours or someone else’s, it goes both ways. You know the drained, exhausted feeling you get after watching a movie that makes you cry. You know how surreal it is to feel changed by a book even when you aren’t exactly sure how.
Writers, just like readers, react emotionally to books — often times books of their own creation. And we simply cannot afford to ignore how that can negatively affect us if we do not take the time to care for ourselves outside of the art of storytelling.
Some people write to feel. It’s no secret that there are a lot of ways to “deal with” emotions both positive and negative, and not all of them are healthy. We are all prone to self-destructive behavior in one way or another — whether we learn it from someone else or it’s simply our nature, or both, well, that is a debate for a different kind of discussion.
There are plenty of people who find that writing is not necessarily an escape, but instead some twisted yet effective form of therapy. When they write, they are able to see things more clearly. They are able to understand why things are the way they are. They are able to give themselves the freedom to express what they are going through, often without fear of judgment (such as while writing in a private journal, for example).
For some of us, writing while emotional is impossible. We just can’t do it. We can’t find the words, nor do we want to. We wish we could say exactly what we are feeling, but when we can’t, we mostly just shut down and let ourselves “feel aimlessly” if and until we want to try to write about it.
But for others … writing is the only way to make it through.
There is no “right” or “wrong” here. If you want to write to express the feelings that are inside you begging to break through, you can do that — and it is completely up to you whether or not you keep what you write to yourself or share it with the world. And if you don’t want to write — yet or ever — and decide you both want and need a break from words, no one should be able to judge you for that. Especially not yourself.
Pouring your emotions into your writing is actually a good sign. If you have ever read or listened to or watched a story that is supposed to affect you on a deep emotional level but doesn’t, you probably know exactly where I am going with this one.
A general rule I personally tend to follow, especially when writing fiction, is that if I am not experiencing emotions right along with my characters as they are experiencing them, then I am not doing my job as a storyteller and need to abandon the scene temporarily, only to return to it when I am “in the emotional moment.”
If you are not feeling it as you are writing it, your reader will not feel it as they are reading it — and in most cases, that is not a good thing. Not even a little bit.
While it’s technically true that not every reader is going to experience or react to your story in the exact same way, you still have to put on the best possible performance, so to speak, for those that do. Because you never know when something you write is going to — or at least attempt to — hit very close to home for a reader you will never meet in real life.
You should always give yourself permission to feel right along with your characters. And once you get used to it, I can pretty much guarantee you will approach these tough scenes differently. When a character grieves, you should grieve. When a character falls in love, you should feel as though you are falling in love, too.
And how do you get to this point where you can feel what your characters are feeling? You think of a relatable experience that you have had. Maybe you haven’t lost your mother like your character has, but you can remember what it felt like to lose someone you truly cared about — you can take that memory and insert it into the situation, and in a way, that makes it much more relatable for the members of your audience who need to relate to it.
You cannot forget to take care of yourself after writing. I am going to repeat this statement because I need you to pay as close attention to it as you possibly can: You cannot forget to take care of yourself after writing. Especially when you are expressing your true emotions creatively — or, in other words, actively feeling things as you are writing about them.
I have experienced the consequences of neglecting this practice, and I can warn you from experience that you do not want to ignore this piece of advice. Because sometimes, even when you think you are okay and that a fictional character’s emotions aren’t affecting you, you are, more often than not, very wrong.
Emotions are emotions, and the same way you need to give yourself some time to recover and heal after a real-life breakup or loss or otherwise stressful situation, you need to take time away from your work after writing something emotionally charged in order to rest and stay well.
Yes, you are “just writing.” And that might make it seem like there is a definite disconnect between your characters and what you are actually going through, or have gone through before. But most of the time, there isn’t. Your brain and body don’t know the difference between real and imagined stress or trauma. That is why anxiety exists. Even when we are overwhelmed by something that hasn’t actually happened, we still FEEL like it already has.
So always, ALWAYS, take some time for yourself. If it’s what you would do in real life, do it after writing about it, too. It’s good for you. You cannot write when you are not well — so stay well, as best you can.
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.