3 min read

16. Writing emotion

My writing has to move me first if I hope it will touch your heart.
16. Writing emotion

You're reading The Ponder, and I'm Devin. Welcome! This is where I connect the dots between seemingly disparate ideas floating around in my head. Thank you for being here. I hope you stay awhile.


How do you take care of yourself when your work or your art is emotionally taxing? How do you gauge when to take a break and when to push through? These questions are not rhetorical, I'm seeking your answers and figuring out my own. I'm leaning on my people and nourishing my body and climbing rocks. It helps.

The dots

  • My new favorite meme:
  • "Watching the ships roll in / Then I watch 'em roll away again" —(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding
  • "There are times when a novel or a story or a poem or an essay will come as easy as you can imagine. You will write it in a day, three weeks, maybe a year. The rest of the time not so much. Joy Graham has the belief that the struggles that you engage in with other material clear the channel for those that come down like gifts and I think there is something to that." —Alexander Chee

How do they connect?

I put the Otis Redding album on this morning, and a song I've heard hundreds of times came on, but I heard these particular lyrics: "Watching the ships roll in / Then I watch 'em roll away again," and in my mind, the "ships" were the emotions I feel – and try to convey – as I write. They come and go. Not in a way that I have much control over. All I can do is try to capture them on the page before they roll out again.

I've pushed myself to channel and articulate my character Acacia more intimately than ever before in the last week. While writing, I experience her hurt and confusion, and it calls to mind my own. It's exhausting, and it's exactly what I should be doing.

My writing has to move me first if I hope it will touch your heart. That sounds so obvious. And yet, in months past, I've protected myself from facing the intense emotion I want to convey. Perhaps I wasn't ready. Or I thought I could avoid it. But there is no preventing the emotional toll of using your whole self to push past skill level and ability to access and articulate emotion. There is no stopping it because the emotional toll is a result of a job well done.

Alexander Chee said, on an episode of Between the Covers, "Joy Graham has the belief that the struggles that you engage in with other material clear the channel for those that come down like gifts." The struggle is worthwhile and is teaching me so much. And when a short passage comes down as a gift, I'm grateful.

Writing isn't objective, but I've tried to make it so. I'm a trained journalist by God: you sit down and write the story — that's all there is to it. lolsob. That approach worked until it didn't. I'm experiencing more now: listening, thinking, watching, investigating, interrogating — my characters and myself. A relationship is forming between myself and the work that's yielding fruit I had no idea existed. It reminds me that the authors whose wisdom I seek all acknowledge their books are more than themselves. Their first idea wasn't everything. The emotion rolled in and out, and the act of writing revealed the whole story. —DKP


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