I wrote this post a while ago on the site, but I have been thinking about it alot.
For the last two years, I have been reading more nonfiction than ever before, and many times there is something missing under the surface. Good writing certainly, but still hollow. There is also some good writing advice here I believe, especially for those looking for suggestions or exercises to help their ability take off.
There is this truth around writing that we all can’t put our finger on. It’s enigmatic, elusive. But this “thing” can make a story or destroy it; it can change a letter from something that is thrown away or kept; and it is what makes an e-mail readable or spam.
Let me break this down in a different way.
As a book reviewer, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a lot of contemporary literature. And many times, these works will be by academics with amazing degrees and resumes. No one can deny these books are well-written, with a well-developed vocabulary and well-crafted plots. Yet, as a reader they don’t stick. I have no emotional attachment. It is like finishing a dry work assignment, not a work of art.
Recently, I had the same feeling reading Purity by Jonathan Franzen (you can read and hear my review here). No respectable reviewer will deny that Franzen is a good writer. He is, but his writing always misses something for me. And while I can respect the talent, I rarely remember anything after that last page is turned, almost relieved I got to the end of another gigantic tome.
So what do the academics and authors like Franzen miss?
Technically, they would argue nothing. They checked all the boxes that should make a work successful. Critics and publishers will agree. I might even agree! But it doesn’t change the fact that something was lacking and it is something behind the words.
I’m talking about heart.
Heart is the one thing that truly can’t be taught in an English or writing classroom, but it is also the most important thing a writer will need. And if used right by a writer, it can change opinions, stir a reader to act, and even make people cry or laugh. It is what takes a jumble of words and turns them into a message.
When writing has heart (be it in fiction, nonfiction, or even in marketing or business writing) it can move mountains. It can stir donations, create movements, and make art that truly will live after a writer has shuffled off this mortal coil.
Heart is the one thing all great writing share in all genres and styles. And yet, while we all have emotions, why is it so difficult for so many of us to call upon this organ?
In our patriarchal world, we are taught from childhood that emotions are something to be fought, something to be controlled. This can be especially true with men, where tears are considered a weakness. Parents may wipe the tears off a child’s face, but at the same time they might be giving them a speech about learning to take a deep breath, count to ten, keep those emotions hidden inside.
And we all remember the kids that might have been prone to emotions at school; they were avoided, as if something is wrong with them. And who in high school wanted to date someone overly emotion?
The funny thing about all of these little life experiences is that they didn’t take away any of our emotions. They are still there. We just learned to control them, act respectable and “normal.” We follow the head and the heart, usually, can be damned.
Yet, here is the amazing flip of this. We celebrate the heart in our art. A singer cries while singing a song, and members of the audience feel they have to cry as well. And how about paintings that make us stop at a museum, lean forward and try to understand? And then in literature when we feel we know the characters, just as well as friends and family. (And over the last decade who doesn’t feel that way about Harry, Ron and Hermione?) Somehow those artists found a way to throw aside the societal emotional norms and used it to their advantage.
It is a form of guts. And I’ve found that each time I’ve taken a risk in my writing (from blogposts to my books), it has paid off for me. For the emotions reside in the same place in our brain as creativity. They go hand in hand.
That is not to say any of this is easy. It is hard. And, yes, there is a chance if you allow your emotions out in your writing it can come up in conversation. Maybe even a snicker here or there. But that is the risk of all writing, good or bad. And don’t you want someone to read your writing?
Be brave, don’t just phone in your work (and we all know writing when someone does that, we can all point to something in our mail everyday that follows that) or follow the rules from a class. Feel what you are writing.
Advice: Keep a journal. I know this is a lame piece of advice, and most have heard it since college or high school. But the more you practice writing about your own emotions, explaining them, the easier it is for you to find the language that will work in other avenues.
Wait, do you hear that noise?
It is the sound of a thousand readers saying “Duh” at the same time after seeing the title of this section.
Yet, if it is so obvious, explain to me why is it so rarely done?
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Say you work in a business environment where you have to write as part of customer service. You might have language you like, and you copy and paste paragraphs in, happy with the assignment reaching a page. But the fact is, while the letter may work (checking those boxes), the reader will put as much into the reading as you did in the creation of it.
I wish I could explain why this is true; how a reader can instinctively tell how much a writer cares. But they can tell, and we all have this skill. And if you don’t care as a writer, the readers won’t either.
Advice: Consider your audience and then think of WHY you are writing. It has to always mean more than an assignment, dig deeper. Also, try reading aloud, if you can easily perform the writing with the heart you want it to convey, it should be there naturally.
Setting the Mood
What moves you?
Is it a certain song or artist? It is story that brings back fond memories or childhood? Is it a location where you would go with family or loved ones? Those things have power because they have power for you.
And, as a writer, I’ve used this in my own writing. Taking advantage of my emotions to help convey something on the written page.
(Another thing to consider, if you are a fiction writer, if something has moved you in a specific genre or type of story, maybe that is the best avenue for you to consider in your own writing. Use it, take advantage.)
For me it is all about music. On my phone, for example, I have a collection of CDs and music I can call upon whenever I need to capture a feeling or setting. From childhood innocence, to old age or death. With the right song playing, my emotions are stirred and I feel that going into my writing, making a paragraph more than just a paragraph.
Like I said, in the beginning of this article, this is something not easy to explain, but I can point to a collection of reviews from readers that shows that this works for me and my stories. And, chances are, it will work for you as well.
Advice: Build up your artistic arsenal. What music helps you reach certain levels, what locations stir you. And then use those to boost your own work. I’m sure the original artists won’t mind. Chances are they will be flattered.
We live in a fast-paced world.
No one walks, we run; and typically when we are given writing assignments (work or in fiction) there is an ASAP attached to the request.
Yes, sooner is better than later in most things, but the heart doesn’t work on a timeframe. It has to be wooed, it has to be moved, and it has to be stirred. And if you take the time to figure out how to make your own heart work, you will see your writing improve. And this will be obvious in all aspects, from fiction to nonfiction.
Your heart is a tool, just as much as the education and the library you have built up over the years. It is not something to be kept hidden.
You have a heart, let it beat.
Beautifully said, Scott. I think a lot of readers/reviewers are feeling the same way. I certainly am. I also think an author–no matter how talented or clever or educated– cannot provide a work that is beyond his or her own degree of mindfulness. Thank you.
Thank you so much! I am glad you enjoyed the post.