Your Questions Answered

“How do you access emotional states that are different from the one you are currently experiencing when you are writing?”

The first spell you cast as a writer, you cast on yourself.

A highway in Vermont, lined with trees, and white clouds and mountains in the distance against a blue sky.
A highway in Vermont, lined with trees, and white clouds and mountains in the distance against a blue sky.

What is often lost in talk of craft in writing is the exploration of sentiment, and as a result what is almost never discussed is how sentiment is described or even conjured, so this is a good question for aiming at that topic directly. So much advice about writing acts as if the emotional states in a piece of writing are already figured out and they just need to be described for the reader. But in my experience, they are not figured out in advance, at all, and if anything, part of why I write is to discover what I feel about what I’m writing about — and then, to discover more than that.

The first spell you cast as a writer, you cast on yourself, and you do it so as to then be able to cast it on the reader. It is not enough to describe what you felt, or what you imagine the character to feel, though — but if you decribe what you remember of what you felt across your senses, then you can evoke those feelings in yourself, and eventually, approach describing those conditions on the page. To this end, most writers would benefit from taking an acting class, or acting in some production of a community theater play, or even just reading plays aloud, or singing, either privately, along to the radio. Even a short study of the role of, say, chords in music, and how they affect the emotions.

I enter into a memory through the somatic experience of the body, by which I mean, a talisman, like the red Mercedes Benz model car my dad gave me for Christmas a very long time ago. We all keep things for this reason. And so as I describe a memory, I look for the sensations. I enter a fiction through a door like that one, but curious: what would be the sensations? What of my experiences help me with describing what I think my characters are going through, or, what scenes have I seen or heard described that might help also? If I haven’t had the experiences I need, how can I find my way in? Through what imaginative paths?

Here are two examples.

1.I remember a reader saying to me, conspiratorially, “How did you know what it was like to burn your house down and thaw the earth enough to bury your dead mother? It was like you did it once yourself.” I had just read from a scene in my second novel, The Queen of the Night, and she winked as if yes, we knew I had done this. But of course, I had only imagined it. I did know from my father’s January death in Maine many years ago that burials in winter are tough, if not impossible, and so you often wait until spring, when the ground is thawed. There is now such a thing as a power blanket, laid on the earth to thaw it so the plot can be dug.

As a writer telling a story, you are in control of the reader’s relationship to time. The story or essay is composed in roughly two modes that mix and weave: Exposition, a prose summary of a long period of time — days, months, years — gathering it, condensing it, compressing it. And then Action or Scene, which involves taking what might have happened in a short period of time — a few seconds or minutes or hours — and examining those moments for the otherwise inexpressible, sought after in gesture, dialogue, and the many kinds of nonverbal communications we all experience in our lives. All of those things collectively contain a variety of emotions. But you typically need a way in, and one of the most powerful ways in is your memory of how something smells.

So for example, you may tell yourself you don’t remember what you felt about being on a swim team in high school but then you remember the smell of the chlorine at morning practice, the way the smell of it seemed to singe the hair on your nose as you walked beside the pool, and then turned to walk down the boys locker room hallway under the florescent lights, the hissing sound of the showers getting louder as you approach, the turn into the tiled main room and your team mates looking at you or not looking at you, their locker doors open, their winter coats hanging on them, sitting or standing near the wooden benches in front of each row of lockers. Once you put yourself into a reconstruction of the moment, or even visit the place, the memories, and the feelings attached, come back. And your sense of smell is one of the most immediate and underutilized guides to memory there is.

2.Last week I wept while singing what seemed to me to be a completely cheesy pop song that I’d woken up with in my head: Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day.” I had errands to do, so I queued it up on my Spotify, drove off in my car, alone, and began singing along, pretending my falsetto could make it through. The longing I’ve had all year to sing in public with friends at Karaoke — the group, specifically, that I sing with — welled up and cut my voice short as tears came into my eyes. But I continued, crying and trying to sing, until I reached the grocery store, and then I sat, dried my eyes, and went in.

And it should be said: that is an example of an expository description of the event.

A scene includes the bright winter sun and blue sky that day, the clouds here in VT that seem to extend up the height of the sky, the way it feels singing in your car on a highway, alone, while driving, and the music playing all around you so that you can feel the song coming from the car’s speakers pressing along the bones inside your head, inside your ears, almost the way it does when you sing —offering a unique illusion that you too can sing the song just as the singer on the speakers might. So yes, me and Jon Secada. When I wake up with a song in my head I call it the Heart’s Radio, which, yes, I know — it’s cheesy but there we go.

I don’t wanna say it
I don’t wanna find another way
Make it through the day without you
I.. I.. I can’t resist
Trying to find exactly what I miss
It’s just another day without you.

The car is safely on the road, my hands steadily holding the wheel, even as I also feel as I am falling down a hole in that word miss as I sing it. And then I am in the bar where I normally sing with my friends, trying to sing this song, in some imagined future that I am hoping comes true. The dark room lit by a disco ball and the karaoke screen, and the lights behind the bar; the banquettes full of friends, with half-finished drinks and snacks in front of them; the letters for the song lyrics on the screen, almost big enough for me to read without my glasses.

In the parking lot of the grocery store, I thought about how you can think you feel some way about things in a particular moment, and then you sing a song and some part of you is like Oh by the way this is how you feel right now. Yes, I did know I missed my friends, and that I missed meeting up with them to sing songs in our favorite Karaoke bar, which is now closed and who knows if it will ever come back? Who knows if all of us will have our voices? About half our group has had COVID, and all seem to have passed through it safely. But this is just the first year of this, and by now I would have sung with them at least two or three times.

I say this because I think this is how many of us experience our desires and our fears, our memories and our imagined futures. What writers do is to make these scenes, which normally float away, into something we write down.

Whatever you were feeling is not usually very far away. But it may not have a voice yet. You may think of it as a mood when it is a story, waiting for you to unravel it. And the ways in are about embodying it somehow. Try singing a song from a particular time you’re trying to write about, then, for example, even if you don’t think you’re a good singer. Or play the song and sing along. This is not quite the same as listening to music while you write. This is using music as a door to memory and imagination.

Today’s question comes from a student in Benjamin Reed’s excellent Texas State University writing class. I am answering it here with the student’s permission.

Previous writing posts: Am I Ready For The MFA? Your Questions Answered: How Have You Overcome Writers’ Block?, Let Me Finish, Don’t Quit Writing When The World Is On Fire. For updates about my future posts, add me here.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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