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“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.

Alexander Chee
7 min readDec 22, 2020

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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.

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Alexander Chee

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