Now seems like a good time to reflect on the emotions of writing emotions.
Once upon a time, back in 2015, I wrote a book about a girl who was dying. This was my third novel for young adults, and it was also the third novel where impending death was one of the primary concerns. By this time I had become the writer to whom my editors went with such subjects. My feelings on being the resident “tearjerker” vary day to day; I try not to be too honored or too insulted either way. I try to think of it like being particularly adept at finding PowerPoint templates or editing video; some people in the workplace get sought out because they can do specific things, and my workplace just happens to be a production company.
Anyway, there I was in 2015, at a desk in a drafty room, tip-tapping away in the voice of a girl who was slowly losing her memory and would soon lose her life. I was, as usual, behind at turning in my pages, but I felt I could not rush. Though my research on her medical condition was not as full as it should have been, I did not take delicately the matter of her fading consciousness. It felt essential to spend long days and long nights contemplating each narrative situation in her shoes. Where would her attention go in this room full of people? What words would she forget and what words would she remember? What feelings would she have names for, and what feelings would follow her in relative silence, emerging in the unexpected and uncanny? Which feelings would she be able to ignore, and for how long? At what point does she turn to face them? With how much resistance? With how much grace?
These are now the kinds of questions that arise every time I write in the voice of a character, dying or not. To answer them is an exercise in authority that, for me, goes beyond storytelling. In order to stay true to her consciousness, I am no longer pulling back the curtain on someone else’s life, but occupying their headspace, thinking as her, seeing as her, feeling as her. You might call this empathy to the extreme. Empathy with a good dose of projection.
One of the core tenets of fiction is to write what you know. While I did not know truly what it would be like to lose one’s grip on life, on time, on language, in 2015 it felt necessary to imagine it with as much real material as possible. I dug for memories of my own grandparents forgetting me. I returned to nursing homes in Topeka, afternoons of watching the eyes of loved ones turn blank and absorbant. I returned to the parlance of printer pages and notebooks, where I had recorded what I found notable as a child. Children are so intelligent. They notice and store information with speed and detail. But in communicating that information, they haven’t yet been taught what to prioritize. The bird one saw on the way home from school is often more relevant than the route taken. But as time goes on, they sense what is important to others, and start to adjust what they share. In the case of my narrator, her listener was her future self, a version of herself that would not die. So there I was, mixing her tender memories with my own, creating a new vocabulary on every page as her illness progressed, a new map of what mattered. But the destination would always be the same. She was always speaking to someone who did not exist outside of her imagination. She was always saying goodbye.
What I have realized now is that this form of fictionalized immersion has real world consequences. What I did not know then, in 2015, was that while I wrote this character into her own death, I was dancing with my own. The effort I was expending demanded a complex triangulation of body, mind, and heart: body for the hours of sitting and staring at a screen, only taking breaks to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee; heart for the personal memories I was mining while I sat, not bothering to give myself any form of aftercare or reflection; mind for the whirring machinery of word choice, finding terms for these hybrid memories and emotions that remained loyal to the character. Hovering over all of it were the unconscious questions of my soul, the existential concerns with which one should not toy without guidance. As in: What would stay with me if I were dying? What would stay with the world? What is a self?
When I finally turned in my first draft, it was late at night. I was elated and alone. The elation quickly transformed into something else. I remember standing up from my desk and being so disoriented I could barely make my way around my room, though my vision was perfectly fine. I realize now that this was because I had spent days, months rearranging my character’s mental maps, and perhaps I had temporarily rearranged my own. Because I had been obsessively pulling a consciousness to the end of the story, I felt like I was reaching the end of something on my own timeline. I didn’t want to die but I felt certain I would. My imagination was spent; I couldn’t see the future. Because I had wrung dry the best of my memories, what remained of my past seemed useless and destructive. Because my body was a wreck, it could not stabilize my mind. I put the Kinks on my headphones and took a walk in the middle of a Minnesota blizzard. Internally, metaphors for natural disasters will have to stand in: a flood, a storm, gale force winds.
Thankfully there was some part of me that knew to call a loved one; a real loved one, not the distorted, fading versions that I had invented simply to lose. Thankfully the blizzard was the most beautiful thick snowfall I’d ever seen in Minnesota and have ever seen since, a welcome dose of wonder amid all the chaos. Step by step on that walk, with a trusted voice in my ear, I returned back to the rhythms and patterns that make up my real self, grounded in the present. Nature and family (chosen and biological) can be medicine in that way.
The lesson I’ve slowly internalized since then is that writing is an act of the body and the heart (and the soul) as much as it is the mind. That is corny-sounding and vague but I hope the story I’ve told makes it concrete. All of these engines should be tended to while immersed in a manuscript. I chose this week to address the emotions of writing emotions because recently I had to weather another small storm of disorientation; a dramatic wave of negative emotions, the timbre of which I could not identify, the origins of which could not discern. Probably old wounds or buried fears I had been poking with my prose all week.
I still need reminders to treat these hours as massive mental and emotional efforts. When you’re alone and tip-tapping away, especially when your page count is low or your deadline has passed, you can feel like what you’ve done amounts to very little. You can sigh and move on to the next activity without a second thought, or with the frustrations about productivity we are encouraged to entertain as creatives in a capitalist world. Even on good days, you can marvel at the psychic distances you’ve traveled, the worlds you’ve built, the headspaces you’ve occupied, and pat yourself on the back without realizing that you set a fire somewhere you forgot to put out. This is my reminder to take note of what I’ve been tangling with all day. This is my invitation to myself to engage in rituals that activate my senses. Rituals that acknowledge my art as a practice and not a world in which I can lose myself. Rituals that put my feet back on the ground.