It’s been a rough couple of years and many of us are simply exhausted. Outrage fatigue, pandemic fatigue, crisis fatigue—all manner of fatigue has besieged us. To the point where all we feel lately is numb.
At least that’s how I’ve been feeling. And then I watched two films in a row that made me feel something—something good, for a change—The Tender Bar and Belfast. I won’t say much about them except that they made me feel better about being human. They made me laugh and cry and ponder the nature of life and love and legacy—in a good way.
What they had in common—besides excellent writing and acting and directing—was their humanity. These were stories with heart. In all our focus on high-concept and plot and character and marketability and discoverability, we writers can sometimes lose sight of the one quality that readers find irresistible, and perhaps need now more than ever: heart.
Writing by heart means in not just getting in touch with our emotions, but mining our emotions. That can prove difficult, if not downright uncomfortable. George R. R. Martin calls writing from the heart “one of the hardest parts of writing.” But there are some tools and techniques we can use to “drop down from the head to the heart,” as my writer pal and popular podcaster John K. Waters always advises me to do.
“I have always used emotion as a writing tool. That goes back to me being on the stage.”
― Anne McCaffery
McCaffery was a character actor and a stage director as well as the award-winning author of the bestselling Dragonriders of Pern series. She understood that writing fiction is a kind of acting. Just as actors explore the depths of their characters’ inner motivations and emotions to hone their performances, so can writers do the same, creating more fully developed characters and designing conflicts designed to push those characters to their limits—emotionally, as well as mentally and physically.
If you have trouble inhabiting your characters, take an acting class, work in local theater, or read such works as The Art of Acting by Stella Adler. You can also “cast” your story and imagine what different actors would bring to the role: Ryan Reynolds or Joaquin Phoenix or Irdis Elba? Selma Gomez or Emily Blunt or Angelina Jolie? The choice—and the emotional impact—is yours.
“Every life has a soundtrack. There is a tune that makes me think of the summer I spent rubbing baby oil on my stomach in pursuit of the perfect tan. There’s another that reminds me of tagging along with my father on Sunday morning to pick up the New York Times. There’s the song that reminds me of using a fake ID to get into a nightclub; and the one that brings back my cousin Isobel’s sweet sixteen, where I played Seven Minutes in Heaven with a boy whose breath smelled like tomato soup. If you ask me, music is the language of memory.”
― Jodi Picoult
Method actors often call upon their own memories to help them access certain emotions. One shortcut to accessing memory and the emotions associated with them is music. More than one study with Alzheimer’s patients has confirmed that musical memories are different from other kinds of memories, providing critical links to the past. What’s more, music can boost mood.
Listen to the music that makes you feel the emotion you’re aiming to evoke in a given scene, act, story. I build playlists for each novel—it’s fun and it works. For THE WEDDING PLOT, the playlist was full of love songs—happy/sad, lustful/soulful, and everything in between—that celebrated not just romantic love, but the love we feel for family and friends and furry companions and even ourselves. There were also songs that spoke to the flip side of love: hate, jealousy, indifference, resentment, self-loathing, and more—all fuel for emotional fodder as I wrote the novel.
“When your writing is unselfconscious, when it comes from your heart, that’s when it’s powerful.”
― Sandra Cisneros
Your sub-conscious is a treasure of emotion and memory—yours, mine, and ours, as in the collective unconscious. (I’m not getting into the sub-conscious vs. unconscious debate here, life is too short.) Plug into your sub-conscious, and you’ll tune into the part of your mind that houses memories and impulses you may not even be aware of.
One way to access your sub-conscious is to keep a dream journal. Another way is to try automatic writing. Set a timer and write for 20 minutes every morning, à la Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.
Just put pen to paper and write nonstop. (It’s important that you actually use pen and paper.) See what comes up. There’s gold in them thar hills. Seriously.
“Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.”
― Alan Watts
Tell your secrets. There is power in revelation. Harness that power. Secrets are emotionally charged by definition; spill yours and in so doing you can unleash a torrent of emotions that will flood your stories with feeling.
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
― Robert Frost
Poetry is my go-to when I need inspiration, as a writer and as a human. Poets write in the language of emotion: the best poems are emotion. Or, as William Wordsworth put it far more elegantly: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
I try to read poetry every day; it’s my way of reminding myself that I’m not just striving to tell stories, I’m striving to tell stories that move readers. Stories that enlighten as well as entertain. Stories that change hearts and minds and lives.
“A film is—or should be—more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
― Stanley Kubrick
The best films, like The Tender Bar and Belfast, are the ones that make us feel something. While I would take issue with Kubrick’s idea that film is a more emotional medium than fiction—all good stories make us feel something, whether they are on the screen or on the page—my favorite films are the ones that make me feel something.
Which is very useful when I’m having trouble writing emotion. If I need a good cry, I watch Random Harvest or The Way We Were. If I want a good laugh, I watch Best in Show or Borat. If I want romance, I watch Moonstruck or La La Land. If I want redemption, I watch Groundhog Day or The Shawshank Redemption. If I want writerly inspiration, I watch Impromptu or Little Women. If I want escape, I watch musicals. A good musical gives you great music, great poetry, great acting, and there’s almost always a secret in there somewhere.
Which brings us full circle…to Tick, Tick…Boom! I’ve watched this musical over and over again since it premiered on Netflix last month. Based on the true story of struggling Broadway wannabe Jonathan Larson, who went on to write the blockbuster musical Rent, it’s got heart to spare. Watch it, and then write your next scene. I bet your scene will have heart to spare, too.
PS: If you can get through Tick, Tick…Boom! without laughing or crying or both, well, you’d better read this post again. I’m just saying.