Come play inside a writer's brain, scary!

The last week in politics has been truly extraordinary, not least because the long-anticipated leadership challenge finally happened, but because – as a commentator on the ABC’s Q & A pointed out – we were treated to an honesty we haven’t seen in political life  for a long time. Politicians the likes of Anthony Albanese showed their feelings to an almost uncomfortable extent. Even Prime Minister Julia Gillard let her red hair down and her personality shine through. We weren’t just told what these people believed, we saw it for ourselves.

There’s a lesson here for writers.

However uncomfortable it may be, it’s vital to get your feelings out onto the page if you are to connect with readers. You’ve heard the maxim “show, don’t tell,” but what does it mean in terms of this connection?

Like the politicians this week, we must see for ourselves, not only what your characters are going through, but how it makes them feel. What do your characters believe in? What will they accept – or not accept? Why? Above all, we need to know why. What in their history and life experiences explains why they believe as they do? How do they act as a result?

 Recently we experienced the fourth anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to the aboriginal people for the annexation of this country by what were then outsiders arriving here by ship. For many years I believed I had no part in this debate because I came to Australia as a migrant from England. Then it dawned on me that many of my ancestors came from the same part of England as Captain Cook, a Yorkshireman. How could I be sure that none of my forebears had served with him, playing a role in those early events? I couldn’t and suddenly I understood where I fitted into that puzzle.  On their behalf and my own I made an unreserved apology to the aboriginal people a full ten years before the parliamentary version. Putting my feelings out there in an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald was tough. Despite everything I’d written, I wasn’t used to putting my personal feelings on the page, but the cause was sufficient that I made the effort. And it felt good.

I’m sure the politicians who shared their real feelings this last week felt the same. Without spin, without hype, they showed us who they really were. I did the same in my article. That was a lightbulb moment for me and my future writing. Ever since, I’ve tried to dig for those feelings and share them through my characters. I may not always succeed as well as I’d like to, but it’s important to keep  trying.

Sharing your feelings is hard. As someone once said, it can feel like sitting down at the keyboard and opening a vein. You bleed with your characters. But you also celebrate with them, laugh with them, cry with them, sometimes die with them. And you write more truthfully as a result. Just as we voters knew truth when we heard it this week and when I reached my own epiphany, your readers will recognise when you are writing honestly. So next time you’re tapping away at the keyboard and find yourself laughing, getting turned on, or with tears running down your face, take it as a sign that you’re connecting with your readers on a deep emotional level. They’re no longer reading about your characters, they’re sharing the experiences, exactly as it should be.

Have you ever had an emotional experience while writing? How did it affect the end result? Share by making a comment below.


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Comments on: "If you’re happy and you know it…write it down" (4)

  1. Great post, VP. This week has certainly stirred MY feelings. I wanted to cry too!!!! But for very different reasons!! It’s true, sharing your feelings is not easy. Saying things aloud is also not easy. I just spent 30 mins trying to set up voice recognition on my computer. Now I have it, I am mute! (Yes, me!!!) I had stage fright. The words did not flow like when my fingers are on the keyboard. I digress, but you talked about expressiong yourself. I guess some are better at writing it than saying it.

    • Hi Jenn, yes it is a challenge & I admire you for trying the VR software. It adds another layer of performance anxiety, but a computer mouse once felt alien until it became an extension of our hands. The main thing is to get those feelings out there. As writer Eileen Dreyer put it, if in doubt write “he/she felt…” and fill in the rest.

  2. So absolutely true Valerie. I guess I have written many articles in newspapers and magazines over 25 years. But the one I remember most deeply – and the one that most others seem to remember as well – was about my son. I was asked to write an item about our difficult life. My son was off the rails and we were a family in crisis. I was a dad withour answers. by this time.
    It was the only article I ever wrote that had no spelling errors or typos. It is the only article that I wrote in one hit. It is the only article that I read through without changing a word. Still brings me to tears, even today.

    • Peter, your experience demonstrates that writing about our true feelings is both the hardest, yet paradoxically the easiest thing a writer can do, once we make the deal with ourselves to hold nothing back. Such writing can be self indulgent if it only affects us individually, but when it resonates with a great many people, as yours did, it can have a powerful effect.

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