Emotional Truth in Your Writing

emotional

Emotional Truth in Your Writing

What is emotional truth?

I know you have experienced it—otherwise, you wouldn’t want to be a writer. You know it when you’re reading a novel which is, by definition, fiction, made up, untrue. And yet, you feel its truth, its emotional truth. It touched something in you which was real. Mike Ruso, a writer and photographer, has some interesting insights if you want to explore more of its definition, but I’d like to focus on, not what it feels like to experience it, but how to create it.

What is emotional truth for writers?

It’s one thing to experience this honesty as a reader, but how does it feel when you are writing that way? The best I can do it is to describe my struggles as I journaled about them.

I feel like I am not getting down to the core—the place from which I write—the deep place. It feels very at the surface, perhaps because I was thinking of the characters as vehicles for the essays[1]. Now I want to think of them as existing on their own, without reference to anything else.

So, where is that deep spot in the middle of my chest from which all else flows? It doesn’t feel like I have accessed that for a long time and it is this that I think is lacking in David[2]. That one true thing. Which is more than one true thing but it is about true things. It is a sinking down to allow a bubbling up. Who is David?

The fantastical, illogical, and moving side of my brain has not gotten much exercise lately. To wit: none. And I fear it is atrophying due to lack of use. What I continually fear.

Although maybe because it hasn’t been used for a while, it’s like the muscles in the front of my shoulder. Because I was hunched forward for so long, they went unused. Now that I am straighter, they are called upon to function and are remarkably weak. Who knew. So now, the movements I can make with them are limited and painful. But I am making progress.

I hope the same can be said of this thing which I seek.

Not a definition, I know, but perhaps approximating how to know, as a writer, when you are writing from a place from which emotional truth can arise.

How do I get it in my writing?

Ah, the $64,000 question. It is the pinnacle of writing, which all writers strive to reach. It is what makes writing magic.

I have a simple but not easy answer: honesty.

When I think I have approached emotional truth in my writing, it is when I have been completely honest. I think it is the willingness to show up naked on the page, to bring your scared and trembling self to the writing, not hiding behind technique or elegant writing. It is writing about feeling unattractive and unloved rather than about heroines who are beautiful and worshiped. It is the willingness to go to the places in yourself which are raw and writing from there.

There is no paint-by-numbers method. Push yourself to be honest with yourself, to be honest on the page. And then, every once in a while, emotional truth breaks through. And every once in a while, so does the magic.


[1] Referring to Cross My Heart and Other Tales of Life and Art, soon to be released.

[2] Referring to hero in the Honest One, a novel on the consequences of stealing ideas

Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?

truth

Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?

Depends what you mean by truth.

Yes for the major events in your life. Really, isn’t this the time to tell your eldest that he really wasn’t born three months premature? If you don’t tell the truth about the big things, why bother calling it a memoir?

No for the small stuff. You cannot possibly remember every detail of your life so you may have to include what was likely or expected to make the narrative flow.

Yes for the emotional truth. I will have another post on this as it is an ability all writers need to develop but I want to focus on how it applies to memoirs.

An example of emotional truth in memoirs

Say you want to record how you recovered and thrived after your divorce. But you need to deal with the betrayal which prompted it.

One way you could do this is:

Larry seemed anxious that evening but things had gotten to the point that I didn’t care enough to ask. He came into the living room after dinner.

He just stood there. He cleared his throat. I looked up.

“…you know that things aren’t working out between us.”

“And whose fault is that?”

He waved a hand and took a deep breath. “I don’t want to fight any more. I want a divorce.”

“What!”

He didn’t look up. “I’ve found someone else.”

“What! You bastard! Who is it? I bet it’s that Rachel. She’s been all over you since she and Amir moved here.”

“No, not Rachel. Amir.”

So, this is fine as far as it goes. And although there is the emotional honesty of simply writing down the event, you also need to include the shock, tears, anger, and disbelief you felt and continued to feel for the months following. How did it affect you? Did it make you question what was real or who you were? Did you wonder whether you were a true woman if you married a gay man?

Public versus private face

I know that this is tough to do. And that it asks you to go deeper than you perhaps had originally anticipated.

But people already know your public face—the one you turn to the world. Everything is fine. Yes, my daughter is great. No, I’m okay financially. Never worry about getting old. Don’t wonder how to cope without a spouse.

Your public face, while safe and comfortable, is less compelling than letting the reader see the true you. The private face of the human being with her doubts, fears and triumphs.

Write from your private space. At least for the first draft. Once you have a complete manuscript, then decide whether or what you want to alter. The range can be from publication to nobody ever seeing it and all stops in-between.

The truth of remembrance

While I’m here, so to speak, just a word about how you handle the early days of your life. Obviously, you know what is coming in later years but beginnings larded with Little did I know, As I found out later, He was all charm then, can get tiresome and more importantly, doesn’t present those days as you truly experienced them, untainted with the knowledge of future events and without regret and revenge. Let the reader take the journey with you rather than throwing out constant bits of foreshadowing of the traumas to come.

A Memoir is a Lifestory

lifestory

A Memoir is a Lifestory

It’s important to remember that a memoir is a story, the story of your life. It’s not a memoir (well, not an interesting one) if it’s just a set of facts, even with interpretation. While readers might be interested in facts, they really perk up when they have access to what you thought about the facts, how they affected your life, who you are because of them. In other words, the lifestory.

I’m kind of hitting you over the head with this since I think that often people don’t realize how important personal feelings are in a memoir, beyond the facts. Look at the example below.

An example

Say you start off your memoir with something like:

I was born in 1932 so I was seven when the war broke out. The war was something that was happening to others; around me but not intrusive. Except that sometimes the rationing pinched.

My father, who was just 26 at the outbreak of the war, enlisted immediately and went overseas in late 1940.

Seems okay, no? But what might it look as if you focused on a more personal angle? Read the next example.

Better telling of a lifestory

You say that the rationing ‘pinched.’ What if you told the story underlying that summary statement?

No chocolate!”

“Sugar is rationed, now,” said Mom.

This made no sense to me. Sugar was what Mom put in her tea. What had that to do with chocolate?

“Are the soldiers getting it?” I asked suspiciously.

Mom shrugged. “They might be.”

“Couldn’t they leave some for me? I won’t take much, I promise.”

“Linda Eleanor Birch, the soldiers deserve the best food we can give them! They’re fighting for us.”

This is the first time it came home to me that war was a crisis.

Difference between the two examples

The first example isn’t bad but I think it’s more effectively used for minor things (why Aunt Minnie was there when the big explosion happened).

But, particularly because it is your opening, you want to grab the reader’s interest right off the bat. And showing how rationing affected you in very concrete terms is a more vivid way to start. Often what works is to look at summary statements (rationing pinched) and remember an incident which illustrates it.

But there were other opportunities to flesh out the narrative even in that short excerpt. You say the war was around me but not intrusive. What would that look like? How did you know that it was around?

Similarly, the statement that My father went overseas can be expanded to introduce a more personal feel. How did you feel about your father leaving? What was the day like when he left for overseas? Did your mother cry? Did you? Did you know what it meant?

Interspersing

Of course, you don’t want to simply string a bunch of memories together. The memoir needs background information, a grounding in the when and where of the lifestory, your reflections on what happened, etc. However, slowing down at critical points and remembering in detail what happened will make for richer reading.

Should I Write a Memoir?

memoir

memoir

Should I Write a Memoir?

So, we’ve dealt with Can I Write My Memoirs? Answer: Yes. Should you write a memoir? Completely different question. Obviously, only you can decide whether or not you should, but here are some thoughts you might factor into your decision.

Benefits of writing your memoir

Personal/family benefit: My older sister died not long ago and as I was going through her family pictures, I found one of my grandfather. For succeeding generations, it will be the picture of an old geezer who was related to them. And although I didn’t know a lot about him, I did know that he and my grandmother had come to Canada from Japan in 1917; that he was a lovely man but an alcoholic; that the family was very poor because of that. So, I could give the picture some meaning by recording my memories of him. I think a memoir does the same thing—it leaves behind a record of who you were and who others were for the benefit of those who come behind you.

Making sense of your life: I have repeatedly found that having to write something down forces me to think more deeply about it then when it is just swirling around in my head. I think you will find the same. Writing your story helps to focus the mind, allows you to make connections which might not have been evident before, and encourages you to reflect on the events.

When not to

Maybe that’s too strong. But there are times when you might want to pause.

When the primary reason is revenge. I realize that few of us like to admit this, but do thoughts like, “That’ll really show him,” or “She’ll never live it down,” flit through your mind as you think about doing it? If so, you might want to consider whether a memoir is the best way to accomplish this.

To tell your side of the story. Might seem a reasonable reason but, as in fiction, a good memoir allows the reader to come to her own conclusions about your story. If your primary reason for writing a memoir is the need to drive a point home or justify yourself, this can read as self-serving or even egotistical.

Frankly, I’m not putting these up as caveats from some moral high ground. I’m saying that either of these doesn’t bode well for a good memoir.  Think about a time when you were trapped listening to someone focused on revenge or self-justification. Besides being monologue-ish, the ‘conversation’ often ends up sounding whiny, repetitive, petty, self-absorbed and ultimately, boring. Same thing with memoirs. The fact that lots of famous people use memoirs this way doesn’t mean it creates a compelling and believable narrative.

Who is your audience?

Part of your decision whether to write a memoir should include your intended audience. If this is primarily for circulation in your family, it is probably less an issue than if you intend to publish it. I’m not saying that writing only for your family won’t stir up issues, because it well might, but publishing it throws it into the public arena. You need to decide whether your memoir needs to be widely or more narrowly circulated.

So, as I’ve said, only you can decide whether to write a memoir. I think it is a valuable contribution to your family but it also takes time and a little courage. More about the latter in an upcoming post.

Can I Write My Memoirs?

memoirs

memoirs

Can I Write My Memoirs?

Yes.

I suppose you’d like a little more meat on that bone.

Well, I think everyone can write a memoir.

You’ve got memories, you can write your memoirs. However, I accept that this bald statement, stirring though it is, might not be enough to attack the computer with zeal. There are often some lurking questions.

Do I have anything to say?

Every life is unique. Only you have had your experiences which you have coupled with your unique learnings which have culminated in a life nobody else has lived. For example, your first family was unique. You may think, “Nah, I had two other brothers—so they grew up the same way.” But not true.

Were you the oldest or the youngest? If the oldest, did you feel the pressure of being a model for your younger siblings? Are you the one your parents made all the mistakes on? Did you resent that they were more relaxed about discipline and expectations with the other two than they were with you? If you were the youngest, did you get babied? Was that good or bad for later life? Did you envy the attention your oldest brother always got? And middle children—don’t get me started. So even siblings in the same family environment experience it differently.

Another lurking issue might be ‘ah, it’s all been said and written before.’ True to some extent but as I mentioned in my post, Finding Your Distinctive Voice, the famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut believed that there are only a few basic stories in literature which keep being repeated (boy meets girl, etc.). It is the distinctive spin you put on that retelling which makes the narrative worth reading.

Do I have the talent to write my memoirs?

Well, if you think you need to be Shakespeare, then probably not. But if you are hoping for memoirs which are engaging and meaningful then, again and by and large, yes.

However, one thing contributes greatly to an evocative and real story. Honesty. Honesty with yourself and your audience. This means presenting things as they were, not as you would have wanted them to be or even how you want people to remember you. Your readers are smart cookies and they are likely to catch significant revisionist history. If they do, your memoirs don’t ring true and will therefore be less interesting.

Do I have the skill?

You may assume that if you are a fabulous story teller, you have the skills you need. Or conversely, if you’re not, then you can’t write your memoirs. Actually, neither is necessarily true.

Writing down who you are requires a different set of skills. When you tell a story in person, you have your voice, gestures, and physical presence to help. In writing, you have none of these and therefore have a find ways to nevertheless make your story appealing.

So, you need to acquire some writing craft. A bit of work but completely doable. Learning some writing practices is what this blog is all about. If you follow the blog, you will be able to develop the skills needed.

I am planning to do a series of posts on memoir writing which will appear sporadically. I think I will do one more. My next post is Should I Write a Memoir? Completely different issue.