Emotional Truth in Your Writing


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?


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.”


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


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?


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.

How to Start an Autobiography or Memoir


What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Strictly speaking, a memoir is about a specific period or event in your life. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt recounted his life growing up poor in Ireland. His second book, ‘Tis, started when he was a teacher in New York. So, distinct periods.

An autobiography intends to cover the whole life of a person.

Now, this distinction may or may not be important to you. I think it depends on your intended audience.

Your audience

Some people want to write down their experiences in life as a way of leaving a record for future generations. And these can be invaluable as they capture events which would otherwise be lost. So, if your audience is primarily family and friends, you’re probably writing an autobiography.

If you intend a more extensive audience, that is, if you are hoping to publish what you are working on, then a memoir, capturing an important moment or event and exploring its meaning to you and hopefully the wider world, is more likely to be of interest to people who don’t know you.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters what you call it. I think you should just write what you want to say. Nor do I think it a great idea to write with an eye to publication. First, because this exercise, however termed, is a worthwhile activity in and of itself and secondly, assuming publication can lead to a self-censoring, i.e. I don’t want people to know that! I think you get a better book if you just get down what you want to say and leave the editing and publication decisions to when you have a first draft.

So, where do I start?

There are/will be posts on whether to do research, and other background stuff but I am focused here on how to actually start getting words on a page.

In another post, I will cover my preferred way to start writing any piece, but I adjust it here for the memoir.

As a first step, put away any research you have done. If you didn’t consult it again until you were editing your first draft, I’d be happy. But in any case, do not use the research as a guide to what you should write.

Instead, sit down at your computer and just spend a few moments thinking about an event or incident you want to include somewhere in the memoir. Really think about what happened, why it was important, who was there, how you felt about the whole thing.

Then just start writing. Specifically:

  • Try to get it all down. Just let it flow out of you onto the page.
  • Don’t worry about getting the hometown of your second cousin right, or what year you first started to play baseball. Don’t stop for any of that. Just write down the memory.
  • Include as much detail and as many feelings as you remember. Don’t just stick to the facts, ma’am.
  • If you need to, leave blanks where you know something else is needed that you can’t remember at the moment.

Once you’ve done that memory, think of another and follow the same process. You really can build an entire memoir from this method as you can a novel. It is a much more entertaining approach for you and has the added advantage of providing a more vivid picture than a from-the-cooling-of-the-earth-to-now litany would.

Once you’ve done all the incidents you want to include, I have suggestions on how to weave it into a complete memoir which I’ll post in the future.