Taking Emotional Risks

You have to take emotional risks to be a good writer. I’d even call it the acid test of high-quality writing.

One of the writers in writing group had an extremely emotional story. She left a marriage and surrendered custody of her small children. Years later, when her daughter was almost grown to adulthood, she tried to reconnect, but her daughter refused to see her. It was a wrenching story. I was in tears thinking about it when I was driving home after the group.

Yet when she wrote about her wrenching loss, the text was abstract, remote, and impersonal. She wrote at length about the psychological phenomenon of parental alienations, and mentioned a few facts like her daughter was four when she saw her last and she was 22 now, that they all lived in Northern Virginia but there had been no contact with the children, how she was trying to schedule a time to meet with her daughter, but hadn’t pulled it off yet.

I wanted to know more. Why did she give up custody of the children? Had the courts taken the children away from her, and if so, what had she done to deserve it? Had she fought the decision? Had she tried to see them while they were growing up? What was it like for her on their birthdays, Christmas, Mothers’ Day? Her memoir didn’t say, because however strongly she felt about what happened, she wrote in abstractions.

Later, I met another writer who’d worked in the camps with the refugees in Somalia. I would consider that an emotional subject. I remember seeing a symbol on a chart about refugees, “Families who’ve lost track of one of their children”. That dry statistic made me tear up. I expected his stories about people in the camps to be gut-wrenching. But no, he’d written a book length nonfiction, and it never left the realm of abstraction and philosophizing. I learned a great deal about what he thought of globalization and connectedness, but nothing about what had happened to the refugees or how he felt about it.

Those examples were both nonfiction, but I use them to make a point. If you shelter behind abstractions, speak in generalities, and don’t reveal how you feel, you’ll lose your reader.

I’m guessing that all fiction writing is autobiographical, to some extent. When I first started writing, I would slam the notebook shut or hide the window if anyone else came in the room. Putting my stories down on paper felt like walking through an airport concourse naked. If I hadn’t hidden behind a nom de plume, I wouldn’t have dared to publish at all.

If you want to engage your reader, you have to reveal things about yourself. Things you’re not proud of, that you’re rather other people didn’t know: a youthful misdemeanor, a minor cruelty later regretted, being attracted to the wrong person, a crisis of faith, a fib that took on a life of its own. Readers love this stuff, and surprisingly, they never seem to be shocked.

Does it ever get easier? Yes. I’ve been writing for five years, and while I still feel like I’m walking around naked, but I’ve gotten used to it, and no longer mind.

Author: Liz Hayes

Liz Hayes is the author of “How To Write Faster”. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and children, where she works as an analyst for a think tank inside the capital beltway. She is fascinated by medieval reenactment and writes fanfiction under the penname Uvatha the Horseman.