There’s a huge amount of technical help and guidance out there for us writers.
From grammar geek websites to detailed historical information sources, it’s never been easier to access the technical resources necessary to write. Need to pen an article on electric cars? A short story with a scene in Prague? A perfectly punctuated piece of dialogue?
No sweat, the Information Age has you covered.
However, there are some things the internet can’t help us with. (I know, I said it.) Things like the vulnerability to expose your weaknesses. The resilience to cope with hostile or indifferent responses to your work. The self-knowledge to speak to something deep and true in other people. The courage to say something you feel without someone else having said it first.
These are the things I’m calling a writer’s emotional toolkit. As a writer, you probably use many of these techniques without realizing it.
Here, I’ll explore a few of these intangible tools in the hope that we can all take a second to appreciate and cultivate the qualities that make us able to write with guts, heart, and punch.
It’s a paradox, but vulnerability is arguably the greatest strength we can have. Great writers throughout time have exposed themselves, showing us their soft human aspects.
There is something incredibly powerful in the words of someone who can take off their armour for a moment, put aside their carefully constructed social self, and say look, this is how it is for me. This is something I struggle with. This is something I care about. This is something that scares me.
Why is it so powerful? I can only speculate, but perhaps it is the power of seeing how another person’s fears and desires so closely resemble our own, that can touch something within us. It’s scary to be honest in this way, because if it is rejected or scorned, there’s no padded layer of façade to hide behind. It’s close to the bone. It’s risky. Perhaps we respond to the raw courage implicit in all vulnerable writing.
This is not just relevant to fiction writers. It’s relevant to all writers, from restaurant reviewers to marketers, journalists, and political pundits.
But what are we being asked to expose when we’re asked to be vulnerable? Our opinions? Our neuroses? What did Wordsworth mean when he advised, “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart”?
This question brings me to vulnerability’s calm and clear-eyed sister, self-knowledge.
Research into human behaviour is a wonderful thing. It lets us glimpse trends in how people think, overcome prejudice with factual evidence, and realize that we’re not so special/messed up after all — we’re just human.
But what if I told you there was another way to research humans? It’s a tool that offers depth rather than breadth, and it’s been urged by sages from the Oracle at Delphi in Ancient Greece to (ahem) Drake: KNOW YOURSELF.
What does this mean? It means undertaking a great experiment on yourself. It’s hard to be vulnerable if you have no idea how you work and what’s going on for you. Sound narcissistic? Well, there’s a fine line between self-observation and self-analysis (read: self-obsession).
The former means understanding ourselves in ever greater depth — our motivations, our sneaky little quirks, our coping strategies, and our deepest longings and fears. It means taking a light, neutral stance and just observing all these habits and tendencies, without beating ourselves up about them.
Some form of mindfulness practice can be very helpful here.
Self-analysis, on the other hand, is constantly thinking about ourselves from the point of view of feeling like a problem and trying to fix things up. Self-analysis is boring, repetitive, anxious, problematic, exhausting, and makes for very tedious writing.
Self-observation is humbling, because we realize that we’re full of painfully human strengths and weaknesses, and we recognize ourselves and our potentialities in everyone. Self-analysis is paralyzing, because like Narcissus we can only stare at our own reflection.
Self-analysis makes me blind to everyone but myself, possessed by the sense of trying to get somewhere. Self-observation allows me to come closer to understanding the motivations of others, because I understand and can articulate some of the essential human dynamics of myself.
We often talk about a writer’s voice but less often refer to a writer’s ears. They’re twice as important, I’d argue. (That’s why we have two!)
In order to be able to speak to our readers, even the greatest self-knowledge is not going to be enough. We need to be able to listen.
Listen to what? To the needs and dreams of the people around us, to the feedback we receive (the nicely phrased and the not-so-nicely), and to the human and non-human voices that make up our reality. And yes, even to ourselves.
We need to listen, so we know how to serve our readers best.
Great authors have known this: the success of many great novels lies in their ability to speak to the burning concerns of the reader’s heart.
Great nature writers know this: they listen to the voices of the land and the animals, of clouds, sunlight, and the ocean. They translate it into human languages for others to hear, too.
Great cultural critics know this: they listen intently to the world around them, tracing patterns and tendencies, recognizing hidden agendas and indoctrinated ideas.
Anyone who wants to write words that stir people needs to listen first, to know what needs stirring.
This one might be my favourite tool. It has the power to make everything else fresh and playful, rather than heavy and strained.
If I have genuine curiosity, then everything is done for its own sake as well as for any potential outcomes. Listening, for example, happens out of genuine interest rather than the desire to impress someone, look good, get ahead, or improve myself.
All those things might happen, but they’re not the motivating factors.
How do we cultivate real curiosity?
Well, one thing that will kill it real quick is thinking we know everything already. If I think I know you, I lose curiosity. If I think I know what life’s all about, I lose curiosity. If I think I know exactly how a piece of writing is going to turn out right from the beginning, I lose curiosity. Fatal mistake.
Thinking I know stuff shuts the doors to learning more.
So my solution is radical uncertainty. Remembering that I only know the tiniest, tiniest fraction of what there is to know. Remembering that it would take an entire lifetime and more to know myself, let alone someone else, and even then there will always be more mystery.
Stay open and curious, and you will never get bored or boring. Your writing may not be filled with solid answers, but it will be filled with wonderful, engaging, fascinating questions.
Anyone who says they feel no fear is probably encased in a layer of emotional concrete. In order to look into our own shadowy corners and bring the richness that lies there into our writing, we’re going to need great courage.
As Mark Twain wrote, “Courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.” I worked on a tall ship for a while, teaching teenagers to sail, and the completely unafraid ones weren’t the ones who impressed me.
The ones I remember are those who felt terrified to do things like jump into the water or climb the mast, but who did them anyway. I wish I could describe the kind of smile that lights up someone’s face at a moment like that, when they realize that a belief they’ve held about what they can and can’t do isn’t true after all.
As writers, we’re in trouble if we avoid anything vaguely scary (like vulnerability, pitching a piece to a place we really admire, or starting writing even though — cue terror — it might not be perfect).
Valuing courage is a reminder that writing isn’t meant to be completely unscary. The point is to feel utterly terrified and do it anyway. I’m scared right now, writing this, that I won’t communicate in a way that is understandable, that people will think I’m naïve and stupid… et cetera, et cetera.
The good news is that every time you feel irrational fears and move on despite them, they get weaker. In the process we gain golden understanding into the things that can hold us all back, understanding which we communicate with others using our awesome writerly skills.
A normal given day for me may involve anything from mild anxiety to full-blown terror. I take it as a good sign that I’m pushing boundaries and growing. A day with no uncomfortable feelings is a day I’m probably stagnating.
Feeling the fear and doing it anyway — sending the pitch, starting the piece, naming the ambition — isn’t comfortable, but it is exciting and full of creative momentum. This momentum allows me to rely more and more on myself for confidence and good feelings, rather than relying on others. Which brings us to…
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about growing your own kale and making jackets out of roadkill pelts here. This is an emotional toolkit, remember? You can go learn those things somewhere else.
Emotional self-sufficiency doesn’t mean having no friends. It means being enough unto yourself. It means liking praise, but not needing it. Disliking criticism, but sifting through it objectively for gems without your world crumbling.
It means finding your worth and wonder in yourself and your own writing first and foremost, before you find it in the opinions and reactions of others, no matter how useful these might be.
The near-global western culture does tend to teach us to seek our worth outside of ourselves, whether it be through possessions, a hot partner, money, acclaim, awards… or perhaps through sounding intelligent, travelling to exciting places, or even just plain old making people laugh.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like and enjoy all of those things. But we’re in big trouble as writers when we rely on external markers for our own feelings of worth.
Writing while needing approval and success from others can dilute our writing, causing us to mince words and water down our clarity.
Think about how hard it can be to talk to someone who you really want to like you. In the same way, it’s wonderful if your readers like you, but if that’s your prime goal, it’s going to tongue-tie your pen.
Luckily, relying on ourselves doesn’t have to mean a world of no connections. The beauty of us all being human is that when we lean back and relax in the inherent interest and worth of our unique voice, we all draw from the same well.
Learning to access and rely on that wellspring of creativity and worth within ourselves is the most rewarding of undertakings, one that paradoxically makes connection possible.
Writing that speaks from this place is more likely to be assured, confident, inspiring, and humorous, with nothing to prove. No matter what genre we’re writing in, those are very attractive qualities.
We’re a privileged bunch, us writers. We happen to love a craft that doesn’t just need skills in metaphor and storytelling, and the ability to make up cool new words (yes, you are allowed to do that; Shakespeare did!). Great research helps, but it’s not enough. An enormous vocabulary might help, but it’s not enough (read Hemingway to see what can be done with very ordinary words in short simple sentences).
Our toolkit is sadly lacking when it only holds technical tricks, because our craft just happens to need our humanity. It’s through deploying our courage and our curiosity, our vulnerability, and our resilience that we are able to craft powerful writing that has the power to stir the reader’s blood.
We need this toolkit in order to create writing that moves people and that gives words that magical power to connect two human bodies: the writer and the reader. Across time, across space, and across cultures.
We need it whether we’re writing an 800-page novel or an inspiring blog post, whether we’re communicating our own creative vision or helping someone else get theirs across, and whether we’re a professional writer or a devoted diarist.
Without them, we’re nothing. We’re computers. We may as well be writing furniture assembly instructions (not to hate on those good folks who earn some dollars doing this crucial task, but I’m talking about a different category of writing here).
Our emotional toolkit isn’t something that has to be created out of thin air. It’s there already, perhaps in quiet daily use, perhaps obstructed by some socialized ideas of lack or caution, ideas which need committed unlearning.
In the search to become better writers, we can uncover an emotional toolkit that not only feeds our writing but also enriches our lives and the lives of those around us in general.
Photo credit: danilkorolev
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.