Raise your hand if you’ve been in therapy. Thank you, everyone. Put your hands down now.
Like many of you, I am no stranger to psychotherapy and owe my life to some amazing therapists. However, their insistence on talking about emotions makes me crazy. I am much more the cerebral type and would prefer to talk about ideas or words or stories. Perhaps that’s partly because when I fall into a depression, it’s impossible for me to isolate one feeling from another. They all jumble together until they are an impenetrable mass of darkness. So if I am asked, how do you feel? I can’t answer. And that is frustrating.
But I have a superpower I can draw on at any moment: I can write (and so can you, of course!)
Alan Bennett, the great writer of emotions well hidden, wrote a series of monologues called Talking Heads. In Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, the character, Miss Fozzard, talks at one point about how her life has come to a standstill and she has had to put her dreams and possibilities on hold (although not her kinky visits to a chiropodist) because her brother Bernard has had a stroke and needs her to care for him. Bernard has lost his ability to communicate, he has trouble finding his words. “Skirt round the word,” she begs him. She explains the doctor had said Bernard should “describe what he means and skirt a path round it.”
That’s how I feel about emotions and stories. They are in there. They are tapping us on the shoulder begging to come out. But they play tag with us, making us look for them, forcing us to open a door to an empty room then walk down the hall and try a different door. If we keep looking, eventually we will connect, and the story will begin to speak to us.
In a Story Mode webshop, we mention the word emotions within the first 10 minutes and then repeat it until it’s really drilled into your head that we just can’t live in a world devoid of emotion. At work, at home, doesn’t matter. If you want to have a conversation with someone, unless it’s just about “turn right at the second stoplight,” then emotion plays a role.
For writers, emotions are electrifying, maddening, buzz-killing, lingering, portending, scary, and ultimately, unknowable. They are blockades and breakthroughs in equal measure.
EMOTIONS. EMOTIONS. EMOTIONS. MARCIA. MARCIA. MARCIA.
I love to write when I’m angry. It feels like I’m yelling only no one has to hear it. When I’m working on a project and am mad about something (usually something that was said and doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things but it was said just at the moment when I wanted to be mad about something) I’ll start writing on a legal pad. Legal pads feel official so when you write on one it gives the words more authority. So I write on legal pads how awful this project is and the stupidity of having to do it this way and why can’t I do it the way I want to do it.
You know what happens next, don’t you? I keep writing and the message itself begins to appear. Not the assignment handed over during the meeting, but the real message, the emotion and reason and urgency that was lurking underneath those original words.
How does this happen? Emotions get piled up like cars on a freeway. The ones in front are blocking traffic and limiting the flow. Push those cars out of the way, and the back-up eases.
This is how emotions work. The rough ones, the ones not getting enough attention, the angry ones, the no-one-listens-to-me-anyway ones…these are blocking your flow. Push those out of the way and the emotions of your better angels will come through. And if you do this on a legal pad, then all emotions are created equal and all appear to have the same validity so that you can sort through them to find what fits.
After all, emotions, like us, just want to be heard.
STOP START MAKING SENSE
If you’ve been reading our Story Mode blog posts you’ll know that Beth likes to focus on helpful, concrete actions you can take to be more creative or change an annoying habit. Me? I wander around with my head in a book trying to make connections, looking to stories to explain the weird shit happening around us.
I tell people that I love my job because stories are the one thing in this world that always make sense to me, that always matter. They can intertwine truth with art. Stories can’t exist without emotions—those unknowable things that rarely make sense to me. But combine them with story, and suddenly a path opens up and I can begin to find my way.
My last post, On Giving Up, ends by talking about emotions and their intense drive to fight their way onto the page.
No matter how I try to attack the subject, my metaphors are all the same: emotion is fuel, it is blood, it is necessary.
REQUIRING HEAD AND HEART
Emotion is the blood that runs through the veins of art. Any art. Painting, writing, architecture, cooking, industrial design. Perhaps it’s the emotion of wanting to best a challenging idea. More often, I think the emotions that drive us to create are willing to show themselves only when they are good and ready. The rest of the time they churn energy. They send vague images and ideas to the brain. They make you stare off into space. They make you feel exhilarated, then sometimes hopeless, or sometimes invincible.
Like a teacher’s favorite student, we each harbor an emotion that we like to call upon as necessary when we need to “get in the right mood” to create.
Poetry is one of those art forms that uses both intellectual thought and flat-out emotion.
The Romantics were brilliant at this, using their obsession with “melancholia” to write stunning and affecting language. Poets like John Keats often used melancholia (what we would call depression these days) as their subject. Read these achingly beautiful lines from Keats’s Ode on Melancholy:
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Their take, in the early 19th century, was one of almost giving in to the feelings, letting the sadness encircle them and this somehow sets them free to create. Or rather, it powers them to create.
My dog is lying next to me as I write this post. In fact, she just slammed her paw into my iPad screen because I stopped petting her for a moment. She’s not shy about asking for what she wants. Food, treats, walks, attention. They are all equal and equally important in her eyes. Dogs don’t quantify or order their emotions. They just show you what they are feeling when they are feeling it, and in return, they often get what they want.
Adult humans don’t really do that. We are taught to maintain control of our emotions, especially at work. Does that mean that we won’t get what we want if we don’t throw a tantrum?
Emotions are not something to be hidden and then let loose in private. (Okay, sometimes that’s true.) For artists and writers and business communicators, emotion is to be welcomed into the process, not to be tamed, but to be communicated through images and words, ideas and characters.
If we don’t admit they are there, then like the freeway, emotions will pile up, blocking us from moving forward.
FINDING THE EXIT RAMP
I find it interesting that as the writer, I am powering my way through the piece using my thoughts and feelings. But as a reader, I want to set aside my own emotions for the moment and get lost in the world of someone else’s. I am willing to work a little to understand this new world and when I am finished reading, I will consider your ideas against my own.
We need to use emotion to power our art and communication. We need to ask our readers to work with us, to set aside their own feelings long enough to entertain our ideas. And then the real work begins. That’s when writers and audiences meet in the middle to hash out some new understanding of the subject at hand. That is the conversation of art.
And conversation is the starting point of progress.
I have no exercises for you to try, except for this: instead of giving up and walking away, try talking “round the word,” skirt the edges of what you are trying to say, keep your fingers moving, and let loose your emotions long enough for the freeway to clear.