Today I want to talk a little bit about emotions, or at least capturing our emotions in our writing. That is, after all, our goal, right? To communicate our interior world to another person? It’s certainly my goal, right up there with creating a compelling story – but to me, those are the same thing. A compelling story is infused with the writer’s emotion. It has to be.
I was prompted to visit this topic during a trip to Frederick, Maryland this past weekend. As we cruised the streets trying to find a spot to park and visit their historic downtown, we passed a few empty factories, including the remains of what was once a thriving Coca Cola bottling plant. Mary made a comment about how I’d like to live in a rundown place like that, and I replied that it wasn’t quite that – I would like to visit, but not live there. That sent me down a train of thought that I haven’t visited in some time: my somewhat offbeat emotional life and the things that can trigger it.
Let’s get it out of the way right now: I have some very odd emotional inclinations, and I think my writing reflects that fact. I’m fascinated by urban decay and urban exploration; I find beauty when the natural world pushes through our constructed world; I get an emotional charge when I imagine a certain type of isolation in the dark, hidden places of the world. I tried to explain this once to an ex who preferred to dwell exclusively in the sunshine and couldn’t quite understand my emotional landscape. The best attempt that I could make to capture it (aside from my fiction) was to describe the feeling that you get when you’re lying in bed at 2 AM and can’t sleep. You hear the lonely sound of a train whistle as it passes through and imagine the isolation of the lives that the men on board lead. There’s sadness to the whole thing, yes, but there’s a certain bittersweet beauty to it.
She still couldn’t grasp it, but at least I had finally put words to the emotion.
I suspect this strange landscape is related to being a very isolated, depressed child and teen, but I’m not sure. I romanticized depression for a long, long time, which culminated in some disastrous life choices and the desire to revamp my life. I’m in a much better, happier place now, but so much about repairing your life is about learning to live with your limitations rather than completely changing them (this took me a long time to learn and even longer to accept). That means that my strange emotional landscape will always stick with me and creep up at odd times when I let my guard down.
I tell you all this to describe how I capture that emotion in my writing: I let my guard down and let that desolate landscape live and breathe in my work. I access those emotions by different methods. Someday a certain musical artist works (typically folk or Americana, something like Uncle Tupelo or Nick Drake); sometimes I scan pictures of urban explorations. Whatever works. For you, it might be a certain childhood photo, or photos of a happy couple, love songs, etc. The key is evoking the emotional state that resonates with both you and your work – some days I need to listen to happier music, it’s not all doom and gloom. Like I said, the point is about evoking the correct emotional timbre.
I’d also like to share a sample from WIP Room 3 that captures the strange emotional landscape that I was discussing. This is also the first few paragraphs, so it sets the emotional tone for the entire novel. Here goes:
Here I am alone again, an alien in an empty motel room somewhere in Texas, listening for footsteps outside the door. You might think I was waiting for an eager lover who’d taken a few hours away from his wife, or even my own people, beamed down from the mother-ship. Good guesses both, but you’d be wrong. Instead I’m waiting for death. Or maybe worse than death, I admit my imagination escapes me a little with these things.
I do hear footfalls, though, and every time I hear them, I’m almost positive that the Organization has found me and is ready to take back what they think is rightfully theirs. Hell, some nights I wonder if they’re right. Maybe I should be their property. Maybe I overstepped my limits by escaping them and coming to this weird world that seems so familiar and yet so damned alien at the same time.
I guess the central question of my existence, or hell, anyone’s existence, if they really think about it – if someone creates you, do they own you? Does that mean they can they destroy you, too, kind of like the parent who brings you into this world and can take you out again? It sounds absurd but don’t be so sure about your own answer if you’ve never found out that your entire existence is a lie.
Okay, they didn’t create me. Not really. They only shaped me, and God knows what they’d do if they got their hands on me again. Maybe killing me would be too nice. They have worse things to do to a person. A lot worse; at least, I think so. My experiences haven’t contradicted the idea to this point.
On the other hand, I suppose freedom in itself is a sweet and noble goal, but can you really call holing yourself up in a motel room and jumping at every sound freedom? I don’t know, it doesn’t seem quite like what you expect. Sometimes it seems like I’ve replaced one prison with another, though this prison is a hell of a lot safer and comfier than the one where I had to ingest mass quantities of drugs on a daily basis.
So how about you? What do you do to “get in the groove”? What sort of things get you going? I’m curious to hear and maybe share some ideas. Feel free to comment.