I’m writing a particularly dramatic book right now with its fair share of tragedy and sadness. The story concerns an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s but then goes deeper than that, into family secrets and how they hurt everyone involved. Although I’m injecting lighter moments into it here and there, there’s no denying it’s a depressing subject. Every time I write a serious passage, I can feel it in my body. I feel heavy, low on energy, pessimistic. I might leave the book to go do some household chore and still feel the looming heaviness of it, as if I’d just heard that someone was dying. I can pinpoint where it’s coming from, of course, but that doesn’t dispel it. Then I have to ask myself: Do I want to dispel it?
Personally I’d be surprised if any writer said they were not emotionally affected by what they write. If that were the case, I’d have to wonder if they were really writing from their core, and if they could communicate strong emotion to the reader if they were not feeling it themselves. But — I don’t know. Maybe I’m off base here. All I know is, I find myself deeply affected by what I write, and I consider that a good thing. After all, I’m tackling tough subjects; writing with a joking attitude or tossing off one-liners would not be appropriate. So feeling this heaviness is doing me a service, keeping me in the proper mood for my writing.
But what about when I’m not writing?
I don’t find it easy to turn the emotions off when I’ve left the book and gone on to do other things. Sometimes it surprises me how much the make-believe world that I’ve created can bleed into my real world. When I’m reading for pleasure, I consider that a huge marker of success when I have trouble dragging myself out of the world on the pages and back into the world around me. That’s when I know that story has reached past my logical brain and has touched me deep down in my gut. That’s when I know the story and the characters have been rendered so realistically that it’s only with difficulty that I can detach from them.
Only problem is, in my current situation, I don’t want the sadness I feel to permeate my household and rub off on my husband. He has no idea what I’ve been writing, what I’ve been dealing with. (He will, later; he’s my primary beta-reader.) He doesn’t know the tragedies I’ve uncovered, the emotional violence and battles I’ve committed to paper. All he knows is that I’m not talking very much and I’m not laughing at his jokes.
Oh, sure, I can explain, and he’ll get it. But it sets up a conundrum for me. How do I find the delicate balance between feeding my creativity the emotion it needs while not imbuing my entire life with the same emotion? And if I pull away from the emotion too much, what will I have to do to get it back once I submerge myself in the book again?
It reminds me of what little I know about method acting. I know some actors really like to get into their parts, staying in character even when they are not in front of the camera. Some, I think, fear they will lose that “spark” if they leave the character on the set. I can totally understand that. It sets up quite a push-pull, wanting to stay in the emotion of the book but still wanting to be open to the rest of the world.
The best solution, I suppose, would be to lock myself in a little monastic cell for the duration of the writing, eating only bread and water, whittling quills into points that scratch liquid ink across rough, homemade paper. No husband, no TV, no computer. No distractions to jar me from my self-imposed gloom.
Yeah, I got a life-sized picture of that.
So what to do? Keep the balance, of course. I may teeter a little bit this way for a while, then lean back the other way for a bit, but it’s all about staying on the tightrope. Walking that thin line between imagination and reality. Keeping one foot in one world, one foot in the other. That’s the only way I know how to write with compelling emotion. And emotion, of course, is what fuels our stories.