Evading our Emotional Evasions

Fear can stop a person from starting to write, but those already writing aren’t immune to fear either. Read any story by a beginner. You can immediately sense when fear has saturated the entire work.

Lazy and fearful writing is procrastination rearing its head. Page after page passes, but the emotional punch is delayed.

Why does this happen?

Urgency in the story is born when we are acutely tuned into our own emotional reality. David Corbett in his book The Art of Character encourages writers to develop what he calls,

“a deeper and more precise emotional connection to the people inhabiting your memory.”

This emotional connection awakens things the brain remembers but has allowed to sink into the subconscious. Either because the people in our memory aren’t deemed important enough to remember in vivid detail. Or because of this simple reason — we’re frightened of revisiting them.

Here’s the thing: as writers we must choose to revisit many of these memories — not once, but repeatedly.

The good news? Not much is forgotten forever.

The bad news — giving into fear is our default setting.

Biologically speaking, fear’s purpose is to warn the body of harm. Survival depends on running away from the source of fear.

Surviving isn’t thriving. To thrive in a world beyond the neanderthal level, vulnerability must be courted.

Brené Brown, researcher in shame and vulnerability, has written,

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Emotion can only stem from a vulnerable place. A place allowing you to feel in the moment, and also in the remembering.

Socially, being vulnerable is seldom rewarded. We learn from a very early age it isn’t “cool.” In fact, it gives an advantage to people out to hurt us. To be “cool” one must literally be that — cold.

The way information on social media is delivered to us also sabotages vulnerability. Being vulnerable is painful. It takes energy. Our own brain colludes against us. It doesn’t like expending energy unnecessarily. The moment we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, a hundred reasons why we should deny, avoid, and rewrite our pain rises in chorus. Meanwhile there’s always a new notification to be checked. A new issue outside our pain to throw ourselves into. An easy dopamine-high to be gained in a simple mobile game. Our brain ostensibly makes these things more appealing to protect us. This is an untrue protection. A numbed existence, lacking awareness.

Somewhere in that lack of confidence, we try to produce things of value. We don’t have confidence in our own voice, so we recycle. We use props — ranging from swear words to anything only relying on shock value- and substitute that for content. We copy popular plots. Each of these things can help a beginner writer on the way, but only when used in the right place and in the right doses. Never out of fear.

Fear makes us its puppet, even as we try to escape it.

Channeling a unique individual experience yields originality in writing, and enhances the reader’s engagement. The brain of the reader needs to be co-opted into the writer’s craft. When reading a cliched turn of phrase, the brain simply utilises those areas that process language. When exposed to original writing with powerful descriptors, the brain is stimulated in areas beyond those limited to language-processing. The more parts of the reader’s brain are engaged, the more memorable and vivid your writing is. It causes something in the brain akin to synesthesia.

Like all things, this is a balancing act. Stories need both moments of reflection and emotional action. Gravy and the meat. Arranging them in the right proportions is a skill that comes from practice. We cannot refine this skill or practice if we’re too scared to raid the kitchen cupboard for the ingredients.

A good place to start applying this practically is with this writing exercise from Bird by Bird’s Anne Lamott.

“I don’t know where to start,” one [writing student] will wail. 
Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O’ Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is Okay if it is well done. Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just get it down.”

If we want emotion to ignite our plots and characters, this requires we catch ourselves as we evade our own stories of pain. Catching ourselves in the act, forcing ourselves to truly feel, and ultimately evading the evasion.