Tears in the writer
Let's get emotional.
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On Sunday, I started crying while I was writing. I don’t mean because I was writing in my journal about how under-appreciated I am, or having a stress meltdown trying to finish a feature. I mean, I was writing a fictional scene about something sad, and I found my eyes filling with tears. And then I noticed, and the whole scene was so silly that it made me laugh. Has this ever happened to you?
I told a French friend about it, and he replied, ‘Tu n’as jamais été diagnostiquée “hyper sensible”?’ Have you ever been diagnosed as hypersensitive? This made me laugh even more, because unfortunately it’s not the first time I’ve been asked. I do absorb a lot of emotion, to the point where if I’m watching a TV show about someone who’s having a row with their mother, I can find myself being off with my own mother, before I remember that she hasn’t done anything. It’s not pathological though, or at least I don’t think it is.
It feels extra self-indulgent, however, to cry over a character who you invented yourself, who’s going through a painful event that you also invented yourself. It’s the literary equivalent of being moved to tears while picturing your own untimely death and how devastated your loved ones will be. No wonder writers and actors both have a reputation for being hard to live with: we spend so much time rolling around in our feelings.
Even as I was weeping, I was remembering the Sentimental in the City podcast, on which Dolly Alderton and Caroline O’Donoghue discussed the show And Just Like That. They laughed hysterically describing an interview they’d heard with the show’s creator and chief writer, Michael Patrick King, whose voice had apparently broken with emotion as he discussed his favourite scenes. I thought that was hilarious at the time, but now here I was brushing away tears for my own imaginary friend.
Mhairi McFarlane writes romantic comedies that are often very moving as well as funny – her ninth novel Between Us is set to be published in the spring. I asked her if she’d ever cried while writing and she replied without hesitation: ‘Oh my god, yes. I cried on every pass through the last page of Mad About You. Shamefully I sometimes laugh at jokes when reading them back too. It’s a sign you’re doing it right, I think – you’re your own first audience.’
I can see that: if you want readers to get involved, you need to go first. It reminds me of a realisation I had while I was working with a particularly scary editor, which was that I needed to stop pitching her feature ideas in such an apologetic, ‘I’m probably wrong about this’ tone. If I couldn’t pitch a story convincingly to her, why should she expect me to be able to convince our readers that it was worth their time? And similarly, if I don’t particularly care what happens to my characters, why should anyone else?
Toby Litt, a very good Substacker and also one of the creative writing teachers at Birkbeck University of London, where I’ve been doing my MA, wrote about this in a piece titled 9 Things Not To Do In NaNoWriMo. He said:
Don’t Write Emotionally Neutral
I’m returning you to the first piece of advice here: Don’t Bore Yourself.
The longer I go on teaching, the more I value writing that gets through to me – because it clearly means something to the writer. This is a long way above or below literary theory.
I don’t mean that you need to be weeping at your laptop (sometimes it doesn’t hurt), but you need to construct scene after scene, section after section so that they mean something, emotionally.
Really good writers seem to do this without effort. But it’s something they’ve learned.
I stumbled over this article just this morning, and it made me think, Actually, maybe I need to aim to weep at my laptop more often.
The American poet Robert Frost said something similar: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’ I haven’t managed to track down the context in which he said this, because it’s now been reduced to an inspirational quote all over the internet. Nevertheless, it’s a good reminder. It would be hard for me to stop finding it funny when my own writing makes me cry – but I hope to keep crying, all the same.
A big thank you to those who came to the In Writing Creative Hour on Sunday, which was wonderful and started off a very productive few days for me. The next one will be on Sunday 13 November at 5pm GMT (I don’t plan to cry, but you never know).
If you’re new to In Writing, do come over here and say hello – I’d love to hear more about you. Good luck with your writing this week!