Writing Regardless Of Your Emotions

I. How can you sit down to write when you have family troubles galore, or relationship woes, or frustrations on the job? Since writing is generated from the inside of your head, how can you possibly sit down and write when your thoughts feel so tangled?

This is something that beginners struggle with, but most experienced writers don't worry much about. You reach a point where you have a separate place in your head for your writing, and it actually becomes a welcoming place, even a sanctuary of sorts. You don't bring your troubles there because it is such a lovely place, where no one is intruding on what you do or think or who you are. It's like getting out of prison — you don't bring the prison world into the place of freedom; you just enjoy the freedom.

Which means that your work as a beginner includes not just learning technical things like how to create character, but also process-related things, like how you can create that place in your head. Everyone will do this differently, but certain things will make it easier. They include:

1. Remembering that writing is not you, it's just one of the things that you do. You can still cook dinner with difficulties in your life. You can still dress yourself, and care for your friends. This is because you see those activities as something that you know how to do (already have the skills for), and as being somehow different from your troubles. Writing is just one more activity like that. You might feel this is silly, since all the ideas come from you, but really, you're the camera through which reality is filtered, and if you concentrate on the reality you are filtering rather than the filter itself — that is, if you focus on the material at hand rather than your personal concerns, which are a different topic — then you will be more able to write. (If, though, you let your life problems interfere with all daily activities — you can't even brush your teeth — then you have deeper concerns than writing, and you should seek assistance from a counselor or therapist.)

2. As I said, your personal concerns and your material are two different topics. This is true if you're writing about characters who aren't yourself. But what if you're writing about your own life, or about a topic that has some significant overlap with your problems? Then you can still focus on the material, rather than your woes — or you can write about something else. Sometimes just switching point of view can help, though sometimes you might need to work on an entirely different piece.

3. Keep the discipline. If you write for a certain number of hours every day, then it doesn't matter how troubled the rest of your life is; this is just what you do. People who meditate don't wait until the rest of their life is running smoothly to meditate; the meditation goes on regardless, and in fact can help them deal with the bumps in life when they're not in a meditative state. The same is true of athletes, musicians, members of the clergy, teachers, or anyone engaged in a serious practice of some kind. They just go to their place of business (or workout, etc.), and go into the routine. The routine quickly begins to take their mind away from their concerns, and by the end of the routine, perhaps many hours later, they are able to return refreshed to their concerns. But they have to show up and do it. With writing, you don't usually go to an office or punch a clock, but you can still stick to your discipline. Think of newspaper reporters or TV journalists. They have to write when it's time to write, not when their problems have all gone away. Indeed, this principle is true of anyone we consider to be a true professional, from ballet dancers to astronauts. Those who drag their problems into work with them, and who unleash their despair or anger in the workplace, are generally disliked, and, though occasionally successful, tend to burn out more quickly (or perhaps get thrown out!).

If you really want to write, adapt a professional attitude about it: leave your problems at home, and just get in there and do your job.

4. The problem of distracting emotions is actually a symptom which has a different diagnosis depending on how long one has been writing. If you've been writing awhile but are still struggling to acquire your skills with both technique and process, then the diagnosis is likely to concern your unworked-through process. As a result, you'd counter the problem by getting on track with writing in a regular, disciplined way. If, though, you are just beginning to write but keep saying to yourself, I can't sit down to start this until my mother stops nagging me or my brother stops borrowing money he just gambles away, then your diagnosis isn't really about process; it's about whether you truly want to write. People who really want to write don't let outside concerns impede them. This is why, even in the midst of war, some people write. (Think of Anne Frank.) If you want to start writing but can't seem to do so because of all the woes around you, consider the possibility that you don't really want to write.

It's easier to blame your not-writing on the difficulties of life than on the lack of real interest in sitting in a room alone coming up with words.

5. If it's process you need to learn, consider changing something that you're currently doing. Try a new location in which to write, or a new time of day, or a new length of time. Try writing different material. Try switching from the computer to writing by hand (which I often do, and it works wonderfully.) Maybe the story about the has-been politician isn't as captivating as you'd expected it to be when you first thought of it. Then try writing some totally different story. Write a poem instead, or a nonfiction piece.

Alter the variables, so it all seems new to you.

6. Work on setting boundaries. The tendency to let your personal conflicts interfere with your work is in part about letting other people's worries run rampant over your entire interior world. You don't need to be 100% caught up in everything that happens, or even anything that happens (even rejection need not consume you entirely). Set boundaries. Remember that while other people might have their issues, and while those might have some impact on you, they need not rule your every thought and motion. You do not live in a totalitarian country, and you need not act as though you do. This boundary-setting problem can also be addressed through therapy, or one of many books readily available. (My favorite is the practical, popular guide to cognitive therapy, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns. It teaches you how to think through your emotions differently so you don't get overwhelmed by them, which in turn can free you up to do the things that matter, like write.)

II. How can your moods help you in what you write?

After all that, you could be concerned that the goal is not to feel anything at all when you're writing, lest it hinder your ability or inclination to get down to business. This is not true. You can use your emotions to help you in many ways, whether you're in a bad mood or a good one.

The main thing you can do is use your mood — no matter what it is — to motivate you to write all the more.

1. In terms of process, if you're in a bad mood, and you've been disciplined about your work, you'll find, as I said above, that writing provides you with a wonderful escape from your troubles, and hence can help you shake off that mood. This can give you the impetus to write longer and harder. If you're in a good mood, it can make you more favorably disposed toward the world, and hence more optimistic about the good your work can do in the world.

2. In terms of technique, your moods can help you understand your characters better, because you'll have more access to the depths of unhappiness, or the heights of pleasure, and everything in between. This might also help you express things in a way that moves beyond cliché, because, by being so intimate with the feelings, you understand nuance better. Your moods can also help you come up with more interesting plots — again, because you'll be better able to move away from cliché.

However, be careful not to turn your writing into a record of all the disputes you had with an irresponsible lover or a cold-hearted parent, since, unless you have a lot of skill, that can be read, rather transparently, as an attack on someone, which can make the protagonist come off as vindictive, petty, or even dull. There are few better ways to kill a piece than to turn it into a word-by-word account of all the details of a failed relationship of some kind. So use the moods that the experiences trigger to help you understand your other, parallel world, better. But remember that it's a separate world, and that you don't help yourself turn off the pain, or grow as a writer, by indulging in writing a replica of your own real-life story. Even a memoir does not do that; it reworks the story so that it becomes readable, and interesting, and doesn't get bogged down in the minutia that can tie us up when we're actually in the experience.

III. How can you focus on the work and not yourself?

1. Remember also that it is the story that is pre-eminent, not you. You're the vehicle necessary to getting this story down, but you're not the point of the story. This is true even if you're writing about something that happened in your own life, since in that case the "you" is a character of you, not the you who's currently fighting with the bathroom renovation contractor. If you want to write about the current problems, then consider starting a new piece to do so. This could be a creative piece, or it could be a journal entry, but if the latter remember that it will need to be crafted before it will be ready to be seen by readers — they won't find your babble about your conflicts very interesting, and nor, after some time has passed, will you. Also, remember that you'll still need to develop your process enough to keep writing something else, down the road, that is independent of your daily troubles. And you do this, overall, by focusing on the piece itself. Keep in mind that when you read something, you don't think — or care — about the mood the writer was in when she began it, worked on it more, and finished it. You care only about how much it absorbs you and accomplishes its goals.

2. Remember that writing is an exercise in deep concentration. If you're accustomed to giving only glancing attention to all matters in your life, then chances are you haven't developed the capacity for deep concentration that is necessary, and you'll have to work on doing so. Again, this could come from discipline, as well as simply getting used to the level of thought that's involved. It could also come, in part, from additional work, like learning to meditate, reading books on developing concentration, or, if you're really having difficulty, considering that you might have ADD and need some assistance with it. I have found that everyone I know begins writing with one notion of what concentration is, and then, as the years pass, develops an entirely different notion of what it is, and how to get there. But I can promise you that once you get accustomed to being there — in the writer's trance, as I think of it — you'll know how to get to it quickly and easily, no matter where you are, or what you're writing, or who's tormenting you in your life.