Thursday, 15 November 2007

Racers on the Couch

Good morning, afternoon or evening depending on when or where you are!

Well here it is. My turn to host the coffee morning, so do take a seat, make yourself comfortable, have a comforting latte or a stimulating espresso. Personally I am having a fragrant camomile tea as I am actually posting this at seven pm on Thursday evening because unlike some of you fast living, dangerous to know types who post near midnight or early in the morning I will be fast asleep by ten pm tonight and racing around in the morning trying to get small children who like to do things very, very, VERY slowly ready for school.

Recently I read an excellent article in The Author (the quarterly magazine of The Society of Authors, which if you UK racers haven't already joined you should, you don't have to be published and either way the society provides a mine of useful and fascinating information for its members.)

The article was about depression and creativity and the high instances of that condition in writers, amongst other creative arts. It made me think about myself both as a writer and as a person and my own gambit of emotional highs and lows that I experience both in my working and daily life.

In truth I think I am something of an emotional tourist, a frequent flier to the peaks of joy and exhilaration and a regular visitor with sadness and melancholy. But crucially I don't linger long in either destination. When I'm happy my feet are always on the ground and when I'm down I always see light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that things will improve and perhaps most importantly I feel that it is within my power to make that improvement happen.

Throughout my life I've seen serious depression close at hand, witnessed its sucking all encompassing vacuum swallow up people I love dearly, stripping them of everything that makes them themselves so that hope, a silver lining or any promise of optimism seems impossible. If depression comes hand in hand with genius then I think I'm really rather glad not to be one.

However I think to be a writer you need emotional empathy and intelligence. You need to be able to know exactly how your characters are feeling, even if at that precise moment you do not feel the same way and you need to have the ability to communicate a sense of that feeling to your reader. When I think about it, I think that maybe its a little bit like being an actor. Only instead of a stage or a set you have a page to perform on.

What I suppose I am asking you, racers, in a roundabout and probably vague way is how do you feel? Not only how are you feeling right now at this moment, but also how do you feel? How do you write emotion into your work and how do you work when you're emotional?

Now racers I must sign off because I am being asked by a very perplexed child exactly why she cannot wear roller skates to bed. Tricky one that......


Leatherdykeuk said...

Actually, I feel a bit peeved at present. I'm propped up on the sofa with a broken leg, My PC died completely and I hate trying to type on a laptop. I've given up on Nano and Jasfoup's blog has slowed right down too.

Still, it's finite. I'll be back to my 3K per day soon enough.

JJ said...

Hey sorry to hear you're feeling down Leatherdyke. Hope you're feeling better soon.

Thanks Rowan - I'll get a tea. I'd love to read that article about depression and creativity - not a new idea but fascinating all the same. (If anyone's prepared to photocopy it for me and fax it or slip it in to the post, please email me!) I've definitely flirted with depression - never, thankfully, full blown cannot get out of bed depths, but horrible, ongoing and personally debilitating nonetheless.

It's great that you've brought this up because one of the things that stalls me in my novel is dealing with the emotional writing. I am very afraid that I will revisit some of the feelings that I really have had if I try to feel it again for writing.

As a result, I've no useful tips to pass on but wait eagerly to hear how the rest of you do it.


Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Very interesting question, Rowan. I think I write emotion into my work, as you say, by knowing how my characters are feeling at any given moment, and empathising with them. Sometimes that's hard - I don't always want to feel like a grieving person, or an angry one, or a horny one come to that (writing sex scenes can be VERY distracting!) - but it seems to me that it's part of the job. I think it was Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones who said that as a writer, you have to be willing to go to the places that scare you (I'm paraphrasing, not quoting). And she wasn't talking about everyone having to write horror stories. Being better at dialogue than description, the emotion arises there first and most easily (which doesn't always mean it's easy), then I have to work hard to reflect the prevailing emotion of a scene or passage in any descriptive sentences.

As for how I work when I'm emotional - I don't think I'm ever NOT emotional, by which I don't mean that I'm a hysterical squawking maniac (well only some of the time) but that my emotions are an integral part of me, I can no more switch them off than I can dam my bloodstream. But I have found that the process of writing fiction can override my real-life emotions to some extent, some of the time. Only while I'm doing it, though.

Helen Shearer said...

Hello all! This is definitely a topic that I can relate to. I'm not sure if I have ever been clinically depressed. I've certainly never been treated for it, and I am generally a happy person, but there have been times that I have wondered what the point was. Usually, once I start to feel better, I can pinpoint what triggered it. I think that as writers we just feel things a little more deeply than others. We pick up on subtleties and nuances that others might miss.
I am not a diligent journal writer but when I get into minor funks, I tend to write it all down and somehow that helps. Then later on I read what I've written and often find ideas that are positive, even funny, when my head is clear. My mother once told me that there's feeling blue and there's genuine depression. If a massive infusion of cash would fix it, it's just the blues. If all the money in the world wouldn't make a difference, you might be truly depressed. Luckily, I have had two minor bouts with the latter. It's very comforting that many of us have these ups and downs.

Jen said...

So are we emotionally-charged because we're writers and need to experience those extremes of feeling - or are we drawn to writing because of our already-existing depressive tendencies?

As writers, I guess we have to explore all sorts of feelings. I remember an author talking on the radio about writing a character who was a racist and generally horrible and how uncomfortable it made her feel, dredging up that way of feeling.

Personally? I fall into pits of despair and have no idea how I drag myself out again - and, while feeling so debilitated by hopelessness isn't any fun, I sort of relish it, cocoon myself or 'wallow' as my mother used to accuse me. Experiencing such lows is yuck but the incredible highs and general mania kind of make up for it?

Flowerpot said...

I've been treated for depression several times though thankfully not too recently. But I'm just coming out of a really bad week, not helped by very bad back pain for the last 3 weeks so I've been very low mentally and physically. then I got bad news and couldnt deal with it. Thankfully I'm crawling out of that black place which made the days all run together in a grey pit and where I dreaded getting up in the morning. As for my characters, I try to get inside them and know them really well before I start writing. But when I'm really down I can;t write.
Nothing works.

Fiona said...

I can understand how you can write when you are feeling sad, broken hearted, lonely but with real depression - the type you may end up hospitalised with. No. With that you are just an organic thing, existing - just- in world that spins around you. It's not good. I've been there once and please God, never again.

Working out how my characters will feel and react to things takes a leap of imagination and research if I'm not to base them all on me - like Mr Brown (?) from The Matrix.

A very thought provoking and interesting question.

Lazy Perfectionista said...

Hello there fellow racers, I've been off the radar for a little while (NaNo-ing hard but still a bit behind!) but am back now and glad to be catching up with you all in the coffee break.

I do find that when I'm writing an emotional scene, and frankly, aren't they all, I tend to become infused with that emotion no matter what is going on around me and how inappropriate it is. This can be particularly tricky as I do a lot of my writing on the train during my commute... I also have an annoying tendency to find typos HILARIOUS, so I'm often the freaky weirdo laughing out loud to herself at the end of the carriage, which can be a little embarrassing.

In general though, I'm a fairly glass half full kind of girl (though I'm generally open to a top-up, especially if the glass contains a gin and tonic), but I've always had quite strong mood swings. These are often a bit hormonal, but sometimes they just happen for no apparent reason. I think feeling depth of emotion, good, bad and everything in between, is important to a writer, otherwise the characters we create will be 2D and dull. That said, I'm sure working while suffering from depression is nigh on impossible, but I'm lucky enough not to have been in that position.

liz fenwick said...

Great topic Rowan. I have suffered in the past quite badly from depression but now its is not a big problem......maybe because other people's lives depend on mine???

In writing I think I am willing to tap into this a bit but not too much. However I think as writiers you have to listen and importantly hear others - their pain and happiness which I think makes us more emotional than most of the general population.

On a strange note, I am writing this sitting in Starbucks on Oxford Street and it feels a bit weird :-)

ChrisH said...

The black dog has been an unwelcome visitor in the past but now we tick along side by side each aware of the other and, so long as I'm writing, we don't bother each other. As for putting emotion into writing; I think the old maxim ' no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader' sums it up.

Lane said...

Gosh - a very thought provoking question. Thanks Rowan.
Writers, artists and all creative people are like sponges, sucking up every emotion they come across and dripping it out again onto the page (canvas etc). All writers have heightened sensibilities This sort of character surely means a pre-disposition to high highs and low lows.

For me down days (I won't call it depression) are purely cyclical. Those days are devoid of colour and writing it down privately helps. Episodes of deep blues have been minimal thankfully and linked to events. I've lived in fear of inheriting depression and of course only time will tell.

How do you write emotion into your work? - I think it's a case of dredging up compatible feelings to those of your character. The analogy of the actor from Rowan is spot on.

Have a good weekend chaps:-)


Hmm certainly have seen depression and its dastidly deeds first hand and close up but find I cannot indulge the whims of the black beast as I now have flotilla of people who are relying on me to keep the boat steady so tend to throw the brute a large stick and hope he swims off after it in the opposite direciton. Sometimes I find my writing influences my emotions and visa versa. It is a bit of a chicken and egg situaoitn I think. My main character is rather self centred and selfish although she is totally unaware that she is. I hope this isnt a reflection of my own character!

Caroline said...

I have waves, but I identify with them and know where to fold. I suffered with postnatal depression and have drawn on that in both of my novels.

Kate.Kingsley said...

“When I'm happy my feet are always on the ground and when I'm down I always see light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that things will improve and perhaps most importantly I feel that it is within my power to make that improvement happen.”

This pretty much sums me up too, Rowan, and I totally agree with the acting analogy ~ in fact sometimes I use a “hot-seat” acting exercise to flesh out characters.

Right now, I am feeling reflective ~ the novel I’m working on is about looking back to childhood and wondering “what if?....) And by sheer coincidence I have just started reading Kate Harrison’s “Brown Owl’s guide to Life”, which has a “looking back” quality too. And to cap it all I got a message via facebook today from one of my best friends from junior school! (especially odd, given that I was just thinking about her the other day.)

How do I “feel” when I’m writing? I often get over-emotional, and I KNOW this affects my writing ~ I need to cultivate that splinter of ice in the heart, because emotional cowardice sometimes stops me from writing completely honestly. I need to get a bit more emotionally “naked”, I think.

Cathy said...

I'm just coming out the other side of two very difficult years. I have been suffering depression, though it is of the reactional rather than 'black dog' type.

Interestingly, during this time I have started to take my writing much more seriously, yet at the same time it has been inhibited by my mood. When taking my OU course last year I was frequently told that there wasn't enough emotion in my writing. I know that was right because I was holding back, writing tightly controlled, lightweight stuff rather than risk being indulgently over-emotional. It is only recently that I have really felt well enough to write what I really want to. Now it is actually therapeutic for me.

KayJay said...

All very interesting.

As someone with an acting background who still works in the theatre world, I have often witnessed those creative souls who wear their emotions like a badge! I think there's some truth in the 'tortured artist' idea, but being tortured does not an artist make.

I think writers have a greater degree of distance from a character than an actor does, and in the most part this is essential. We need to see the big picture. Any writing that becomes too much of a personal therapy exercise runs the risk of being too self-absorbed to make good reading. That's not to say it can't be cathartic - and we do need to have huge dollops of empathy for our characters in order to make them real.

Right now I feel like I'm in a holding pattern. Life is about to change radically for me, fingers crossed, and consequently I feel like I'm keeping everything in check at the moment. Actually, this is a perfect time to write as I can vicariously let off steam through my characters!

Er, what was I saying about the dangers of writing for therapy...?

A. Writer said...

I used personal experiences to write my novels so I put my own personal emotions into my writing. It's not easy sometimes as I feel I'm too attached but in other ways it helps me get into the minds of the characters and helps me deal with emotions that I may have difficult with in my own head.

Helen said...

I don't believe it. Just having a quick read through and I thought 'where's my comment? - the one I made on Friday about my writing affecting my feelings and also affecting me when I don't write.' It isn't there. I must have made a boo boo and not clicked on publish. Oh well. You get the gist though hopefully...

hesitant scribe said...

I'm either very late, or really early for next week!

How do I feel? Probably not a good question to ask at the moment as I still feel gallstoney and therefore most miserable.

Hopefully I will be fixed very soon and bcak to normal!

david mcmahon said...

G'day from Australia,

Roller skates to bed? And you;re saying no to this?!!! Okay, so I'm kidding - but the real answer is: ``Dear child of mine, you can wear 'em if you want to, but when you get up at 4am to go to the toilet, you'll fall flat on your face.

As one novelist to another - be strong, be brave, be creative!!