As a writer, I am accustomed to stepping out of my own shoes, administering another perspective, letting myself become a character, and feeling their emotions as if they were my own. Through my own fictional characters and the stories and traumas I put them through (man, I sound like a monster, don’t I?), I have experienced stress, grief, agony, guilt, depression, abuse, stress, anger, delirium, joy, and endearment. As writers, we can create a pool of emotions and slip into it with ease, swimming through it with contentment and satisfaction.
But what happens when your own emotions begin to cloud the story? What about when your character becomes way more depressed than you remembered outlining them? Have you ever read through a scene you wrote and wondered how your character seems to be feeling everything in your own subconscious?
This can be a serious problem for writers who are dealing with a lot of their own personal stress. For many writers, their stories serve as an escape, but if they are not careful, the stories can become their own counseling session.
During this pandemic, writing has served as my escape, too, but as many stresses are not simply fixed by writing. These problems linger, and if they affect you more than you care to admit, this may impact your writing.
In the past few months, I have struggled with my own mental health and my worries for the future. I have let my problems become so overwhelming that there are nights I cannot sleep, and there are mornings I do not even feel like crawling out of bed. Instead of turning to my passion as support, I have found myself neglecting it, in fear of hating what I write due to my own strong emotions.
Here, I have outlined some of the steps I have taken to help manage my own emotions to keep them separate from my writing, and others that have actually made my writing more balanced and impactful.
How to Manage Your Strong Emotions
1. Keep a Journal Just for You:
As a writer with words to spare, it may be helpful to write down your emotions in a separate space from all of your creative works. Buy a journal with the atmosphere you want. For some, it may help to purchase one with bright colors and inspiring quotes. For others, this may become a dark space to dump negative emotions, so a plain, black journal may suit you well. (Both are perfectly acceptable, as long as it is healthy for you! Keep in mind that this is a safe space for you, so do not let your brain take over too much of it. This is an empty canvas upon which your heart can release its worries.) This journal should serve as a place to go to when your emotions feel too heavy, or this may be helpful to do in a routine, such as in the morning, just before bed, or even as you sit down to write your own stories. Pick a plan that works best for you.
For me, this is a hard one to do. You would think being a writer would make it easier to journal your own feelings, but for me, it becomes very difficult because I want the writing to be perfect or have more of a story rather than just a bunch of what I call “word vomit”. But be brave, and try this out if you think it will help. (I’m doing it with you!)
2. Address the Issues that Bother You
For some, journaling may be enough, but for others, we need to have a physical being as emotional support. For you, this may be a parent, spouse, friend, or even a pet! Use the human (or animal!!) connection you have on hand. When you are feeling stressed or unmotivated, let yourself lean on your support system for a bit to get your grounding before trying to tackle a creative project. This may also involve going to a counselor. For the last year, I have been seeing a mental health counselor, and it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. My counselor helps me with personal issues and even encourages my creative endeavors and assists me in working out my stress in that space. I know that mental health care can be outrageous and difficult to get to, so if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity, see how they can help with your creative pursuits, as well.
3. Take a Break!
There are so many writing websites that suggest to write every single day, even when you do not feel like it. While I understand this idea, and sometimes do force myself to write when the motivation is not there, sometimes, this can be more damaging.
There’s been times I’ve sat down and forced myself to write when my emotions were sky-high, and I became so frustrated with my work that I had to stop and cry, and I ended up needing an entire week to feel comfortable enough to write again. I wished I would have just given myself space to begin with.
My advice is, if you are having a very stressful day, you are on the brink of tears, but you feel like you should write, allow yourself a day of rest. Replenish your creativity by watching an interesting show or movie, reading a book, cooking dinner, etc. There are multiple ways to heal your creative side while resting up and taking care of your emotions. Your emotions can cloud every part of your day, even your writing.
4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over It!!
I am guilty of this, too, but we can work on it together. When there are stressful times, it is only natural to become flustered and frustrated. Don’t be angry with yourself. Let it sit as long as it needs, then let is pass. Your creativity must be nurtured, but you cannot force it to heal. It requires time and energy to do so. Be patient and kind to yourself.
How to Tap into Your Strong Emotions
“But, Nichelle,” you might be wondering, “How can my strong emotions help out my character’s journey? Didn’t you just say to keep them separate?”
Yes, yes, I did, but like most things in life, it is a balance of both.
1. When You Feel Inspired By Your Own Life, Write It Down!
I don’t know about you, but I always seem to get a lot of my story ideas while I am busy at work or in class, or simply, just away from my computer. So when I come up with the idea, I have realized my favorite ones actually stem from my own frustrations. I love writing short stories that reflect my own stresses, but I spin them in a fictional way to separate them from myself and makes it more interesting for a reader. When these tensions are high, I decide to spin it around to make it about me–but really not! This has been a nice way for me to cope with my own stresses.
2. Sometimes, You Can Let Your Emotions Take the Lead.
When I am very angry or sad about something, I usually sit down to write out a short poem or a snippet of a short story with those frustrations. Once I get the basics of how I am feeling on the page, usually I can add more to it, make it a story, fill in some fictional gaps, and suddenly it has become my passion project. This has been a fun way to increase my writing time while also releasing some tension. I will warn you though, these usually work best for me once those frustrations have had time to heal. I don’t write about them day one. Usually this is day seven.
3. Take The Opportunity to Write When Your Main Character is Stressed, Too.
Since stories depend on conflict, it can be pretty easy to find a chapter in which your MC is stressed. Without letting your problems becomes the characters’, you can use your stress as inspiration, a place to direct the words we cannot quite express. This can be a great way to allow that balance to take place.
What About Creative-Nonfiction?
When emotions are high, writing about yourself should be easy, but sometimes it can become even more difficult.
In the last few weeks, I have started my own memoir on a traumatic subject that affects me more than most people recognize on the surface. The emotions in writing this story have been quite difficult to deal with, and I have found myself struggling to keep writing. In reality, I am still struggling with these emotions, still in the healing process. And really, I am sure the healing process will never truly end.
My advice for anyone taking on a difficult and emotional subject:
1. Let Yourself Go Back to That Place, No Matter How Uncomfortable It May Be.
Most of the time in creative nonfiction, you reflect on the past and write about your history. While some are definitely happy memories, stories thrive off of conflict, so many are more like wounds. You may have come to terms with what has happened, and sometimes, you might not have.
Even if the conflict is deep into the past, it may hurt to bring it up close and examine it. You may find that you are not as “over it” as you thought. Use these emotions to make your writing even more real for you and your readers. Let yourself go back to that space and remember how you truly felt. Your emotions may have changed since then, and you may feel silly looking back on them. Just because you have grown and changed since then does not mean those emotions are no longer valid. They are important, and writing them will be healthy for you. They will even create a more authentic recount of your story.
2. Allow Yourself Time to Process.
You may start to believe it should not affect you so much, especially if your story is deep into the past. Mine is 9.5 years, and I am still not done healing. Be patient and compassionate with yourself. This is your healing process. This project is really for you, so let it be there for you. Believe in yourself, and trust the emotions inside. Don’t second-guess yourself.
My memoir project took such an emotional toll that I had to take a 1.5 week break from it, and it’s a good thing I did. It killed me to do it, but now I realize it was better for my mental health to have time to process.
3. Have a Lighter Project That Can Help Balance Out Your Creative Flow.
What has saved my creative process is working on multiple projects. I usually only work on one at a time, but in these last few weeks, I have found my savior in poems and short stories, as well as allowing myself to plan and reflect on past projects.
If you have another passion project, invest your energy on it, too, and allow the one that speaks most to you to flourish when you need it to. Allow your creativity to guide you.
4. Don’t Rush It.
You may want this project to be over because it hurts too much, but let it come as slowly as it needs to. I have found that my story is a series of puzzle pieces scattered across my mind, and I am picking them up in disarray, trying to organize them. While this may feel like an agonizing process, it will come as steadily or as slowly as it needs to. Trust yourself to lay the pieces as they come.
I hope these tips may help you as you explore your emotional writing! In the comments, let me know if this is something you are struggling with, too.