Dani Shapiro
July 10, 2013

On Writing and the Emotional Life

What do we do when we sit down at our desks and we’re angry?  Or sad?  Or full of longing?  Where do those feelings and sensations go when we approach the page?  Can we feel and write at the same time?

One of my favorite quotes about this comes from Edward Albee.  I have carried it with me, tucked into my old-fashioned Filofax, for the past twenty years:  “For the anger and rage to work aesthetically, the writer’s got to distance himself from it and write in what Frank O’Hara referred to in one of his poems as ‘the memory of my feelings.’  Rage is incoherent. Observed range can be coherent.”

Substitute any feeling for rage.  Grief.  Joy.  Panic.  Fear.  All of these, when observed, can become coherent.  None of these –– in the throes of being felt –– can make their way to the page in anything other than what Lorrie Moore once referred to as “narrative slop.”  We don’t want narrative slop.  We writers wish to rise above our own small circumstances, our own petty concerns, our woes, the anxiety that keeps  our hearts thumping in the middle of the night, and craft something beautiful and useful and true about what it is to be human.

So can we do this while we’re in the middle of a meltdown?

No, we can’t.  But I believe we can develop practices that allow us to go where we need to, inside of ourselves, in order to do the work.  We begin by understanding what we’re doing when we sit down to write.  Are we just spewing?  Letting it all hang out?  Hoping for catharsis?  God, I hope not.  We are reaching for something.  For a way to illuminate some of the smallest and biggest, most subtle and most operatic aspects of the inner life.  We seek to entertain, to expand, to explore, to understand.

When  I’m feeling particularly riled up about something (can you tell that today is one of those days?) I know that I need to breathe through it.  I must find a way to make it very small during the hours I’m writing.  Sure it will inform the very sentences I craft.  How can it not?  We’re not robots, after all.  But I don’t have to –– in fact, I musn’t –– write from it.  It doesn’t have to take me over.

The page is our savior.

The page expects nothing from us.

Look at me, the page tells us.  I’m blank.