Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Dealing with Emotions when Writing

Writing. It can bring stuff UP, can't it?

Emotional stuff. Itchy-scratchy stuff. Twitchy stuff.

It's bound to happen when we're giving form to stories that have formed parts of who we are. Writing from real life (memoir, essays, blog posts,  autobiographical poetry -- even fiction based on real events) can be messy business. So what do we do with all of those intense emotions?

This question comes up a lot with my coaching clients and students. In fact, someone asked it during my workshop in Portland two weekends ago. I offered a few options, but I suspected they weren't really hitting the mark for this person. Then another participant offered a suggestion, and it was spot-on.

Different things work for different people at different times. It's good to have options. Here's a short list of ways to handle your emotions when writing.

  1. Give yourself distance. Giving yourself time and space from an event before you write about it can be a very good thing. If writing about something overwhelms you, consider putting it aside until you're ready to come back to it. That might be hours, days, months, or years later. Writing can be healing, of course, but if it's causing you serious pain or trauma, there's no need to push on indefinitely.
  2. Get support. If you're ready to write a hard story from your life but feel a bit shaky, find some support. Talk to your therapist or a trusted person who can support you. Sometimes we just need to remember that we're not alone.
  3. Write in short bursts. No one says you have to write the whole thing through front to back in one sitting, one week, or one month. Maybe you can only handle writing an emotional story in little bits and pieces. That's perfectly fine. Write what you can handle, and then take a breather. Try doing something soothing or fun in-between bursts.
  4. Remember that you're safe. If you're writing a story that involves pain or trauma from your past, remind yourself that you, the writer in this moment, are safe. (I'm assuming that you are indeed in a safe space and time in your life. If not, please find support and safety first.) You might want to repeat "I am safe" as a sort of mantra, or post a comforting phrase or image near your writing space to remind you that you are in the safe present, not the dangerous past.
  5. Create a physical container to hold emotion. This is the suggestion that one of my students made a few weeks ago. She said that she learned it in Christina Baldwin's book Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story. (I haven't read this book yet, but I always hear good things about it, so it's on my list.) The idea, as my student explained it, is to get a physical container with a lid, perhaps a box or jar, that you open when you write and close when you're done. The hard emotions "live" in the container, which you can close up and put away when you're done writing, so you don't carry that intense energy with you into the rest of your day. After doing this several times, you begin to train your nervous system to let go of the stress and emotions when you're done writing.
  6. Focus on creating art. This is probably my favorite tip for managing my own emotions when writing. Writing for your own healing or enjoyment is different from crafting a piece of writing into something beautiful or profound. Both are good, and I do both. When I'm writing in my journal, I'm often processing raw emotions, and that can be intense for me. But when I'm focused on writing an essay and imbuing it with meaning that will connect with other readers, I'm no longer in that raw place. Instead, I'm operating as an artist. Here's an excerpt from an interview with author Heather Sellers on the website "Creative Writing Now" that helps to explain what I mean:

Q: What kind of emotional distance from the subject matter do you think is necessary for effective memoir writing? Could you offer some advice for beginning memoirists on how to obtain the right kind of distance in their memoir writing?

A: It's a weird thing. You have to be completely in it and completely out of it, both at once. You can't dump all this unprocessed scary stuff on the reader. Art-making -- literature -- is the process of making a beautiful container to hold what can't be contained. You take the raw emotions, and the darker they are, the more beautiful the container must be. I'm not sure if it's a question of distance versus closeness -- because you need both, a kind of double-vision, so you can be who you were then on the page, but held and guided by who you are now. It's absolutely a question of insight. Do you have insights -- hard won, valuable, useful insights that other people might find applicable in their own lives? I think if you work on the insight piece, the close-far thing takes care of itself.

What helps you deal with the emotions that come up when you write? Please share in the comments.

Join me for Write into the Heart of Your Story, November 10-24. Writing the stories of your life is about more than recording a series of events, but how do you write beyond what happened and into the heart of a story? Learn more.

Reader Comments (3)

Right now I am using writing to work through some things that I have allowed to fester inside. When I am working and writing through the really rough stuff I scribble it all out in a cheap spiral notebook. When I am finished, or at a stopping point, I tear the pages out and burn them. Burning them is a way for me to release the anguish and to destroy the power the experience has held over me. Telling our stories is important, especially the gritty, ugly, pain-filled stories.
November 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRachel
Rachel: Burning your pages is definitely a powerful act of release. I've used that particular method on old letters from an unhealthy relationship, and it was freeing!
November 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterJenna McGuiggan
My coping mechanisms vary and can include anything from sitting quietly with a cup of tea and a purring cat on my lap, to soaking in a bubble bath, napping, or crying the ugly cry. It feels akin to a grieving process for me, in many ways, and I often feel wrung out after I've written something especially difficult. I think the key is to just let the emotion flow through you in whatever way it wants to show up and treat it gently and respectfully.

November 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarolynn Anctil

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