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  • Writer's pictureBarbra A. Rodriguez

Distancing to Mine Emotions as a Writer

As a child, you were likely told to be wary of strangers or of getting close to unknown pets. For your own safety, adults said, it’s best to keep some distance between you and those who could cause harm. Martial arts such as Aikido use a concept related to this that is called mai-ai (proper distancing). In its simplest form, a practitioner will seek to maintain the optimal physical distance from someone approaching them — far enough away to not get hit easily, but close enough to allow for engagement should a conversation happen instead — or a scuffle ensue where the practitioner needs to take control of the situation.

Mai-ai has an emotional aspect too, which you can tap into while journaling, developing feature stories, a memoir, or other content that incorporates personal narrative. The goal is to maintain a healthy distance between you and the emotions of interacting with story sources or your own content.

Here are key times when proper distancing can help you be a better storyteller while tapping into the emotional aspect of stories, which is what ultimately keeps readers engaged.

When Working with Others’ Memories

If you’ve ever seen a reporter cover a complex event, chances are they may have seemed a bit emotionally distanced. Traditional journalists should (IMO) have a higher calling to stay focused on the larger truth of events; as a result, they often keep their mai-ai distance outside the friendship zone as part of not becoming attached to one person’s summary of what happened.

That approach of staying objective as much as possible comes in handy when asking for other people’s versions of personal stories involving difficult events. You could just skip this step because it’s tough. But “no pain, no gain” really applies here: the payoff can be offering readers a more nuanced version of events such as a key moment in your or another's career or childhood that makes the effort well worth it. Life is messy, and readers expect writers to show a reality that doesn’t make everything seem cut and dry. As @BethKephart, the author of the great guide on memoir, Handling the Truth, puts it, “If all your memoir does is deliver story— no sediments, no tidewater, no ambiguity — readers have no reason to return.”

Man with brown skin and tattoed hand and forearm grasps forearm of tan-skinned woman as she does the same forearm hold (credit, Tim Samuel)
Permitting others the space to share their perspective helps expand your own

This approach requires putting aside (momentarily at least) what you’ve heard happened, or your own experience of an event to fully hear what others who were there heard, saw, and felt. It’s about setting aside any defensive “but what abouts” in favor of creating, for the interviewee, a safe space where you are still emotionally present, but where they can say what they really think without being shut down.

If you step into an interview to confirm your beliefs instead, or with any signs of skepticism, it’ll simply be harder for the person to share unvarnished truths. Never mind that you might notice something that doesn’t add up in what they say; by stepping in nonjudgmentally, other nuggets of truth may present themselves that make up for any difference in interpretation. And you can likely go back later and revisit a niggling point with someone when you’ve had time to process things fully, if need be. The overarching goal, like a gonzo journalist’s, is to keep your eyes on the prize of the bigger picture perspective.

When Considering Intimacy with Tense, Other Grammatical Choices

A writer can choose to tell a story in the past tense, which permits going into a reflective mode of sharing insights gained about those events. The same explanatory benefit comes from having a narrator in your work, with their placement in time more often occurring at the end of events in something like a novel, for instance, to make the most of these capabilities (while also potentially creating distance and less intimacy from the events discussed).

I used “potentially” above because using approaches such as third-person narration or past tense doesn’t always reduce the intimacy of a story (see this great post on why). Traditionally, past tense is considered more distancing because it is said to take away from the immediacy that a reader feels (as in this traditional take by a novelist who tries out past and present tense on the same text). The key, though, is to know as a writer what effect you want to create on the spectrum of intimacy and distancing, and to use the most effective tense and other elements of grammar for conveying that, influenced by how people handle language in real life.

As an example of the complexity of this, writers may use more impersonal-seeming choices to convey something that is actually felt deeply. If you think about it, we often emotionally distance ourselves when something touches a nerve. Say, a child is describing a fight between his parents that involved a knife. The numbed child might say, “He picked up the knife” instead of “My dad picked up the knife” as part of not being able to fully process their parent’s behavior.

In Beth Kephart’s chapter on tense, she includes an excerpt from Mark Richard’s memoir, House of Prayer No. 2, in which he effectively uses the past tense this way, while alluding to the trauma of being wheeled through a medical ward as a child where he underwent harrowing surgeries. And there’s the late bell hooks in Bone Black, who distances her adult self from her childhood self at times by using “she,” “they,” or “we” instead of “I.” The key — whether using disengaged language to allude to deep emotions, or expressing feelings head on — is to think through the reader impact of these choices.

When Delving into Your Emotions

... and you want to tell all:

Just as it can be useful to emotionally distance yourself from an interviewee’s take on events, finding a proper distance, time-wise, applies to mining hefty emotional nuggets in your life. Virginia Woolf understood this, and stated in her diary that emotions expand after the fact, so that “we don’t have complete emotions about the present.” There’s no set rule on how long it takes to gain a wise perspective on a moment and to more broadly recognize what role we may have played in how things panned out (although @marykarrlit, who’s covered plenty of her own trauma, suggests seven or eight years in The Art of Memoir).

One way to test this out is to ask yourself, Am I wanting to tell this story to be seen as being in the right, or to understand myself and human nature better? As Mary Karr suggests, lawyers are for seeking revenge, and those who know their view is right “don’t have the fluid nature to twig to the deep river of truth.”

Strong ocean waves hitting nearby water (credit Ray Bilcliff)
Diving into your own emotions is scary, yet often rewarding, work

... or you're leery of drowning:

While some writers struggle with accepting the fluidity of past truths, others struggle with simply going there: with taking a step into the emotional currents of experiences. Some may avoid delving into what they feel about certain topics due to concerns about how people in general, or a specific group, will react to their view of events or of touchy topics.

Stories, by nature, are tidy simplifications of life, and other writers seek to avoid the emotional side of reality through an overemphasis on this simplification process. That can be at play, for instance, when someone plots out the entire structure of a novel or other work without ever touching on the whys of what happened. But this approach is called “plotting” instead of “storytelling” for a reason. Most writers need to mine personal experiences and those of others to build in an emotional arc to a story from the start, not just work out the flow of events in detail. Otherwise, your step forward, in terms of action scenes, can require several longer steps backward to add in the states of mind that that hold a work together.

After all, readers often turn to books to try on other lives in a safe way, particularly on the feelings front. So some emotional weight, in the form of highs and lows, must be present throughout your writings in order to fully engage readers with what you want to share. And pursuing those gems helps you fully engage in life.

That is, just as a martial artist who's faced with an attacker needs to stay connected to them to ultimately gain greater control over the situation (if a fight has to happen), staying with writing about high-emotion events can be a healthy way to take the edge off the related emotions' ongoing impact. How, then, do you tackle any tendencies to not want to dig deep?

Many writers of works involving personal narrative avoid putting any structural restrictions on a first draft as a helpful tool to bring out the emotions. From that draft, a rough outline can then be developed from scratch that has emotions built in. Brief writing exercises can also be used to flesh out a particular scene, a character, or a subject matter in a way that lets more than surface impressions come out. That is, do your best in these exercises to ignore internal and external critics, and to write freely about the topic at hand for a certain amount of time. This allows you to forget the odd feat you are asking of your writerly self when you intend to publish later: to be fully vulnerable on the page, when you’d normally consider that an improperly close relationship to people you don’t know.

In addition, you can mitigate the uncomfortable open-endedness of writing by giving yourself a specific reader as a target, by writing to an imagined reader after researching who that would be. And, if your writing could cause public outcry, running your work by a sensitivity reader could help alleviate some concerns, as well as prepping yourself for any potential fallout.

To reduce such fallout from friends or family, Karr and others will often run direct mentions by them in advance (as described in a previous post about writing about others). Keeping a bigger picture perspective, Kephart notes, includes considering whether the story you plan to publish “is yours to tell and not a violation of trust.” That is, there is a privilege and a responsibility that comes with sharing parts of another person’s life. For one thing, Kephart adds, you freeze that person in time with what you write (though they may have since developed healthier approaches to dealing with life’s challenges).

Bear in mind that you can always shelve certain stories after the fact. Getting the toughest emotional scenes down, regardless of whether you ever share the content, can bring its own rewards. By sticking with these moments and seeking greater meaning out of the chaos of life, you ultimately gain better mai-ai with yourself. For dancing between the embarrassment and acceptance that comes with reviewing moments showing your humanity is a giant step toward connecting better with the world in general.

By Barbra A. Rodriguez

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