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Writing Quote: Neurosis & Emotion

July 11, 2010

Touching on the theme of fellow blogger/writer-in-training T.S. Bazelli’s writing prompt for last week, I’ve been thinking on the importance of emotion in what we write.  Perhaps that’s why this quote jumped out at me.

The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

~William Styron

Neurosis, itself, is a bit of a loaded term, implying mental disorder, irrational behavior, and bizarre phobias.  But I think there’s something to be learned from the deeper implications of Styron’s quote, here.  And that’s that a simple, happy, unchallenged life provides little by way of grist for the writer’s mill.

The raw materials of the writer’s craft are, first, words, and second, emotions.  Emotions are the stuff of human beings, and insofar as a writer can capture emotions with words, then a writer has the ability to create characters that are compelling and engaging.  And that’s not a feat easily done.

The point suggested here is simple: it’s easier to write about emotions when you’ve felt emotions.  And a good story – a story with compelling characters and a compelling plot – is a story in which the characters are not always happy.  Characters in such a state of that by implication have no challenge, no urgent need, no impetus with which to drive the story.  The fuel of the story is the character’s dissatisfaction, regret, pain, confusion, uncertainty, fear, love, obsession, passion, hunger.  Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.  Need is the mother of plot – a character has to have an unmet need, and a character with an unmet need is a character with a complex emotional response.

So chew on that for a while, as you contemplate the midbook lull… what need leaves your character unfulfilled?  How does she or he feel about that?

Happy writing.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2010 4:04 pm

    When you look back through history at all the great writers and artists and musicians…really at any great person…you will usually find that they faced great challenges anre neurosis in their lives. Virginia Woolf, for example, had a mental disorder which led to her committing suicide. But, her writing is incredible and has lasted through time.

    Everything we experience in life can contribute greatly to our writing.

    Great post!

    • July 11, 2010 5:12 pm

      It’s true that a great many writers, artists, musicians and so on have suffered severe mental challenges – though I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that it is necessary to flirt with suicide in order to create great works of art… But the point is well demonstrated that you have to be willing to tap your strongest emotions and capture it in your work if you’re going to produce great art.

  2. July 11, 2010 4:55 pm

    Emotion is delicious, I must admit.

    And added, it makes a very tasty plot.

    And you’re dead on. Nobody wants to read about John Doe Rockefeller who never had anything go wrong. If you want that, go read a picture book. Or a wall. Or maybe go stare at a flower.

    • July 11, 2010 5:01 pm

      Even a flower can tell a story that’s fraught with emotion: of the struggle to rise from the dirt of the earth to create something beautiful, or of the sadness for the temporal and transient nature of beauty, the sure knowledge that what flowers today will tomorrow shed its petals and die.

  3. Jenne' permalink
    July 11, 2010 6:50 pm

    Wow, Steve, what a great idea. I can’t say that I’ve really thought about my characters and what they may need other than the “Crystal of Gandor” or the “Spear of Destiny.” I know that emotion drives any plot, but to base their emotion on something they may need. Nice. A few years ago, my father said to me(half jokingly I think) Jenne’ I hope you never become a great writer. I was looking at him like ‘what the hell?’ Then he clarified. He said, you want to be like(famous writer who I will refuse to name for fear of embarrassing myself) and(another famous writer who I will refuse to name yada, yada, yada) but their lives were nightmares before they became famous. They say, it’s the really miserable ones who become great writers.

    • July 12, 2010 9:00 am

      That’s like the old “Chinese Curse”: “May you live in interesting times.”

      But yeah, the hardships that many famous writers and artists seem to go through before they achieve that fame does seem to be a bridge too far, for most of us. And there’s the classic trope of “suffering for one’s art”. But if you can find the power to tap the emotional experiences you do have, and amplify them in print, I think you can avoid the worst of the real-life crises and still have plenty of grist for your mill.

      It’s funny, though, because as I recall, your characters are pretty emotional-creatures- even when they’re struggling to keep those emotions under control.

  4. Lua permalink
    July 12, 2010 2:18 am

    I know Woolf thinks one needs a ‘room of one’s own’ to be a writer but I think one needs a healthy dose of frustration to be a good writer. We need the emotions, the trigger and then we can go on and create events, people and worlds out of words to express those emotions.
    Great quote Stephen!

    • July 12, 2010 9:07 am

      Heh! But not too much frustration! I don’t wish that on anyone (no matter how much I may feel frustrated at times, myself). But I do think we need to be cognizant and aware of the emotions and feelings we are having, if we’re going to harness them for purposes of writing realistic characters.

      Which, of course, is one of the halmarks of your own work, I think.

  5. July 13, 2010 11:54 am

    I think you need to have lived life before being able to write about it. I think this is why my earlier attempts at writing a novel fell flat. I hadn’t experienced enough. What did I know about life? love? heartbreak? Back when I was 19, I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

    This reminds me to be tougher on my characters. They need to feel more, be more afraid, find more passion among other things.

    • July 13, 2010 12:36 pm

      Likewise. Where I am today is a far cry from where I was at 19… and I think I’m a deeper thinker and feeler for what I’ve been through. Even if what I’ve been through has not been truly momentous or monumental or historic, it’s given me opportunities to experience a lot of emotions.

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