“To be able to reproduce a feeling so that others could recognize it, and perhaps understand it for the first time, one had to have some idea of what it felt like in reality. To show that one knew meant revealing what one had felt. Revealing oneself too nakedly did not come easily to a private man, and if one did not reveal oneself, one never became a great actor.”*
Dick Francis wrote those words about the art of acting. I think he knew of what he spoke; I think he spoke from personal experience as a writer. Think of the writers you admire, of the great writers whose work you have read. If they grabbed your soul…how did they do it? Did London hold back when he wrote The Call of the Wild? Was it comfortable for Emily Bronte to write of the darkness within Heathcliffe? Did Dumas check his experience at the door when he wrote of Edmond Dantès’ quest for vengeance? Probably not.
That doesn’t mean they experienced every minute detail they wrote about. It simply means they experienced enough to pass on the realistic, gut-wrenching flavor to the rest of us. It means they were willing to expose themselves enough to let us see that reality. To whatever degree their work was inspired by their own feelings, something of those writers is in those characters. That’s what makes them larger-than-life; that’s what makes them great.
Let’s try an example closer to home.
I have a history of depression. (How’s that for laying it on the table?) It’s a “mild” form of the disease, so I’m not nor have I ever been suicidal, but I have been in some very dark places. It was that emotion, that experience that I poured into my very first short story, Grace. I also consider Grace my best story to date. It won first place in a MOTA contest and received honorable mention from Writers’ Journal; it was published both times. When someone asked me how I could portray my character’s suicidal depression so well, I was nonplussed. It was simple. I could show it because I knew it.
Not that I consider myself a London, Bronte or Dumas. I’m not even a Francis. The principle, though, is the same. That piece of work shone brightly because I knew the darkness about which I wrote…and I was willing to show it.
It’s not comfortable to bare your soul to the public. You leave yourself open to criticism, rejection, anger and psychoanalysis. If you want to take your creative writing to a higher place, though, that’s what you have to do. I’ve used examples in fiction, but it’s true for almost any writing form…fiction, poetry, essay or feature writing. If it’s something other than the bare bones, if it’s a piece that allows personality or opinion to reveal itself, then you’re taking a risk. And it’s in taking the truly great risks that you experience the truly great rewards.
*Smokescreen; Dick Francis. Simon & Schuster, New York; 1978. Page 82.