April 7, 2021 Carol Brennan King
Creative Writing: Using Music to Mine Your Emotions
Seeing that we have readers willing to experience emotion when they turn the pages of our novels—no, not willing … expecting, hoping, and longing for an emotional experience—we writers need to become masterful wielders of emotion.
We must dig deep to discover exactly what we felt at the time of any given event. This is not an easy thing to do. We have to dig deep to remember and think about how we react, respond, and feel emotionally to events, people, and situations in our past, so we can try to capture those feelings and transfer them onto the page.
That’s the advice Hemingway gave, and it’s the best advice I’ve seen on the emotional craft of fiction: “Find what gave you the emotion, the one that your character must demonstrate or show. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.”
Instead of thinking, “I want my reader to feel sad,” I needed to show how I felt the day I learned another girl thought of my boyfriend as hers. I sat in his car outside my school and told him I would not play second fiddle to anyone, and I cried, in the car, and all the way through the school to the girls’ room on the first floor.
Now you think how much more masterful would it be to dig deep into the many emotional nuances you have experienced when any remotely similar event occurs in your book. Instead of thinking, I want my reader to feel sad, think about how you lived out sad. Then write that into the scene. Do you isolate yourself? Do you cry your pillow wet? Do you play music so loud that you cannot feel emotion or you think it will help you to shut out the pain. Then you have some ideas of what to do for your character.
Do what Hemingway instructed. When you feel something, write down what action took place that made you emote. Then dig into the emotions and learn not just why you feel this way but what exactly you are feeling. What thoughts led you to those feelings? If you can nail the thoughts, which are words, you can put similar thoughts (words) into your narrative and character’s voice.
Don’t Try to Name Emotions
Just step into the experience again and recall how your body responded, how your heart responded, and how you said what you said: loudly, softly, with a lot of wind, or looking at the floor?
What If You’re Not the Emotional Type?
Let’s face the facts: since readers read to care, to be moved, if you want to write the kind of novel that will move them, you must find those emotions within you.
In class we talked about we have emotional responses to music. Music can cause us to move our body in delight or joy. But it can also signal something bad is happening or happened. Remember that sound track that plays before, during and after nearly every TV show or movie you have ever watched.
That soundtrack is there to signal to you what to feel, what is coming. So, as you write the scene, consider what the soundtrack might sound like, and write your character’s response to that music.
We find it difficult to explain why certain musical scores make some people cry in pain or cry with joy….and anticipation. But we do know it happens. We talked in class about how certain instruments, like a cello or a violin might move us a certain way. Similarly, a staccato beat on a drum moves us in a different way. You can use particular letters to dddrumbeat in the same way.
We talked about the universal response to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” That song was so powerful that people all over the world got hooked on it.
Music is powerful. Music and dancing are universal. Joy is something everyone wants to feel. Emotion is powerful, infectious. Pharrell’s music and lyrics, along with showing people dancing and moving to his song, gets people in touch with that place inside that feels joy in life. And that’s magical.
Music sparks memory. It can take your body back to the time you were 15. Think a moment about that time, when you were fifteen and what you felt when a particular pop song came on the radio or your “record player.” Memories spark emotion which lead to emotions which lead to more thoughts and memories. Mine them for your memoirs, but also for your fiction. Write your experiences into your characters.
You might choose a particular piece of music to listen to when you are writing or plotting a scene in which you need to feel something specific. You may not be able to name the emotions, but you do know what feeling you are searching for.
Music can free you up, bypass your resistance or writer’s block. If you need to write an exciting high-action scene and you put on music that is exciting and stimulating, it can get your creative juices flowing and drown out your inner editor.
Emotional mastery is one of the hardest skills for a fiction writer. While there are many techniques to help you get there, music is one tool that will help you mine your emotions.
Assignment: Track your emotions for a couple of days noting what made you feel something particular and what precipitated it.
Was it a book or story you read? Write it down and what it was in the book.
Was it something on TV, the news or a show? What happened that moved you?
Was it a particular piece of music? What emotion or feeling, if you will, did it evoke?
Was it a memory? What provoked the memory and what did you feel?
Was it something you saw or overheard that you were not looking for? How did it make you feel?
Now write a scene incorporating something that you just learned.
- We must narrow the focus of our work instead of trying to include all of the stories that come to our mind. I have called a memoir a slice of our life, a narrow focus that unwraps a particular moment in life or lesson. It is not easy to know what that focus is up front. Many times it is only after we have invested significant time writing chapters, perhaps, before we actually recognize where it is that we are going on want to focus.
We have to recognize that everything does not go in this first memoir, but don’t throw it away. Tuck it away because you may well use it in another work.
Understand that the narrower the focus, the time period, the journey, the relationship, the more room you have to get close and personal, to really think out loud on the page what you did and what happened to you and what you thought about it, how it changed you.
- Remember the memoir is not actually about you. What we really want to do is see it as a portal to or an example of a universal story. Consider Cheryl Stayed’s memoir about her long hike across the Pacific Trail. It serves as the container for the larger story, in Stayed’s case of surviving a great personal loss and moving through grief, loneliness and loss.
The memoir is not a travelogue alone. There are all of those experiences along the way and how they affected and changed you…in ways with which your reader may identify.
- Memoir becomes truly meaningful when we write it through ourselves, using our experience as one road map.
- Then, it is helpful to have a co-traveler as you write, someone who can help you maintain a healthy perspective. Think of a coach or mentor or guide who can help you think through what you are saying or want to say.
- Finally, honor the truth, yourself and others. Tell the truth. Your truth. What you believed to be true which motivated then, your actions and responses. You may find out later what you believed was not the truth, and you should clarify that, but make sure the reader knows you acted on what was truth to you at the moment.
Assignment: Consider what the truth is that inhabits your story, the big idea every thing else serves? Then write a memory that serves that story but that is not overt about it. And if you are not at a place to know what your bigger story is, don’t worry about it. Check the notes for the other class and write a piece that happened and fill it with emotion.