A few months ago, a LegendFire member going by the screen name Scintilla asked an intriguing question. Is creative writing truly self-expression? She posed three particular questions to the forum:

What role, then, should personal emotions have in fiction and poetry? Does your writing have a self-expression component, and how has your life affected what you write? How can a writer make use of personal emotions while still writing well?

My initial responses to her questions were…

  1. A foundational role. They’re the foundation.
  2. Of course it does. It can’t not be self-expression. Oh, and this 4-year-old blog post is still relevant.

When I say “art can’t not be self-expression”, I’m stating it as a rational observation. Looking inward, I’m sure you’ll find that your experiences and emotions are the soil and atmosphere that nurture the internal forest that is your imagination. (If the forest metaphor is tripping you up, I suggest reading this blog post for a fuller explanation.) And your imagination is where all of your writing comes from. Another LegendFire member, Raveneye, put it this way:

Since all of our writings come from us, I think every story/poem starts with a feeling or idea that speaks strong feeling.

It’s not the expression of feelings that creates bad writing. It’s trying to do so consciously when they’re fresh and vivid that, in Scintilla’s words, leads to “kind of trash” work.

A third LegendFire member, Alatariel, identified one of the keys in this equation – distance.

So even though, I think all art is an emotional outlet, I think the best work comes with distance.

Raveneye provided an excellent example of how distance works in practice.

AFTER I had gone through a spiritual/faith crisis, I wrote about a character dealing with a faith crisis – SO THAT I was viewing the experience from a wiser distance and remembering the feelings in a moment of tranquility. I did not write about it while I was going through it. How can clarity come out in the storytelling if the author is still muddled inside the crisis? (This is writing what you know. Not writing what you’re going through.)

I have quibbles with that phrase – “write what you know” – and how it’s often used. It’s only a matter of time before I write a blog post on it. But in this context, I agree with Raveneye.

Something I admire about Scintilla’s initial post is how she, intentionally or not, answered many of her own questions.

We write them primarily to produce solid pieces of art, which might express emotions along the way and derive inspiration and power from emotions, but that’s secondary.

Raveneye made a vivid distinction between poems where emotions are primary and secondary:

When I think about the poets I turn to, they generally don’t say “I feel sad and nobody understands me.” […] Instead, they describe the moment that made them feel this way, so that we as readers can feel those same emotions rise in us – for ourselves. That’s when we say “Yes! I’ve been there! This poet just said what I couldn’t say myself.”

I’d say the same about fiction too. Writers shouldn’t worry about how the story is impacting the reader of what message it’s conveying while producing that first draft. Save that for the editing phase. When you’re drafting, the primary things you should worry about is weaving an interesting plot, maintaining your story’s internal logic, and keeping your characters on a constant psychological and emotional through-line. Alatariel explained the importance of the latter:

…I allow my characters to be themselves without my direct influence. There have been times where I write something my character does or says then stepped back and realized that would NOT be their response but mine. I have the ability to see that because I’m not writing from an emotional place.

When you hear established writers say “creative writing isn’t self-expression”, the best of them aren’t being condescending contrarians. All they’re cautioning you on is trying to produce something so close to a real, raw nerve right now. If you need to get something off your chest and onto paper, do so, whether that’s a journal entry or a “kind of trash” poem or story. But then don’t share it widely (at least not immediately). Leave it alone to compost for weeks or months. You may find elements of it unconsciously popping up in your other work, or the plot may reincarnate with new characters and setting.

So to conclude by answering Scintilla’s third question: make use to your emotions by letting them appear unbidden and in unplanned ways.

What do you think? How would you answer Scintilla’s questions? Please share down in the comments, and stay tuned for a follow-up post in June.