Sunday, February 10, 2013

More on Head, Heart, Gut

I know many experts tell writers to write from their deepest places, to be "authentic,"to be "real." They tell us we can't find our voice unless we have the courage to explore our innermost selves and expose our vulnerabilities on the page.

I don't believe that's true. I believe where we write from depends on our intention, our purpose, what we want to convey to the reader.

Last week, I talked about the fact that fiction can be written from the head, heart, or gut.

If our intention is to stimulate our readers to analyze, solve a puzzle, or see the characters as unsympathetic, we write from our rational mind so as to engage the reader's mind. If we want the reader to feel inspired, compassionate, elated or filled with joy, sorrow or pain, we write from our heart to appeal to the reader's sense of shared humanity. If our intention is to create a visceral experience that is as physical as it is emotional, we write from our gut to engage the reader's most primitive instincts.

Let's look at some examples of how this works.

  Here are three different treatments of the same situation.
  • "I saw Emily the other day. She looked a little pale, but not really all that different from her normal self, though I guess you could say she seemed distracted. We had lunch at that little place downtown she always liked. She didn't want to talk about Henry--even though I brought up their breakup a couple of times. She kept changing the subject. Wanted to talk about her work, the kids, the vacation she was planning this summer. I tried to tell her it would do her good to talk about Henry, but she wouldn't go there. Oh well, what can you do? Of course she and I were never that close. I can't imagine what happened. It was an accident, wasn't it? Must have been. How is Henry taking it, anyway?"
  • Emily walked to the train station more depressed than ever. She'd been wrong to come into town today. She wasn't ready to face people. And meeting Karen for lunch had been a terrible mistake. The woman had spent the whole time pumping her for information about her divorce. Talking about it would have been like ripping a bandage off a fresh wound. And even though she changed the subject every time Karen brought it up, she'd had to swallow tears more than once. Would she ever get over Henry? Would she ever forget his touch, the look in his eyes, his voice when he spoke love to her? The tears came, blinding her. She would never get over this. Never. What sense did life make any more? How could she get through another day? She just wanted to stop feeling, just wanted to go numb. But this pain wouldn't leave her alone for even a minute.
  • She stands on the platform, knees weak, heart pounding. The food from lunch rises into her throat, and she swallows it. She looks down to see her hands shaking as they hold onto her packages. She is mildly surprised at how her body is afraid even though she isn't. The animal in her is not ready yet. Maybe it's not supposed to be. Maybe the instinct for survival is more powerful even than despair. She glances at the huge wall clock across the platform. Two more minutes. Only the briefest time left before she'll be at peace. God damn it, why is she so terrified, then? Why can't these last few moments be a prelude to peace? Why can't she already feel the tranquillity of death? If the damn train isn't here momentarily, she'll lose her nerve for sure. A roar fills the station, fills her head. Steam spews out from the long-awaited and now fast-approaching train. Thank God, thank God! Emily steps to the edge of the platform. She only needs to take one more step into empty space and it will be over. Her heart is bursting as she steps into the void in front of the locomotive. And then there is nothing.
In the first example, we are detached from Emily. We see her through the eyes of an acquaintance who is only interested in the potential for gossip that Emily's situation represents. We don't like Karen, the acquaintance who is speaking, and we may feel a little sorry that Emily had to endure lunch with her, but we don't feel any sense of personal loss at Emily's death. Instead, we are curious to know what happened and why.

In the second example, we feel Emily's sorrow over the loss of her marriage. We are privy to her thoughts and feelings. We feel what she feels-- resentment at Karen's insensitivity and a desire for  Emily to feel better. Emily's plight arouses our compassion.

In the third example, we are standing on the platform with Emily as she waits to throw herself in front of a train. The scene is immediate and is narrated in the present tense. Emily's terror is palpable. Our own heart may begin to pound in sympathy. As the train approaches, our fear may grow with hers. We want Emily to listen to her instincts and step back, out of harm's way. When she doesn't, we are horrified. A deep silence seems to follow her death. We have been to the brink with her.

So which of the three examples above is written from the author's "authentic self?" Does that question even make any sense?

I don't think it does.


  1. thats very interesting dear.You bring such vivid information to the reader.

  2. Good one and a nice follow up to your last post. I think writers who try to be authentic are just trying too hard.