I feel your pain: writing and the nature of experience

One of the things I loved about being a journalist was the excuse it gave me to dive deeply into subjects and lives I would never encounter otherwise.

In the name of “getting the story” I did such things as going on patrol with the coast guard (albeit in a relatively tame New England town), signing up with a dating service (long before online dating), and donning an early virtual reality head set (which is, in some ways, like getting inside someone else’s head).

As a writer of fiction, I long ago abandoned the simplistic notion of writing what I know. If authors took that literally, we would never have fantasy, sci-fi, or historical novels. Instead, I interpreted that advice, often given to beginning writers, to mean write what you understand emotionally.

Even that interpretation, however, raises questions. Every experience evokes an emotional response. How similar must two experiences be to evoke an identical response? Is grieving the loss of a dear friend the emotional equivalent of grieving the loss of a spouse? Is red-hot rage that results in screaming into a pillow equivalent to rage that leads to picking up a gun and killing someone?

My characters have committed arson and cheated on their spouses (actions, I hasten to say, I have never taken). But until recently, I felt I could write about those things because I believed I could understand my characters’ emotional response based on my own response to similar, though not identical, situations.

But can I?

The fallacy of emotional equivalency

Then, last year, my up-close-and-personal encounter with anxiety (which I wrote about here, though somewhat obliquely) made me begin to wonder: Can I do justice to an emotional state I have not directly experienced?

If you had asked me a few years ago whether I could write convincingly about a character suffering from anxiety, I would have said yes. I’m human; I know what it is to be anxious. I thought I had been anxious. Now I know two things:

  1. I did not really understand the feeling of clinical anxiety until I went through it. My imagination of the sensation was only the palest imitation of the sensation itself.
  2. Even knowing the feeling, I am at a loss to know whether any words I write about it could accurately convey it, either to those who have also experienced it or—and perhaps especially—those who never have.

In the same way, I recognized before I had kids that there is a fundamental difference between the emotional experiences of people who have had children and those who haven’t. Once I had children, I understood the spasms of doubt, the moral conundrums, and the completely illogical joys that parenthood brings in a way I never had before. And I began to doubt whether I could have done justice to writing about being a parent had I not been one myself.

Reading as escapism, but not the kind you thought

Where does that leave the writer? Must childless writers abandon family as a subject? Must well-adjusted writers forego the topic of depression? Must I give up writing about arsonists and philanders?

Shirtless man
Source: gstockstudio via 123rf

Even given the challenges of really understanding another person’s emotions, I say no. I must—out of professional necessity as much as anything—believe in my powers of empathy and my writing abilities to overcome this challenge.

All of us are alone inside our skins and our brains. The only way to defeat this isolation is to try, however poorly we might do it or how miserably we might fail, to get inside the skins of other members of the human race.

It’s the only way out of the prison of our own brains. It’s why I write, and, I imagine, why many people read.

What about you?

More on connection from Aeon Magazine

16 thoughts on “I feel your pain: writing and the nature of experience

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  1. Two things come to mind. The first is that sometimes it’s just too painful to write about our own emotional experiences and it feels much safer to write about an emotion that we have not been so invested in. Distance does sometimes make the heart grow fonder.
    Second, I’m thinking of setting. Just because I’ve never lived in Rome does it mean that I can’t set part of my novel there? As writers we have google earth, travel guide books, friends who’ve lived there, tripadvisor. Now if only we can apply all this to emotions.
    A very intelligent, provocative and intelligent post. 🙂


  2. I have those moments where I doubt that I can really bring the emotion or experience to life. I may not have done or felt exactly what my character does or feels, but I can substitute whatever emotions are in my wheelhouse and tell that truth.


  3. Further than that, most of us, thank the stars, carry a safety valve inside us which inhibits emotions before they reach their extreme: for instance, I may, in a moment of intense anger, say I wish to kill somebody, but I could never actually step through the looking glass and do it.

    It is this final difference between the perpetrator and the ‘normal’ man that I find so fascinating, but at the same time so difficult to adequately describe. I could never actually live that side of the experience, nor would I wish to, but the complexity of guilt, panic and remorse – the sheer mess of feelings, need to find a voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank goodness for that safety valve!

      That edge between “normal” and otherwise fascinates me too. You’re right–that “sheer mess of feelings” needs a voice, and those who are in the middle of the feelings are hardly ever to express them. It’s up to us, the artists of one sort or another, to bring them to light.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love reading and writing for that chance to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. But it’s true that we can’t imagine everything – it helps to have those experiences or to research them as much as possible or talk to people who have had those experiences. Our capacity for empathy is pretty amazing though too. It’s hard to believe that male writers can write female characters (and vice versa) when sometimes it seems as if we’ll never fully understand each other. That’s great that you had the chance to go out with the coast guard as a reporter – the closest I ever came to that was interviewing the harbor master – I guess I should have asked him to take me out on his boat! 🙂 I did get to attempt things like glassblowing though so that was fun.


    1. Yeah, sometimes I miss those days when an editor would just say, “Okay, today you’re going to go talk to so-and-so.” Now I have to come up with those ideas on my own. But even as a fiction writer there are plenty of opportunities to get oneself out of the house and into the world!

      And I often write male characters. I see the commonalities of our human experience as much more significant than our gender differences, so that gives me some freedom. Whether or not I get it right… you’ll have to ask my male readers :-).


  5. I think the more ‘seasoned’ a writer is, the more likely they are to have enough understanding of emotions to have a decent crack at getting them right in their characters. The biggest disappointment for me as a reader is to come across ‘phoned-in’ sections of internal characterization in a novel. I can forgive it, if other aspects are stellar, but if not, it’s the ultimate deal-breaker between me and that author.

    Good post, Audrey. I hope the anxiety is seen in a cloud of dust via the rear-view mirror. For myself, and being a writer, I try to look at life’s experiences, good and not-so-good, as gifts. Given the distance of time you’ll find the words to express how that felt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the reminder that life’s experiences are a gift to the writer. That is so true, and so easy to forget in the middle of what feels like unending and pointless pain. And yes, expressing what goes on inside a character is a writing skill like any other, polished over time.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  6. Yeah, I think you have to try to put yourself in the character’s place to the greatest extent that you can. My protagonist is male. I’m not, but I have to assume that since he is human we must have much in common. I have some gay characters. I will never be there but love and physical attraction, I think, must be independent of gender. All I can do is take what I do know and try to imagine the character’s perspective. I have the hardest time writing really bad people. I always have to try to imagine how they could have become bad and in that process they usually become more complex and ultimately less bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “All I can do is take what I do know and try to imagine the character’s perspective.” Yep–that’s exactly it. And I’m with you on the “bad” characters. I always have to know their back story and imagine that somehow I might have turned out the way they did, but for the grace of circumstance.


  7. You’re right, we can’t know what an experience is like without experiencing it, but we do have the capacity to know and feel most of what everyone else goes through. We all have mental and physical apparatus to respond to what comes our way, we all have story-telling neocortexes, we all have programmed lizard brains, guts that shout orders at our heads, etc. I think it’s less important that a fictional description or depiction is 100% accurate, and more important that the story itself touch on something universal. So, burn and cavort away, fictionally speaking.


    1. That is basically where I ended up after mulling it and writing this post. I think this capacity for empathy (or whatever you want to call it) is an important part of what makes us human. Thanks for permission to set fire to things and conduct dalliances!


  8. This is where generalisms might be helpful. For example, if we’ve created a character with anxiety, understanding the clinical features of it (for example, looking it up in the DSM-V) might help mold our character’s actions and reactions. But there will always be exceptions, and you’re right–we can’t really get in the mind of someone else. The best we can hope for is to create a unique enough character whose emotions and responses ring true to him or her, regardless of whether they do to the category at large (like your example of arsonists).


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