Emotions and Joy: 6 Writing Tips and a Writing Prompt

by Matilda Butler on October 16, 2013

catnav-alchemy-activePost #78 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Emotions in WritingI want to thank Kris, a dear friend, for a lovely party that she held this weekend. Each year she plans, prepares, and hosts a gathering on her longhorns ranch — a gathering that brings something new and beautiful into all the lives of the women who attend. Before going, I was reflecting on this year’s theme–Women and Joy– and my thoughts took me in a little different direction than I had anticipated. I’d like to share them with you as I think they are relevant to writers.


Joy, of course, is an emotion. At the most basic level, we know that emotions:

  • Are the expression of our internal feelings;
  • Affect our social interactions;
  • Manifest themselves in our external behaviors;
  • Change our internal body states such as blood pressure.

  • History of Emotions
    Let me back up a bit. What do we really know about emotions? Aristotle was one of the earliest philosophers to describe emotions. In 350 BCE, he published Rhetoric, Book 2 and described seven pairs of emotions such as Love/Hatred and Confidence/Fear. Then fast forward to 1872 when Charles Darwin, published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin focused on eight emotions that he said were tied to facial expressions — expressions that use the same facial muscles in both people and animals and seem to be important enough that they are tied to our survival. His list was: Anger, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, Disgust, Contempt, Happiness/Joy, and Caring.

    Even more recently, we have the research of Paul Ekman, a researcher at University of California, who studied emotions and nonverbal communication from 1963 through 2003. If you ever watched the television program “Lie to Me” on Fox, then you saw stories based on his research. He even served as a consultant to the program and wrote a blog after each episode that explained which parts were based on science and which ones were there just for the story element. Specifically he found, as have others, that emotions are revealed in our body postures and expressions.

    When a person is joyful, what happens to the face? To the body? To behaviors? Think about how you feel and behave when you experience joy. Consider how close friends or family express joy and other emotions. Knowing their behaviors may help keep you tuned into their emotional states.

    It turns out that by accessing our emotions we have better access to our memories. How do we know that? Dr. Candace Pert was the chief of brain biochemistry at the National Institutes of Health for 13 years. Her research, which was the foundation for the discovery of endorphins, focused on mapping biochemicals that are the correlates of emotion. She published her findings in a fascinating book, Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel. Let me highlight three items that we know from her:

  • Strong emotions are the key variable that make us bother to remember things.
  • Emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just the brain.
  • Emotional memories are our among our earliest memories.

  • writing about emotions

    Tip #1 for Writers

    Pert’s research provides a bonus tip for us. She found that when a person is in a positive mood — she is more likely to recall positive emotional experiences. And similarly, when a person is in a negative mood, she will recall negative emotional experiences. As a writer, this means that your mood when you are working will affect the types of experiences you remember. You can find a way to make that work for you.

    More Tips About Emotions for Writers
    Studying emotions provides a path to self-knowledge and self-knowledge is one valuable aspect of memoir. The following tips will help you use emotions more effectively in your writing:

    Tip #2. Internal (physiological) feelings. Emotions make our heart beat faster, our hands sweat, our knees collapse, our stomach act as home to butterflies. As a writer, you can do more than say “She was happy.” to convey emotional states.

    Tip #3. Intensity and duration. Emotions vary in both intensity and duration. Appreciate and accept emotional states. They vary over time and sometimes last only for a short period of time. Show the nuances of emotion when you write. Don’t make a person angry for a long period. Emotions vary.

    Tip #4. Transparency (opaque to clear). Consider how transparent you are with your emotions. Do you share your sadness or fear as easily as you share your joy and happiness? What about the people in your memoir? Some people hid their emotions while others are transparent. Evaluate and try to better understand the people you are writing about.

    Tip #5. Expressed behaviors. Not all emotions create physiological (or internal) changes. We can AND DO share our emotions in our behaviors.

    Tip #6. Rationalized assessment. We may be mad/sad/angry/frightened, but we’re justified by the circumstances. When we explain a situation to a friend, a situation fraught with emotion, we almost always justify what we felt and what we did because of those feelings. The thinking brain verbalizes what the emotional brain made us feel and caused us to do. This part of the process can also be a time to reflect and learn, if we want to improve our emotional intelligence. Consider how you might use this information in your writing.

    All Joy All the Time?

    When I started this article, I said that thinking about joy took me in an unexpected different direction. What was that direction? I began thinking about joy and imagined a perfect life in which every experience would be filled with joy. We’d all be happy all the time.

    That’s when I realized that there is a reason that emotions are often described in pairs — emotional pairs such as happy/sad, love/hate, anger/fear, surprise/anticipation. The reason is that we know or understand one emotional state not only on its own but also in contrast to the other end of the continuum. If every moment were filled with joy, we wouldn’t really appreciate those moments because we wouldn’t know the opposite state.

    So should we look for sadness in order to understand joy? No, of course, not. But this insight into emotions helped me see the importance of appreciating the moments of joy and acknowledging during times of sadness that its opposite–times of joy–will return.

    Writing Prompt

    1. Think of a recent time when you were happy–when you felt joyful. Take yourself back to that time and place. Write about how you expressed joy — perhaps in facial expression, in social interaction, in feelings deep inside you.

    If you are writing a scene when one person (perhaps you, perhaps someone else) is joyful, use details from the lists above to show the happiness. Don’t just say, “She was happy.” Details will help take you and your reader into a better understanding of the person’s emotions.

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