Writing Alchemy Prompts: Get Your Reader in Touch with Your Emotions

by Kendra Bonnett on May 8, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #46 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

It’s 3:30 in the afternoon…the gray, drizzly afternoon of a day that started early with bright sunshine flooding the floor of my bedroom. I’ve finished my blog for She Writes, “Reach Out And Touch a Reader: Using Emotions in Your Writing,” and while I should feel as light as a hiker who has just dropped her 50-pound backpack on the ground, I don’t. I have another blog–this blog–to write.

I’m panicked. But rather than scream or cower with fear. I’ve decided to examine my panic and dissect it for you.

My emotion is not the panic of a near accident. I know what that feels like. Once when driving home to Connecticut from Washington, D.C., I drove through a large puddle on the highway. I was going too fast, and my car started to plane on the water’s surface. Suddenly I lost all control and the car turned a complete 360 degrees in the middle of I-95.

The whole experience lasted less than 10 seconds. Yet, in my helpless state, all I could do was sit and watch. The car seemed to slide and turn in slow motion. I saw the car approach the left-hand guard rail. I tightened my body and prepared for the crash. Then slowly the car moved away from the railing and back out into the center lane where I came to a stop, pointing in the same direction as the traffic flow.

Because it was 5 AM and few cars were on the road, my highway pirouette ended safely. Adrenaline pumped through my body, giving me the clear thinking and control to drive my car off onto the shoulder of the road. When I had stopped, I looked at my hands. They were icy blue and cold, seemingly drained of blood. At the same, time they were wet with sweat. My knees shook so hard I couldn’t rely on them enough to even get out of the car and stand up. All I could do was sit quietly and wait for my body to return to normal. I sat on the shoulder, watched the rain, took deep breaths and waited for about 20 minutes to recover.

roller coasterNo, writing panic is more like sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster. As the coaster engages with the cable, you lurch forward and start climbing the steep hill of wood and steel. Click, click, click. The old coaster climbs. Click, click, click. You know what’s coming. Click, click, click. There’s no escape. You can only sit silently, grip the security bar with both hands and anticipate the crest. You know that in another minute the coaster will be flying down the other side.

And when it happens, you feel your stomach physically lift. It’s airborne inside your body cavity. And whether you’re a screamer or not, you yell at the top of your lungs. It’s that moment of terror when you imagine your coaster leaving the track and flying out into space. But then you see the track, and your car’s still attached. You start to enjoy the rush of speed, the pull of gravity as you sweep through the tight hairpin turns. You let go of the safety bar and raise your hands high over your head. You’re filled with the excitement of the moment. And when the ride is over and your coaster comes gracefully to a stop, you’re ready to go again.

Writing is a lot like that. Once we master our fears, punch the panic back and survive the twists and turns, the words that won’t come, the ideas that refuse to form. Once we take control of the narrative, we feel alive. And we’re ready to do it again.

I’ve just about finished another blog post, and already I know I’ll be back to do it again tomorrow.

The Social Science of Emotions

There are many ways to bring emotion into your writing. In our new book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, Matilda and I draw on much of the research from social scientists. In this post, I decided to draw you in by describing a set of universal emotions. You identify with me by drawing on your own emotional experiences.

Another technique we teach uses the Johari Window, a tool developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955. And this one’s a doozy. You get to map out your emotions: What you allow to be Open and known to others. What you know about yourself but keep Hidden from others. What others may know about you, but remains Blind to you. And finally, those emotions that are Unknown to you and others. It’s a very revealing process. In Chapter 4, we have several exercises to get you started.

And just a reminder: There’s still time for you to pre-order a copy of Writing Alchemy and save almost half off the regular price.

Writing Alchemy Prompt

Take a common event that’s filled with emotion. You could describe how you feel on a rainy day. The emotions you experience as your prepare for your first ski run of the day. Or, maybe, the feelings that pass through you when you spot a police cruiser in your rearview mirror. But don’t TELL how you feel. SHOW it by helping a reader to relate to your emotions by drawing on experiences and feelings of her own.

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Sharon Lippincott May 12, 2012 at

Kendra, my stomach is still doing flip-flops from both your examples and it’s time to put dinner on the table. Well done! Love the Johari window concept. I’ve been using it for over 30 years and included it in my book too.

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