Spooling Heart onto the Page

29 March 2019 on Fiction, Storystorm  

Maybe it’s ironic that the absence of a weakness I identify in my personal life is itself a weakness in my stories. What do I mean by that? I’ve long seen my sensitivity—my oversensitivity, some say— as a fundamental vulnerability in my character. It’s not the chink in my armor, but the softness I’ve built armor to protect. However, it’s unusual for me to transfer my own emotional state into the heart of a character. I’ve focused more on making a plot exciting, or a place vivid.  

I used to believe my strength lay in conveying the characters who populate my imagination. I could show them in action, and I could show their unique worlds. I take a lot of pleasure in creating detailed description of the natural world in all its beauty and locational specificity.

However, readers told me, again and again, that I wasn’t close enough to my characters’ deep feelings. I wasn’t showing vulnerability in ways beyond circumstantial. Characters I write—a park ranger, a fire lookout, a Maine Guide, a rodeo barrel racer—are inherently strong yet vulnerable by nature of their roles as women in men’s worlds. In my mind, they’re physically tough, and have great emotional capacity. I don’t want to risk stating their feelings outright. “She was sad.” That’s not the best way to depict the complexities of a person’s inner sensitivity.

Fiction is wonderful for what it allows us to invent from nothing. I love to get away from my own head and my own world through reading and telling made-up stories. But sometimes, we need to draw from something, something with deep emotional truth, some pain of our own in order to create fiction that makes others feel.

Lately, in order to show, rather than merely tell of a character’s feelings, I’ve been experimenting with transferring my own struggles into my characters’ contexts and actions. I don’t want to write my own life-story with all the players wearing disguises and fake names. Previously, I told myself I was only trying to avoid that trap. More than that, though, it was a self-defense strategy, keeping me from fully pouring my emotional life out for public consumption. Slowly, I’m learning to reach into my hypersensitive inner self, spooling heart onto the page. As before, I still want to give readers a good story they can escape into, discovering something of themselves and the world. But now, I want my characters to share the burden of real-life pain. By showing them through the tangle of their inner and outer selves, I hope to build a conduit from my heart, through theirs, to the reader.

Maybe, I can take the lead of my specific heartaches and losses, swirl it around with a fictional cast and setting, and through this alchemy, create gold.

Charlotte Gross is a Co-Art Editor and fiction reader for Barnstorm.

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