First off, flash back to about three weeks ago. My husband and I were at an art show, and I (of course) wanted to play with the dogs that were part of an adoption event at the festival. One dog in particular stood out to my husband. The cute little puppy had humongous ears and was making this adorable talking noise because he wanted to play with the other dogs so badly. It was so cute--not really a bark or a howl, but really more like talking. After we left the festival that day, I came home and got online to see if I could find out more about the pup. Lo and behold, the little guy was at an animal shelter, and I knew I was in for it now. (If you don't know, the stats about animal shelters are that only about half the dogs and cats who walk into an animal shelter walk out alive. The intake numbers are so high that the shelters often have no choice but to euthanize.)
So I made a few calls, and I discovered that this puppy had already been at the shelter for three weeks, and they are technically only supposed to keep them SEVEN DAYS (can you believe that?!) before putting them down. Knowing it would probably be hard on us, my husband and I offered to foster this little puppy in the meantime while we tried to find him a good home.
This is Radar...
I know. The cuteness, right?
We already have two dogs, and keeping a third did not seem like a good option. But little by little, this puppy was winning us over. He is so smart and eager to please, and he has just enough Jack Russell that he kept us laughing. Our other dogs loved running around the yard, chasing him (well at least, the first few times!).
Each day, fostering became harder and harder.
Then, someone called. They'd seen Radar's picture on a local dog rescue website that had offered to help us spread the word about him, and he reminded them of their former dog. They are a nice retired couple, so Radar can be with them all day long, and they live right on the beach, where he can go for lots of fun walks.
The only problem?
My heart. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten seriously attached. We're talking, crying-my-eyes-out attached as we took him to his new family and walked back to our car.
I know some of you may be thinking I'm a bit too sensitive, and that he's just a dog. But the thing is, I think we have to guard sensitive hearts if we really want to write well.
So how does this whole anecdote about a rescue dog relate to writing? I'm glad you asked. :)
When life events happen, we have a tendency to shrink back from writing. We think, "I can't write about that." Or maybe even, "I don't want to write at all."
But perhaps those things are the things most worth writing?
The longer I write, the more I realize how inextricable my own life is from the lives of my characters. No, I don't mean they're all autobiographies of myself (although I think we all do a little of that!). What I mean is that the way I see the world, the things I go through, and the ways I feel, shape the experiences of my characters.
If we don't allow ourselves to feel, we limit the heart-level of our writing, and we cheat our readers in the long run.
Have you ever read a book and recommended it to a friend? More than likely, in order to give it high praise, you resonated with that story on an emotional level. And the best way to write emotion is to first feel it.
I've been teaching my literature students that meaning in stories is an interesting thing, because it first stems from an idea in our minds (or in the believer's case, from the Holy Spirit), then passes through the writer's own filters of personal experience, emotion, and interests, then goes through the reader's filters of the same, and finally is transmitted to the reader's mind. Communication really is an amazing process when you think about it.
But what happens when a step of that process is cut short? Part of the communication is broken. Part of the message gets lost.
We have to take care that as writers, we allow ourselves to feel, and then, even further, that we write from this level of our hearts. The best-written characters are those we can relate to for some reason or another. To write them, we must first know their hearts. And to know their hearts, we must first feel deeply about the issues in the world.
I once heard Janice Thompson say that when she first faced health trouble, she was miserable. But then God taught her how to write through the circumstances, and her writing became a joy (both to her and to readers-- everyone loves a Janice novel!).
Maybe you are facing a tragedy right now, a rejection, or the greatest joys of your life. Or maybe all that's on the horizon are the steady waves of the day to day emotion. Regardless, I challenge you to dig deeper into the chambers of your heart, and use these experiences as a ministry, to deepen the layers of your writing and to also deepen its resonance within readers' hearts. Readers what to hear about the rescue dogs of your story, even as they read the fictional one.
A story that reaches deep within a reader's heart must stem from deep in the writer's own.
Accomplishing what I call "heart writing" means taking fibers from the details of our own lives and weaving them in to the story. You may actually take something that happens to you and put it in the plot. I, for instance, usually like to include a rescue dog in my stories. Or on the other hand, you may take a more subtle approach. You may lace your own heart through the story by weaving in threads of details... the sound of horses neighing, the roughness of burlap, the stillness of the waveless sea. The important thing is, whether those fibers are big parts of the plot or small phrases in the narrative, the reader needs to feel what you feel.
It can be so much easier to write on autopilot instead of digging deep into our own hearts. Have you ever read a book that's made you cry? What book was it? How do you think the writer accomplished this layer of emotion in their writing? Has your own story every made you cry?
Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.