Thursday, April 18, 2013

Writing from the Heart

 Most of you know I'm an animal lover. So I'm going to start today's blog about writing from the heart with a story of something that happened to me last week.

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 blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Pepper said...

Love this, Ash.
And the CUTE puppy. Oh heavens, how adorable is HE?!?

And yes, I JUST finished reading a book that totally blew me away. Jody Hedlund's newest book, A Noble GRoom. A-MAZ-ING!!

The hero jumped off the page and squeezed my heart in 12 places! WOW!

I've started making it a therapy to write out letters/journal when I'm on high emotion. There have been a lot of things going on with our family lately that have lent themselves to letters. My journaling is a little weird because I write letters to God when I journal - like a prayer on paper. It makes it so much easier to pour out my heart in words when I chat with Him about it.

GREAT post! Love YA!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Oh, cuteness!! Those enormous ears!! We had a little stray guy called Caper for just one night until we tracked down his owner. Wormed his way right into our hearts! My hubby even wrote a song about him!

And I love your takeaway here! I have made myself cry in my own story. A conversion scene in an oncology ward. Might sound tacky, but I felt it very deeply - the character had become so real to me.

Angie Dicken said...

What words of wisdom, Ashley. I find myself in my heroines quite a bit...even though I am rarely dealt with the circumstances they find themselves in!! HA! But, I haven't written a book that hasn't made me cry at some point. And your current wip made me want to weep at certain parts! You've mastered the heart thing, girl!

Julia M. Reffner said...

LOVE, LOVE this. So hard to allow the feeling to translate on the page sometimes, but that is definitely when more blessings flow out of it for us and others.

I have an "I can't write about that" and God has shown me that I will, just not yet. Sometimes I think we can journal on our own when its raw but need the lens of time to put it all out in fiction. At least for me.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Great post, Ash! And oh, goodness, I couldn't imagine a person's heart not breaking when they parted with that sweet pup!

I think all those heart details are what make a story uniquely yours more than anything else. And honestly, it has been far too long since a story has made me cry! I'm always on the hunt for one though!

Ashley Clark said...

Pepper, I LOVE your idea about keeping a journal! Sometimes we can't think of a way to put that emotion into our WIP, but journaling it is almost like creating a bank we can pull from whenever we need to. Thanks for sharing!

Ashley Clark said...

Karen, I know what you mean... we once had a stray for a day as well, and we were able to get her into a rescue. She had a very serious case of heartworms but found a new home anyway and is now perfectly healthy. I still think about her sometimes. I don't think it sounds tacky at all to cry at your own scene... I think it just shoes how deeply you feel what you're writing!

Ashley Clark said...

Oh Angie, you are so sweet to say that! YOU are the one who have mastered the heart thing! Your writing always makes me cry. You have such a way of crafting characters so they feel life like.

Ashley Clark said...

Oh Angie, you are so sweet to say that! YOU are the one who have mastered the heart thing! Your writing always makes me cry. You have such a way of crafting characters so they feel life like.

Ashley Clark said...

Julia, I love what you said about needing time to process that raw emotion. It works so well with what Pepper said also about keeping a journal. I'm going to have to try that. Thanks for sharing!

Ashley Clark said...

Amy, I think you are so right! The emotional layering is something we each uniquely bring to the table because of our own reference points from experiences. Good thought!

Lindsay Harrel said...

You had me at "puppy." ;)

And I think you're so right on here. The books I love most are the ones with honest emotions. I relate better to people who are vulnerable and open with how they feel--why would a book be any different?