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Week Four: The State of the Heart

June 22, 2015

Chapter Five “The State of the Heart” may evoke more private writing. As always, you shouldn’t feel compelled to share what you write. On the other hand, you may find that sharing some of the more emotional details can be healing, can offer some release.

Much of the chapter focuses on writing about the lows rather than the highs. You may find that this is where you need to park for the week (or beyond). If, on the other hand, you choose to focus on the highs—joys, happiness—move on to suggestions in the end of the chapter or adapt the process.

One more note: While much of this chapter–even this book–moves one to write memoir, it can also prove helpful in writing fiction. In fact, when I look back at novels that stick with me or that move me, I find the author (1. uses figurative language freshly and effectively and (2. leads me to empathize strongly with characters. One weakness I identify in my own fiction writing is my reluctance to get my characters in trouble and to leave them there. If this is your situation, then filter the directions through the telling of your characters’ stories.

Part I: Take your own emotional temperature. Finish the sentence, Right now I’m feeling _________________ or This week I’ve felt _______________________. Identifying your emotions is just a start, though. That old cliché “Show, don’t tell” is tried and true.

Since we may all be working with different goals in mind, to decide where to start or stay this week, here are a few more fill-in-the-blanks:

I can’t quit thinking (or talking) about ____________________ .

I wish I could find the words to write about ___________________.

I just can’t talk about ________________________

What keeps me away at night is _______________________.

If answers come easily, you may want to address the life events privately in your journal or publically in letter or essay form; otherwise, you might decide to transform them into poetry or fiction or literary non-fiction, told in third, rather than first person.

Journaling, as McClanahan points out in this chapter, can help to uncover your more complex feelings. You may know you’re sad, but not realize that you’re also experiencing fear or loneliness or anger. “Write,” she advises, “until the truth emerges” (81).

Part II. Turn the abstract to concrete.

Once you’ve identified the emotion or the emotional experience for which you want to find words, explore metaphors or similes that help to make that emotion concrete. In the chapter, she mentions metaphors comparing situations to a trough or a rocking boat.

Losing a job is like _______________________________________.

My unexpected diagnosis was ___________________________.

What metaphor could describe the change in family dynamics once the children are grown and gone. Hasn’t “empty nest” been overused? Can you come up with your own and extend it?

You are encouraged in this chapter to describe a place that represents where you are in this emotional experience. What is the weather? What colors evoke the emotions most appropriately? If you had to set it to music, what musical genre or particular song would you choose?

In giving your emotions a place and a physical heft, explore all your senses.

Part III. Writing as catharsis.

Even though we may not all be in the middle of an experience that threatens to overwhelm, if you are, this week may give you the opportunity to explore further ways to work through a difficult or tragic experience by writing.

Just as an artist has the whole big box of Crayola crayonss from which to choose, writers have “the whole range of emotions.” Don’t worry if you find inconsistencies in your feelings from day to day. I’m always reminded of friends who’ve confessed to falling into embarrassing fits of irrepressible giggles in the middle of grief, sometimes even during a funeral. You may find your writing about grief or loss or anger may also produce mixed emotions. In your writing (and life in general), give yourself permission not to have to react the way others expect, not to feel you have to meet someone else’s timeline.

I hadn’t thought much before about needing not only to get through a hard time, but the need to exist there for awhile. “Healing” and “closure” may be long-term goals, but for now, give yourself permission to deal with here and now. Instead of closure, as McClanahan points out, sometimes we seek an opening.

Who wants to read about illness? You might be surprised. I attend Poetry Hickory, a local poetry event that regularly features poets with newly published chapbooks or collections. I make a practice of buying one copy for me and one to share.  Cancer survivor Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s Unaccountable Weather, a chapbook exploring the journey, is one I not only enjoyed reading but was comfortable sharing with other cancer survivors. Not maudlin at all, Kirkpatrick’s poems often take a tastefully humorous approach to how breast cancer changes one’s life and one’s perspective.  Another favorite of mine, Malaika King Albrecht’s Lessons in Forgetting explores her life during her mother decline caused by Alzheimer’s disease. She said she considered adding an appendix she would have called “Lessons in Remembering,” since many family members look for ways to help loved ones find ease when memory slips away.

You may consider exploring in writing an experience of your own illness or that of someone close to you. I can attest to the wild range of emotions when my husband went through aortic valve replacement in October. Trust me: we had a lot to laugh about too!

Part IV. Shifting perspectives.

As you write about emotional experiences, try to make some shifts. If you’re writing about a past experiences, try writing in present tense. On the other hand, if you’re going through something right now, you might write as if it has passed.

Shift point-of-view. Can you tell the story without being in the story? If you must, then could you write about yourself in third person? Experiment with writing about an experience from the viewpoints of others who were involved or who might have been observers.

One point McClanahan that says “bears repeating” is that “you may express yourself more readily by writing indirectly than by approaching your feelings head-on” (92). Experiment with other forms or genres.



Part V. Happiness is an emotion too!

When I taught literature, occasionally my students would ask, “Are we ever going to read any happy stories?” Honestly, happiness isn’t boring, but writing about happiness may be more difficult sometimes. Maybe we’re content just to live in it. When we’re in the middle of situations of sorrow or loss, writing may be a response to what McClanahan calls the “foxhole syndrome.” We hunker down in solitude without pen and paper. When we’re happy, we may not feel the same drive to write to survive. Have you ever noticed that misery spawns far more country songs than bliss?

Step one is recognizing happiness.  You may want to begin by making some of the lists suggested in this chapter:

List all the little joys, the reasons to be happy in the present moment.  Try to keep your list as tangible as possible.  Mine right now might include the ripening wild blackberries along the path I walk every day, the first ripe pepper in my porch pots, listening to music with friends on the patio of an inn in Blowing Rock last night as the strong, refreshing breeze from a nearby rainstorm caused the temperatures to plunge ten or fifteen degrees quickly, the squeals of the young teens in the pool next door, the chorus of frogs I hear only when I’m in bed at night.

You too might come up with categories of happiness.  At a poetry reading this past weekend, one of the readers revealed that he is working on a series of poems following Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What other things or emotions can you look at thirteen ways–more or fewer? You, like Whitman, might find a list poem rising naturally.

As a group of my colleagues discovered this past school year, a step toward finding happiness is the intention to do so.  You don’t even have to be unhappy to want to focus more on happiness. Writing down the small joys gives you an oasis when you need it.  Two years ago, I kept a box and little slips of paper near my bathroom sink. I made a point all year to write down good things that happened in the year. Instead of starting the next year with resolutions, I used January 1 to celebrate the accomplishments and reasons for gratitude in my wake.

Consider writing a poem or paragraph about an emotion in which you find yourself–without naming the emotion at all.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. sandyyoung75 permalink
    June 22, 2015 1:40 pm

    From what Rebecca tells us IN the chapter and from what you tell us FROM the chapter, I think I know why it’s so much easier to write about Jay than about Wendy. Jay is forever attached to an emotion of sadness, grief, mingled also forever with happy times that I recall. Wendy is in the “here and now,” and is mostly associated with happiness. Does that make sense? I know I’ll write about Jay this week, trying not to repeat myself . . . I’ve written so much about him since he died, but I may attempt Wendy, too. Actually, I’ve written a bit about Wendy and may include it in my writing for the week, maybe even share it. Thanks for another “loverly” week ahead at the computer, Cuz!

  2. kathy permalink
    June 25, 2015 11:30 am

    getting into this chapter’s assignments late in the week – 3 days of hospital grind didn’t leave much energy for my writing. But once I get going I’ll be obsessed with my journaling/memoir for a day or two. By the way, Blowing Rock is in the top 5 of my “happy place” list. My next trip there is already planned for August.

  3. June 25, 2015 5:17 pm

    Kathy, if you have time when you come to Blowing Rock, let me know. I’d love to meet face to face! I’m just down below in Hickory.

    • Kathy permalink
      June 27, 2015 7:15 pm

      I will definitely touch base – actually spending Thursday night, Aug 13th with my best friend in Newton before I head to B Rock Friday afternoon. Then I’m back in Newton on Sunday night before driving back to Atlanta Monday. Maybe we can meet on Sunday, would love to get together!

  4. sandyyoung75 permalink
    June 27, 2015 8:34 pm

    I’m not really sure where the following piece fits in with this week’s writing suggestions. Maybe it goes with emotions. It’s just something that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Not sure that it’ll be very interesting to anyone except someone who notices how words are used these days. Makes me very sad that all of my careful use of italics disappeared when I posted this.

    Pet Peeves English Teacher Style

    Pet peeves, things that a person finds annoying, are a part of everyone’s life. I’ve seen people practically go into conniption fits (not to be confused with hissy fits) over things like nails scratching on chalkboards, family members drinking out of containers in the refrigerator, being asked to complete a task at the last minute. I, too, consider these typical pet peeves and have some of my own; however, these kinds of pet peeves are not the ones that really set my nerves afire. I actually can talk myself into not getting too much upset by ordinary pet peeves. My pet peeves have to do with what comes out of a person’s mouth . . . words.

    You may be thinking that I’m about to go into a tirade about vulgarity (no examples needed) or changes in the meanings of words (like gay) or poor grammar (such as spoken by those of us from the South if you listen only to Southerners as portrayed on television or in movies). But those things that come from people’s mouths aren’t anywhere near what I’m talking about.

    My pet peeves with the spoken word have to do with usage . . . using two particular words incorrectly consistently. Actually, there are two pairs of words, the wrong use of which make me grit my teeth and shake my fist at the TV when I hear the misuse there and make me think ugly thoughts when a friend doesn’t use the correct word in my presence, probably because he or she didn’t ever learn the rules. Good home training keeps me from saying anything.

    I was an English teacher for thirty-two years and studied grammar almost daily in preparation for teaching, trying to instill in my students a love of their language and a desire to speak it correctly. Sad to say, I doubt that they remember those hours that I spent in Chapter 10 (“Glossary of Usage”) in Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, Complete Course, during which time I taught (maybe presented is a better word if they don’t remember my instruction) the difference between bring/take and come/go.

    Forgive my digression, but I must tell you something that happened to me in a meeting in Texas about five years ago. I was working for Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company and was attending a meeting in which a new product was being introduced. After the presenter had waded through how to present Write Source, she got to the “fun stuff” included with the program. When she said, “Has anyone heard of Mignon Fogarty?” I almost jumped out of my seat! I think I was the only one in the room who had heard of Mignon, better known as Grammar Girl. I enthusiastically waved my hand and shouted, “I have! I’m even her friend on Facebook!” The room went silent, and everyone looked at me as if I were crazy.

    I explained briefly that I had been using Grammar Girl to check rules that I wasn’t sure of ever since I was in the proofreading business, several years ago. I have no idea how I found her, but her Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is a “staple” for me when composing. I’m not sure that I mentioned, however, that I also have Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart and (I know this really sounds strange) The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. I probably also didn’t mention Grammar Girl’s podcast. Anyway, after my explanation, the presenter continued, never once looking my way, probably in fear that I’d add another little tidbit of some sort. So ends my digression.

    Why would I bring up Grammar Girl in my pet peeves discussion of bring/take and come/go? Simply because it’s been so long since I taught usage that I thought maybe rules had changed . . . so I consulted my friend Mignon. And do you know what I found? I found that what I taught seniors at Woodham High School in Pensacola, Florida, from 1969 – 1996 was absolutely right.

    It seems to me that the words take and go have been almost forgotten in the English language. Bring and come are used indiscriminately in the pairs. No thought of when to use each. So here’s the old English teacher with her “captured” audience explaining the differences among these words.

    If action in the sentence is toward the speaker, the correct word is bring: Please bring me my book. If the action is away from the speaker, the word is take: I’ll take dinner to you tonight. I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard a person use take for action away from him or her. I hear, instead, expressions like “I’ll bring dinner to you after you get out of the hospital.” Just listen, and you’ll hear the way these words are used or not used today. Oh, my . . . sometimes I find myself making the mistake because I’ve heard the incorrect use so much! I try to quickly correct myself, not that anyone would notice my mistake.

    Come and go are first cousins to bring and take. If the action is toward the speaker, the correct word is come; if it is away, it’s take. So a correct use would be “When you come to my house, please bring your iPad.” And “I’ll take my iPad when I go to your house.”

    One listener to Grammar Girl’s podcast said, “You bring things here, and you take things there.” And I’d add, “You come here, and you go there.”

    I’ll probably remain just about the only person in the world who gets upset by the misuse of these words. I hear mistakes virtually every day. My old English teacher blood boils (not really) when I hear educated people make the mistakes. One time I even mentioned to an author that I’m bothered by the misuse, and her reply was that it really didn’t bother her. Was I ever surprised!

    And once a few years ago, I put an article concerning the mistakes on my Facebook page. Several friends agreed me, but my sister-in-law didn’t. She said that she never hears that mistake where she lives. What! Does she never watch TV? She went on to say that it must be a Southern error. Talk about blood boiling! Mine did then. A few days later, her granddaughter, who lives far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, wrote something on her Facebook page, using bring in the take sense. I just smiled. Again, my good Southern home training stepped in.

  5. June 29, 2015 1:57 pm

    Love it, Cuz. Confession: I have to stop and think sometimes to use bring and take correctly. I think all of us have our pet peeves concerning usage, don’t we? I too loved teaching it (or presenting it). Like irregular verb errors, I reminded my students, different people make different usage errors–until they learn better. I always suggested taking the irregular verb list and make the following three sentences:
    Usually I _______ (with first principal part)
    Yesterday I ______ (with second)
    and In the past I have______ (with the third).
    Then mark the ones you get wrong. Same thing with usage! Find YOUR errors and eradicate them through constant verbal practice. Say it RIGHT until WRONG hurts your ears!

    • sandyyoung75 permalink
      June 29, 2015 8:44 pm

      Oh, dear . . . my teaching of usage was so long ago, I don’t remember what I did. I think the reason that we now have trouble with my pet peeve words is that we hear them misused so much that the incorrect usage sounds right. I loved teaching grammar. Didn’t you?

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