Writing for an audience is always a vulnerable experience, especially when the topic is something close to your heart. Whether you’re writing a story that touches on personal experiences or about a cause you feel strongly about, you need to keep a few things in mind to create a meaningful work of art.
I have written several fiction and creative nonfiction pieces that deal with experiences that affected me deeply, and I have found that balancing emotion with clear storytelling isn’t easy. When you’re passionate about a topic, you likely want your audience to feel that same emotion. However, you also don’t want to lose your audience in a wilderness of feelings. In my experience, allowing readers to bring their own perspectives to your story, welcoming feedback with open arms, and making sure your writing delivers a distinct message will ensure that readers both feel your emotions and understand what your piece is about.
Here, I’ll dive deeper into these tactics so you can learn from my experiences and write about tender or emotional topics.
Don’t Emotionally Control Your Audience
When writing about something deeply personal, you can easily get caught up in your emotions and lose sight of the story. I experienced this when I wrote a creative nonfiction piece for a creative writing class. I won’t bore you with the details, but the professor’s comments can be summed up as “This was confusing!” And while I could see her point, her comments stung. These little memories were precious—how dare she critique them!
However, in retrospect, it was clear that I’d attempted to tie together too many different events in my life with one theme and had completely lost my audience in the process. I wove together three different experiences that all involved maple syrup. It sounded like a cute idea, but each experience dealt with vastly different emotions. I failed to connect the stories with a stickier (heh heh) theme, like how I deepened my relationship with my best friend or some other measure of personal growth, so readers were left wondering what these stories meant, besides the fact that maple syrup is an important condiment.
Any piece of writing needs to effectively convey your message and the emotion you want your audience to understand. When you choose a personal subject to write about, ask yourself why you want to share this story or why the reader would benefit from the story. Then, be sure to answer that inner question in your writing.
However, keep in mind that the “why” of your story may not resonate with some readers, and while you should care about the reader’s experience, you can’t have absolute control over it. Yes, you’re writing about something important to you, but you can’t hold on too tightly. Remember that your audience is bringing their own experiences and perspectives to your story. It’s okay if they don’t relate to you exactly how you expected or if they gain different insight than what you intended.
Prepare Your Heart for Feedback
Before you begin writing, evaluate how you think you’ll respond to feedback. Ask yourself if you will be able to digest feedback and handle critiques of a piece that is so dear to you. If you think you’ll feel hurt or offended, maybe wait until you’re able to distance yourself from the subject matter a bit more and respond to criticism more objectively.
Also, remember that feedback isn’t an attack on your life story, point of view, or stance on a subject. Pay attention to the comments that will help clarify your writing so you can reach your audience and get your point across. If you’ve already started writing or just aren’t sure if you’re ready for feedback, write up a quick outline and ask a close friend or family member for their first impressions. How you respond will help you decide whether you’re ready to share the piece with a wider audience.
I could have used this advice when writing that creative nonfiction assignment. Perhaps sharing an outline with a friend or trusted classmate would have saved me from cringing while reading my professor’s comments. Since it was just an exercise, I didn’t go back and revise the piece. If I had, I probably would have focused on one experience and developed the “why” of my story.
Use Emotion Thoughtfully to Connect With Readers
Finally, remember that writing about personal stuff should be a cathartic experience, but make sure it doesn’t become a journal entry. If you use a journal to talk yourself through difficult emotions or vent about certain experiences, then you’ve probably noticed how your own responses can meander, even within a single entry. You might start with a paragraph about how your bestie was being such a drama queen, then switch to blaming yourself for not being there for them as much as you should. Maybe you finally reach the conclusion that you’re both responsible and need to make a renewed commitment to the friendship.
You likely don’t want to bring an audience along on this emotional rollercoaster. While it’s okay to show them the steps that occurred on your way to a resolution, if you haven’t worked out your feelings yet, your readers won’t be able to understand where your story is going.
At the same time, you don’t want your writing to become too sterile. Express the emotions you were feeling, but make sure your writing drives at a resolution and keeps readers engaged. Keep the reason you’re telling the story at the forefront and use dramatic structure as a guide. If you find yourself stuck at the climax or falling action with no resolution in sight, then you may need closure before you’re able to effectively share the story.
In case you were wondering, I eventually did figure this out in that creative writing class. However, I still need to remind myself of these tips whenever I sit down to write about a memory, story, or event that means a lot to me. There’s a fine line between storytelling with emotion and emotional storytelling, but keeping your audience in mind, asking for feedback early in the process, and balancing your feelings with your writing will help you find it.