Spilling Your Emotions All Over the Page

As an unapologetic bibliophile, I tend to accumulate books at an alarming rate. At some point, I obtained a stack of vintage Harlequin romances from the 1960s-1970s. I don’t know where I got them, probably a thrift store, or the discard bin of my favorite used bookstore. (Yes, I admit I buy used books. I buy books anywhere I find them.) Anyway, this pile of old paperbacks had been sitting by a bookcase for months, partly because I wasn’t sure if I really wanted them, and partly because the bookcases were full. So I decided to read one and decide their fate. I was curious to see how romance novels then compare to romance novels now.

I chose Moonglade by Janice Gray, originally published by British category romance publisher Mills & Boon in 1974. Our heroine, Philippa, works as a newspaper reporter and has just broken up with her handsome but philandering boyfriend Rick. “No wonder I’ve got a thing about women reporters!” Her boss declares. “You’re all alike! Fine until you fall in love and then it’s windmills in your heads and you’re so busy spilling your emotions all around you that your work goes to blazes! I had high hopes of you, too, Philippa. I really had. I thought you were quite a bright girl.” Ah, the 1970s.

Good thing we’ve progressed in the last 40 years. Now we’ve all learned that in public situations, we’re supposed to hide our emotions. Our social media feeds focus on our best—our achievements and impressive experiences. You don’t see many, “Sitting home alone binge-watching Netflix again” posts, even though everyone does it. We share photos of the delicious and beautifully plated meals we’re about to eat, but not the Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese we ate out of the microwave container the night before. When someone asks, “How are you,” we all know that unless it’s someone very close to us and we’re talking privately, we’re supposed to smile and say, “I’m fine. How are you?” We’re not supposed to say, “I’m scared,” or “I’m lonely,” or “I’m angry.” It makes things…awkward.

Unless you’re writing a memoir, which is weird, because a memoir is so much more public than a conversation or even a social media post. But the reader doesn’t have to respond, which eliminates the awkwardness. Not only can you be completely candid about what you felt in a memoir, you should admit to those feelings. Being honest about your emotions is a difficult and brave thing to do, and it can be tremendously helpful to others when you articulate or validate what they may also be feeling but can't express. This is especially true of negative or unexpected emotions.

Though we may recognize an emotion is irrational and unfair, our feelings aren’t always logical nor do they always fit the stereotypes. I’ve read books where someone who is grieving feels anger toward the person who died. I know people who are tremendously successful, yet feel inadequate. Some people who are popular and surrounded by others feel lonely and disconnected.

The ability to help readers by sharing emotion isn’t limited to memoirs and nonfiction. If you’re a novelist, the honest and surprising emotions your characters experience can let readers know that they are not alone in feeling the same way. Because as the author, you created this believable character and made him and what he feels believable. In fact, having your character feel something unexpected can make your novel more interesting, as long as the emotion is true to your character. (For a great recent example of this, check out Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.)

So next time you sit down to write, spill your emotions liberally all over the page.

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