Catharsis, Empathy, and Putting Ourselves in Our Fiction

“Catharsis” by Nelio Filipe

There’s a joke/not joke I’ve mentioned to a couple of my writing friends lately about that horrible moment of realization when you see quite clearly that your character is you. You’ve done all this work to develop her and fill out her background and give her a powerful, interesting arc, and then you realize it’s totally you. Most writers have that moment at some point, I think. Some of us very intentionally put ourselves in our fiction. But sometimes it sneaks up on us even when we think we haven’t. We come up against an unexpected intensity of emotion while we’re writing or revising or what have you, and we realize it’s so hard because we’re not just putting it on the page; we’re working through it in our hearts. So my “joke” is that all of my characters are me. Not just the protagonists, either, but all of them, in every book: main character, supporting, minor, even antagonists. They’re all shades of me.

I wonder if to non-writers that sounds like an egocentric statement. I suppose, in a way, it is, but I also believe, in a way, that it has to be. With beginning writers we see a lot of obvious protagonist/author connections because most everyone’s first book is herself in some fictionalized capacity. It’s kind of gentle joke among critique circles (gentle because we almost all do it, so no one’s judging): the main character’s name is suspiciously like the author’s, they have the same job, same ethnicity, age, family history, hairstyle, hobbies, etc. Sure, it might be set in space or 1885 or all the characters are dogs instead of people, but we’re not fooling anybody. I think it’s only natural for people who want to tell stories to start with their own.

As we write more and more, we learn to branch out. We study characterization and grow bolder, trying to write characters who are more and more different from our own experiences. We pour more depth and diversity into our supporting characters and antagonists, instead of just our protagonists. We write people who, we think, aren’t us.

But writing characters that read like people instead of characters is shockingly difficult. It is so freaking hard to create someone from scratch. We have to start from somewhere. And then we have to build a bridge between that starting place and our own ability to write that person we don’t actually know. That bridge is empathy.

I have a theory that reading a really good book is a form of sympathy, but writing a really good book is empathy. Sympathy isn’t enough to bring someone to life. That’s an outside view. We have to go inside, deep. To do that, we have to find empathy. We can’t just feel for them; we have to feel with them.

The way writers find empathy with characters who are unlike us is by finding the places where there is common ground. We design experiences that are similar to ones we’ve had – if not in surface view than at least in interior view. Maybe you’ve never been a queen betrayed by your closest advisor, but maybe you have been a woman betrayed by your closest friend. The situation is no longer real, but the emotion is. In really good fiction, the emotion must be.

Which is why, I think, really good fiction has so much of the author in it. It’s an unavoidable consequence of creating people from thin air. There’s no such thing as thin air; there is only the pulpy matter of our brains and hearts. There is only us, over and over in hundreds of iterations.

I can sense writers objecting. Hell, I’m objecting. One of the suckiest parts of being a fiction writer is how much people assume they can know about you from your work. Many of us, especially those of us who tend toward darker or deeply emotional work, don’t want readers to assume things about us based on what we write. Horror writers, for example, are sick to death of people assuming we write what we write because we were abused or traumatized. Fiction is fiction for a reason, and although it’s vital for writers to try to put ourselves into our work, it’s impossible for readers to know where and in which capacity we’ve done so. Even things people could pick out as distinctly true from me/my life aren’t reliable representations of how I really feel or what really happened. Frequently I borrow a frame and flip the perspective or take an event and twist the reactions or make up an event and keep the emotions… on and on.

So while it’s impossible for readers to definitively know details about a writer’s life from our fictional work, I also think it’s impossible not to see a writer’s heart in their work. And truly impossible to write anything of great value without pouring our heart into it. Sure, things can be just for fun – I do that too, and it’s wonderful – but everything we choose to do says something revelatory about us.

The bad news is that we, as writers, can’t avoid revealing ourselves to readers.

The good news is that catharsis is a real thing, and every time we write ourselves – villain or hero, sidekick or sage – we purge and learn and grow. We offer something of great importance not just to readers, but to ourselves. We bring ourselves to the page over and over again because that is how we create ourselves, from hundreds of tiny pieces viewed from thousands of different angles, eventually fitting together to shape an imperfect and beautiful whole.

The bad news is that if we want to create powerful, memorable fiction, we can’t avoid doing the emotional work of building a bridge of empathy between ourselves and our characters – i.e., writing ourselves over and over. Digging into the muck bucket.

The good news is that this ability to build bridges of empathy between our experiences and the experiences of characters unlike ourselves is the same ability that allows us to not just sympathize but empathize with human beings unlike ourselves. It’s the foundation of understanding and love on a global scale.

The bad news is that this is really, really hard.

The good news is that it’s worth it.

What say you, writers and readers? Thoughts of all sorts are welcome below.

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I, Pandora

Hey guys! Today will be short and sweet, because I’m reprinting a poem for you here. First, a few things you might’ve missed from me lately:

  • My Writing Expense and Income Tracking Spreadsheet is for sale! It’s a budget aid designed to help all types of writers at all levels of their careers. Today is the last day to get the discounted price of $6 with the coupon code PriorityWeek .
  • My latest column at LitReactor is called “But How Do I Write It? Methods for Matching the Medium.” It’s all about how writers decide which format to manifest our ideas into.
  • I have a few bits of news on my Facebook page, along with my signature odd assortment of cute cats, cool creepy stuff, and bookish talk. I’d love for you to join me there!

Okay, back to today. “I, Pandora” was first published in the Merging Visions anthology Collections II and then reprinted in the Denton Record Chronicle as well as A Texas Garden of Verses by the Poetry Society of Texas. I hope you enjoy it.

I, Pandora

Laden with clay jar,
Pandora, blessed with gift, with scar,
eyes bright and two lips curious –
furious for being sent
as punishment for theft of fire,
for mankind’s desire to acquire –
imagining she’ll free a star,
the sapphire, kiss, or land afar,
she twists the lid off, sure and swift,
and out fly sins and fear and hate:
setting her adrift upon her fate.

© Annie Neugebauer, 2012

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Introducing the Writing Expense and Income Tracking Spreadsheet

It’s heeeeeeeeeere, and it’s B-E-A-utiful!

Folks, I am so excited to announce that the newest document for The Organized Writer is now available for purchase: my Writing Expense and Income Tracking Spreadsheet!

You can view the full description and product pitch on that page, along with purchase details, but here’s the quick and dirty: this is a must-have organizing tool for every writer who follows a budget, tracks their expenses, and/or files taxes. It’s formatted to be popular-tax-software friendly, user friendly, and writer friendly. 🙂 You type in how much you spent or made and on what, and this spreadsheet will do the rest. It’s even pre-filled with examples of common writer costs and earnings to help you make sure you’re claiming every last cent in each category. Save a new version each fiscal year and it should serve you for years to come!

Sold? Good! Because for the first week I’m offering a 33.33% discount off the baseline $9 price, which means that through 4/24/2017 you can get it for just 6 bucks! Enter the coupon code PriorityWeek after you add the document to your cart and it’ll knock 3 dollars off just because you’re pretty. 😉

To read more details or buy your spreadsheet, head on over to the Writing Expense and Income Tracking Spreadsheet page. And by all means, please share the link with your writer friends! (Please don’t share your purchased document; no matter how much you love them, they’ll need to buy their own.) The discount code will only be good for one week, so let’s get the word out fast!

Extra super special thanks to my Excel Jedi Master Anusha for helping make my spreadsheet pretty and neat, and to my brave beta-testers Kyle, Febe, Kelsey, Jen, Caitlin, and Peggy for helping make sure everything functions properly.

I’m so excited to be offering an Organized Writer doc for sale. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into making this resource as user-friendly and writer-useful as possible, and I really think it’s a great value. I’m already using my spreadsheet and loving it, and I hope you all will too. Happy tracking!

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What I’ve Learned from Charting Over 500 Poems

Hey guys! Just a quick note before today’s post to let you know that I got a very happy story acceptance last week. I’m thrilled to share that my literary horror story “So Sings the Siren” will be appearing in Apex Magazine! If you missed the news, be sure to follow me on my Facebook page (where I share most news first, so feel free to set me to “see first” to be in the know) and on Twitter @AnnieNeugebauer. And I’ll be sure to share here and everywhere as soon as it’s available for you to read. 🙂 Okay, on to today…

The Setup

When I set out to reorganize my poetry by charting all of my poems in a massive spreadsheet (The Giant Chart O’ Poems, as it’s come to be called), I did know what I was getting into. Really. I knew by looking at my poetry folder that I had over 500 poem files. I also knew that, due to my all-or-nothing attitude and passion for checking things off my list, I was at high risk of working nonstop for a week until it was done and/or I was dead. So I did the responsible (reasonable) thing and paced myself. I started on January 3 and finished on February 27, which came down to about a dozen poems per workday. It was quite an experience.

So what do I mean by “chart” my poems? Well, it might make more sense if you understand how poetry contests work. The state and national contests that I try to enter poems to every year offer 100 and 50 categories, respectively. Each category has its own set of rules, with various line length limits, subject prompts, form types, etc. Can you imagine sitting down to pick out 50 to 100 of your poems to best suit all of those specifics? And can you even believe I did it for YEARS by simply… scrolling through my giant folder of over 500 poems, scanning them, and assigning them based largely on memory?

No wonder I dreaded contest time every year. (Then, after all that choosing, there’s still the tedious processes of copy-pasting, formatting, printing, and mailing, but that’s a rant for another day.) Since I actually do use these contests to earn money and publish poems (i.e., it’s part of my job), I knew it was time to organize the chaos. Who better to organize the chaos than…

Chaos Organizer Woman!

Okay, I’ll work on my superhero title, but y’all hopefully know by now that this is kind of my thing. (Relevant: check out my recent post on LitReactor about organizing your writing files, plus all of the handy free documents available at The Organized Writer, including a poetry submissions chart to keep track of what you’re sending where.)

The Nuts and Bolts

So I set out to tame the beast by putting every single poem I have into a spreadsheet and filling out the following columns for each: published (Y/N), form (Y/N), type of form, rhymed (Y/N), length (in lines), speculative (Y/N), genre, funny (Y/N), category tags (key words), quality rank (1-6), current status (on sub, to edit, ready, trunked, published), available (Y/N auto-formulated based on answers for status + published), and date written.

A few of these might seem slightly redundant, but they’re the way they are based on function. I need a form yes or no and a form type because sometimes I search for a specific form, such as a Shakespearean sonnet, and other times I just have to use free verse or any form, etc. Rhyme, speculative or not, and form or not are important in regular poem submissions as well, since many markets are anti- or pro- these specific things.

I’ve since utilized the chart in my national contest submissions, and the results are in. It was amazing. What a contrast! Definitely worth all the work. First of all, I can sort each column in various ways, so right off the bat I can hide all rows that are unavailable (on sub, already published, trunked, etc.) so I don’t accidentally slot them in. Then I can choose to sort by rank – sending out my strongest poems first – or by line length to make sure I’m under the limit, or even by category tags. Need a poem about cats? Keyword “cat” pulls them all up. Pretty cool.

Admittedly, things will need tweaking over time, and of course I’ll have to maintain the chart by adding new poems as I write them and updating when something goes out on sub or comes back. But by and large, it’s one of the more satisfying and practical uses of my organizational insanity to date. 🙂

To boot, going through my poems and looking at them through a wider lens taught me lots of interesting things, which I thought I’d share for the curious.

Lessons Learned

The biggest and most maddening reality is this: There is less correlation than I’d like between the quality of a poem and the likelihood of it being published yet. Of course, the ranking of a poem from 1-6 (1= best, 2= great, 3= good, 4= solid, 5= ok, 6= weak) is subject to my opinion of my own work, but still, I’m a fairly honest self-assessor, and even allowing for teacher’s pets and self-doubt, the rank of any given poem shouldn’t be more than one or two points off, right? Yet of the 58 poems I’ve had published so far, 17 are lower than “good” and only 7 are among my “best.” It’s certainly frustrating to feel like the poems I’ve had published don’t represent my strongest work. To be fair, the most-published ranks were “good” and “great,” but it’s maddening how many of my best pieces still haven’t seen the light of day.

Another interesting lack of correlation: There’s not nearly as strong a connection as I’d have guessed between whether a poem is a form and whether it utilizes rhyme. I’d assumed that most traditional forms = rhymed poems and most free verse = unrhymed, and that is still more true than not, but there were far more exceptions than I anticipated. Turns out I love infusing free verse and created forms with rhyme, internal and otherwise, and that less of the traditional forms than I was thinking require it. Go figure.

Speaking of ranking the quality of a poem, I also learned that not all useful poems are “good.” I discovered this when I decided to add an extra option to my “status” column: “collection.” I kept coming across weaker-ranked poems that I wasn’t actually willing to officially “trunk.” (To trunk a poem means to take it out of your options, basically, or pretend it never happened – like sticking a piece of paper in a trunk and closing the lid.) Some poems serve as transitions, connectors, contrasts, or simple story-beats within one of my poetry manuscripts. So while not a showstopper on their own, they still serve as necessary parts of a whole. That was good to realize.

One of the biggest lessons wasn’t so much a new lesson as a reinforcement of something I’ve always known: so much of categorizing writing is tenuous, subjective, or malleable. Countless poems ended up with multiple “genres” listed, for example. Because maybe it’s several at the same time, or maybe it becomes an entirely different beast when looked at through a different lens. (I have one poem that started out as horror and ended up as comedy, for example.) Likewise, I had to add “ish” to my “yes” and “no” options for both the “funny” and “speculative” columns. As most writers likely know quite well: genre and other such designators are both useful and limiting.

Perhaps the most delightful lesson I learned was how unbelievably good it felt to delete some of the poems I hate. Sure, I had a “trunk” category, but I had dozens of crappy old whatevers that weren’t even worth trunking. The kind of things I’d be embarrassed for people to read if I died – teen angst and random failed experiments and poems from world views I’m shocked I ever held. You know the sort; they’re the ones you scroll past extra quickly without looking. I’ve always assumed I would save everything, but there was nothing salvageable from those. Deleting them felt like shedding pounds. I absolutely loved it.

Another not-learned but reminded lesson: I have too many poems. I mean, five hundred and change is a lot of separate creative works to juggle. If I wanted to have all of them out on submission all the time, even assuming I only sent to markets that accept five poems at once, I’d have to have over a hundred-market rotation! So… I will never catch up. I already kind of knew this simply because at any given time over the past years, I’ve had far, far more poems not out than out. I always felt frustrated/guilty about that, but when I saw the numbers that starkly, the overwhelmed feeling shifted. Okay, so I know I can’t ever catch up. Next best thing: prioritize. This frees me to focus on my best poems. I don’t need to spend time revising weak poems or sending out ‘good enough’ ones for consideration; I can just write new ones, polish my favorites, and send them out to the markets I really want to work with. Ah, I feel more relaxed already.

And the biggest, most obvious thing I learned from charting over 500 poems? I should have done this from day one. As with any type of mess, it’s only overwhelming if you wait until it gets bad. Charting one poem at a time takes only moments, so if you’re a prolific poet, I highly recommend that you learn from my crash-course and start your own Giant Chart O’ Poems now.

So poets, writers, and otherfolk (sounds more magical that way, doesn’t it?), have you ever undertaken a project similar to this? Was it a success or a disaster? Care to share what you learned from your experiences? Comments welcome!

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