Posted by: Kerry Gans | October 11, 2012

How To Tap the Darkness Within

We were discussing in our Advanced Novel Workshop with Jonathan Maberry about digging deep and putting your pain on the page. Jonathan talked about how he has found his writing highly cathartic. Tiffany Schmidt talked about the difficulty of writing emotional scenes and then finding a way to leave the pain in the book and not let it color your real life. As Jonathan said, leave the tears on the page.

Except in a very few instances, I have not shed tears while I write. I have not felt emotionally drained like so many writers talk about in their blogs. Apparently, I have not tapped into my deeper levels of pain, anger, darkness, and, yes, joy, love, and healing and laid them bare in my writing.

This could explain why beta readers feel my characters are not quite “real” or that they don’t “connect” with them on a deep level. It’s always a struggle before I get the characters in shape.

Why can’t I access these deeper places? There could be a few reasons. One, I don’t HAVE deeper places. Two, I lack the empathy to connect to other people. Three, I’m afraid to go into the darkness.

As for number one, I’m sure I have deeper places. I know I feel things deeply at times, and seemingly benign things like commercials can unexpectedly bring a welter of feelings in me. Examining number two shows that I am close to my family and while my close friends are not many in number, the friendships run deep. So maybe I’m just afraid to go into the darkness?

It is true that I don’t like letting strong emotions loose. I find it very, very hard to put emotional genies back in the bottle. I have an anxiety disorder, so once emotion wells up, it often spirals out of control. It can impact my life for days—not a good thing when you have a toddler to take care of. As a survival technique, I have gotten very good at surpressing the anxiety, but perhaps that comes at the cost of cutting myself off from connecting to the world as wholly as I might like. Which then might mean I can’t connect my characters to the reader the way I should.

I don’t doubt there’s some subconscious fear there. But the other side of the coin is that I don’t really know HOW to access those stronger emotions. Not consistently and effectively. If my character is sad and I’m not, how do I call that up? Or anger? Or fear? And I don’t know how to turn them off when I’m done. Maybe I can call on one of my actor friends to help me with that.

So what do you think? Do you need to be so emotionally invested in your book that you cry (or want to) at times while writing it? Should it drain you emotionally?

And do you have tips on how to access those emotions—and then leave them behind when you’re done?



  1. It can be difficult for sure. Writing in isolation can help (no internet, etc.), and so can listening to music while writing, if it’s the kind of music that puts you in an emotional state. Sometimes it just means remembering defining moments in your own life.


    • Thanks, Lucas! I think part of my problem is that my writing time is so fragmented that by the time I start getting into the right emotional frame of mind, I have to move on to something else. And it’s hard to find the “right” time to do it, too. When your toddler needs you, you can’t be a sobbing mess because of what you’re writing, and after she goes to be those deep emotions can end up keeping me awake all night, which will impact the entire next day. So it’s hard for me to find a “safe” time to delve that deep. Not an excuse, just something I need to work out.


      • Hmmm, you can try going to bed later than everyone else or waking up earlier. That usually works for me.


      • Thanks! I already do the going to bed later than others thing, and it does help, but sometimes by the end of the day I’m just fried. And I am NOT a morning person – writing early has never worked for me. It will all work itself out in time, since Toddler will be starting school soon. It’s a work in progress!


  2. Good Stuff. If I laugh and cry at my own writing am I a Whimp???


    • Nope – you’re just really, really connected with your characters! 🙂


  3. Honest and thought provoking piece, Kerry. I like Lucas’ music idea. It sometimes help to go slowly, insisting that you go deeper and closer, closer and deeper into the sections that require dark/deep emotion. Like carving into wood, a little at a time.Thanks for writing this–Merry


    • Thanks, Merry! Slowly might be the best way to go. Love the carving analogy.


  4. […] had wondered, in a post last year, if perhaps my writing wasn’t as strong as it could be because I wasn’t reaching deep enough […]


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