While reading through our creative nonfiction submissions, the topic of emotional distance of the author from their work, is brought up more than anything else. Sometimes we feel a piece is too emotionally close to the subject matter; other times it feels too distant and stony. So, what, then, is the appropriate amount of distance when it comes to writing about difficult subject matter? How can a writer tell that they’re in the right range to channel the right amount of emotion into a piece?
When a piece feels too close to the subject, or as readers we feel as though the issue is still too recent, it can feel like the writer hasn’t quite worked through things out yet. One common trait I’ve noticed is that the writer relies on a lot of abstract words that don’t carry much meaning on their own, such as soul, pain, or thoughts. This makes it seem too personal and specific to the writer’s experience – they know what they mean by using these words, but the reader will have different notions about the meaning of “soul”, and as a result the meaning the reader gets will be different.
Another sign a writer is too close to the event or subject is an over-reliance on words focusing on emotion. This runs into a similar problem–each reader will have a different idea of what it means to be angry or sad or devastated. There is also usually a lack of concrete, tangible detail as well as a roughness to the writing that suggests the topic is still floating around in the writer’s head and they just need to write everything out as a way to process what’s going on in their mind. This isn’t a bad thing but what comes of this will need revision. It will need to be looked over again when the issue isn’t as charged with emotion and there’s been some time to move on and think about what the piece is trying to convey.
On the other side, it’s also possible to be too far removed from the emotional intensity of an event when writing. Sometimes emotionality is derided since it can’t be proven, but maintaining a good amount can strengthen creative pieces because it makes it more relatable to a reader. Pieces too far removed from emotion can be harder to spot; there usually has been some revision done already so the piece will probably feel more complete.
The first sign that a piece is too distant is an almost analytical tone, for example, “this happened because of this; I should have done this; this has had x effects on my life”. The writer has moved far enough away from the emotional reaction to what they’re writing about that they turn to an opposite strategy: looking at everything rationally, which often sacrifices a feeling of the piece being “genuine” and makes it read like a lab report – everything feels just a tad too constructed for it to feel entirely natural. Maybe the person ignores talking about themselves and focuses on what they do know such as time and place. Either way, the whole piece ends up feeling very impersonal, like they’re looking back on their time with the aforementioned emotionalism and trying to pack it neatly into the bottom of their luggage.
Ideally a piece should work in the area in-between these two, eliciting a personal and emotional reaction in the reader without being soppy or too analytical; leaving some room for the reader to interact with the piece. Using well-placed words and a mix of the concrete while working to define the meaning of the abstract usually serves a piece well. Emotional distance can be a tricky thing, and the best way to figure it out is simply through practice.
Meet the blogger:
CONNOR BYRNE says despite his endless study of literature he still don’t know how to introduce himself. He is constantly lost in the world of words, words, words and not enough in the physical, but in this field that’s probably a good thing. Connor wants to be a fiction writer but generally ends up being more into poetry. Weird how that works out.