One time a medical editor friend told me about being introduced to someone who was “a writer.” My friend asked what kind of writing she did: technical, medical, magazine articles, fiction? She said, and my friend quoted, “I write from the heart.”
I put my hand over my mouth and said, “Oh noooooooo.” My friend joined in.
I mean, I’m sure she has good feelings about it. But if you’re writing for other people, it’s not your heart that matters. It’s theirs.
I have a BFA, MA, and PhD in theatre. I’ve directed plays, I’ve taught acting, I’ve judged acting competitions. And when I’m giving advice to a student actor, one of the first things I say is Toy with your audience.
Well, to be less precise, I say this: The audience doesn’t want you to fail. They want you to succeed. They’re hoping you will make them feel things, and they are eager to have you lead them on. It’s not about what you’re feeling, it’s about what they’re feeling. Toy with them. They want you to.*
Why does this come into a writing tip? Writing is a performance. It’s not live and unedited, but neither are movies. And the point of performance is not the performer’s experience. It’s the audience’s. I’m going to tell you this several times: It’s not about you, it’s about your readers.
“But I want to write from my heart to express my truth.” SO WHAT! WHO CARES ABOUT YOU? The only reason your readers will care about you is if you mean something to them. And unless you already mean something to them (for example, if you’re famous, or if you’re their friend – remember, don’t ask your friends for advice), the reason they’ll care about you is that your writing resonates with them. You need to pluck your readers’ heartstrings. They have to care about what you have to say. If you just want to write about the truth of what you feel, well, maybe it’ll resonate with your readers, but maybe it won’t. It comes down to whether any publisher and any reader will bet money that it will.
“This doesn’t apply to me! I write nonfiction.” NOPE. WRONG! PEOPLE NEED TO CARE ABOUT NONFICTION TOO. Listen: I spent eighteen years writing and editing health information articles. We’re talking about articles on things like prescription drugs. Does that sound boring? Buddy, this is your health. This is your life! You’d better make people care about the right things!
Here, I’m going to tell you – for free – something from my lesson on communicating medical information. People pay me to tell them this, but today you get it as a gift:
Vivid is read as important. Some antibiotics have a possible side effect called “black hairy tongue.” This sounds dreadful. It’s actually that the little papillae on your tongue get longer, so they look like hair, and they turn black. It looks gross but it’s not unduly harmful and it goes away. The odds of getting black hairy tongue are typically something under 1%. The odds of an untreated bacterial infection making you very sick for a very long time, and possibly killing you, are much more than 1% in some cases. It is our responsibility, in communicating health information, to make sure that we present information clearly and engagingly in such a way that people will read it and will make accurate assessments. Make statements vivid and memorable in proportion with their importance.“Black hairy tongue” is very vivid. “Increased risk of mortality” is not very vivid. “Unpleasant changes in tongue appearance” is accurate without shocking anyone. “One in 20 people over age 65 will die from this infection if it’s not treated” may seem scary but it’s accurate.
Is what you’re writing important? Make your readers feel its importance. If it’s not important… why are you even writing it?
*Some of you may be familiar with the Stanislavsky method of acting, which involves finding emotion-memories and truly feeling them. Please remember that the point of this method is to produce the most convincing portrayals of emotion so your audience will respond more strongly. If you’re having your personal emoting moment up there on the stage but it’s not doing anything for the audience, why are you even there? This isn’t a therapy session. And from this it also follows that if you can make the audience feel things even without feeling them yourself, you have done your job as a performer. Oh, and if you’re about to say “But Brecht”… well, you can say it in the comments and I’ll answer you there; it’s too great a digression here.
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No one asked about Brecht? I was looking forward to that digression …
I just typed a 10-minute reply to this and WordPress refused to post it and lost it instead. I don’t feel like writing the whole damn thing again! The short of it is that Brecht wanted people to view with some detachment rather than be immersed, so they could connect it with the social realities around them and be energized about them. He tried to do this with turns of theatre that pulled the audience out of the frame (something some modern movies do – I just saw Vice and it does this). The thing is that this still aims for the heart. The audience is to come away with strong feelings about the real world… often driven by the reactions they have felt to the world of the drama, which they have stepped back and examined and had not just thoughts but feelings about.
Absolutely agree! And Brecht would, too, if you pushed him (well, and if he were alive). I love that story of the actor playing MacHeath in Die Dreigroschenoper insisting on wearing wearing the dashing red cravat (or foulard, I forget), and Brecht hating it. So he wrote the Moritat listing off all the awful thing MacHeath did as a way of distancing the audience further from the character.
That’s all heartstrings stuff.
It’s rather like a concert pianist’s performance. Although the most annoying seem to shut their eyes and weave about as if in some ecstatic trance, the key to performing is not to feel the music but to make the audience feel it. A good deal of practice and cunning intent go into this. The added histrionics always make me wince.