Creative Crying: The Upside of Getting Emotional While Writing
I sat alone in my local coffee shop, like I do so often. Large latte, 2% milk. A table near an outlet for my laptop. Twenty minutes in, tears streamed down my cheeks. If someone looked my way, I faked a sneeze, pretending I had a cold.
I had just killed someone I loved, and I couldn’t contain my guilt—or my grief.
Just to be clear, the deceased was a character in my novel. And I didn’t kill her because I wanted to. I had to. Her laugh, her ferocious loyalty, and the way she chewed on her hair as a girl were precious to me. Saying goodbye felt cruel, but necessary.
Every now and then, I find myself in this position: Crying while writing in a café, a library, or in my car, waiting for my kids. I inhabit my characters while I write, or maybe they inhabit me. They become real, and so their emotions and their personal histories feel raw and true. And sometimes it hurts.
Andi Rosenthal, who wrote her entire novel, The Bookseller’s Sonnets, in a café, knows the feeling well. When she tackled her most emotionally charged scene, a waiter took notice. “I wasn't sobbing or hyperventilating or anything, but just silently, endlessly weeping. As I forced myself to keep on going, writing that scene and all the details I had just lived through, one of the café servers came over, placed a hot cup of tea on the table next to my laptop, and very gently patted my shoulder,” Rosenthal says. “I never forgot that kindness. I think it is what helped me write my way through that difficult, emotional scene.”
According to Lisa Borders, instructor for Grub’s Novel Generator program, the tendency to cry while writing in public isn’t so unusual. "I'd be surprised to hear of a writer who didn't occasionally react to his or her work while writing,” Borders says. “Being in public doesn't change the emotional involvement we writers have with our characters.” Lisa wrestled with a scene in her last novel, The Fifty-First State, that made her tear up every time she read it, no matter where she was. “I felt it was a good sign, that the book could still move me in, say, draft six, after I'd lived with it for so long.”
Getting emotional while writing in public can even have its benefits, suggests Amy Impellizzeri, author of Lemongrass Hope. She came up with the ending for her latest work in progress while sitting in a café. “I cried real tears over my computer in the middle of the coffee shop. I knew then that it was the right ending,” Impellizzeri says. “Plus, the man sitting next to me bought me another tall latte out of sympathy for my tears. So it was kind of a double win!”
It’s not only the heartbreaking moments that catch writers off guard. “Everything my characters feel, I feel thrice over. If they are serious, I find myself frowning so hard, I give myself a headache. If they are happy, I wear a strange smile that gleans sideways glances from passersby,” says novelist and essayist MM Finck. But it’s not always a bad thing, she adds. “My husband is never so happy as he is after I've written a certain type of scene. He's never so unhappy as that point in my novels when the world has turned against my protagonists. He and everyone else better be on their best behavior or at least have a wine offering in hand.”
Like Finck, I also find myself juggling a range of my characters’ emotions. In addition to crying into my coffee, I also laugh out loud and sometimes get angry. Even worse, I blush. I once found myself in the back of a church writing a steamy scene. I’m certain the glow of my red face dimmed the candles around me, but I pushed through and finished the scene. I didn’t have a choice. It was what had to happen.
Just like when I killed off my beloved girl who chewed on her hair.
I’m trying to embrace the discomfort of public emoting-while-writing. I need to let myself cry, blush, and laugh because it gives me access to the layers of complex emotions I hope to capture on the page. I wish I could write in a cozy, private office where my passions aren’t always on display. But with four kids, two dogs and a farm to run, sitting still at home isn’t usually an option. I write where I can, when I can. And I cherish each stolen moment in the coffee shop with my latte and my work in progress.
Even when it makes me cry.
Julie Carrick Dalton is seeking representation for her first novel, The Poachers’ Code, which she wrote in GrubStreet’s Novel Generator class. Her journalism has appeared in The Boston Globe, Businessweek, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens of other publications. She holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, and her short stories have appeared in The MacGuffin and The Charles River Review. Mom to four kids and two dogs, she also runs a 100-acre family farm. Julie would gladly accept a sympathy latte or a supportive pat on the shoulder if caught crying in a café. But if she is blushing, you should probably leave her alone. You can find her at juliecarrickdalton.wordpress.com or @juliecardalt.