Emotion Must Not Be Present During Writing

The first time I read A Prayer For Owen Meany, I found myself getting teary-eyed at the end. What a character! What a story! I had never read a novel that so perfectly illustrated for me the concepts of faith and doubt and friendship. The emotion that rose within me in that moment, as I read the end of the book, was palpable.

So when I stumbled over L’Engle’s quote in her book Walking on Water about emotion and writing, I had to stop for a moment.

“Emotion can come before writing, and after writing, but it must not be present during writing.” Madeleine L’Engle

Emotion must not be present during writing.

When’s the last time you cried or laughed out loud or got angry while reading a book?

What do you think about L’Engle’s quote, that emotion must not be present during writing?

16 Replies to “Emotion Must Not Be Present During Writing”

  1. I get pretty emotionally invested in most artistic expressions. So I openly cry or laugh or yell when I read or listen to music or watch dance or visit an art museum. No emotional response from me is rare.

    I’m not sure what I think about the L’Engle quote. I can see the wisdom of not writing in a fit of emotion regularly, as it CAN cloud our words. But I don’t know if it can NEVER be a part of our actual writing process. But that’s probably me just balking at absolutes, particularly as related to the creative process.

  2. Last time I laughed out loud reading a book was during my reading of “The Pastor” by Eugene H. Peterson. Good, good stuff.

    As for the L’Engle quote, I’m not really sure. I haven’t read more than a snippet or two of her work, so I can’t say if her work is emotionless or not. As for myself, I don’t think I turn things off 100% and I wonder how it would affect my writing if I did.

    1. Her work is definitely NOT emotionless. Honestly, I would list the Time Quartet as one of the formative reading experiences of my youth.

  3. Michelle – She’s not saying that writing should not contain emotion – she’s saying that the writer, while writing, should be calculated and aware, not bowled over by the emotion being written about.

    Alise – I do not like absolutes either. Ever.

  4. I often laugh out loud, cry, and get angry while reading. I cried about a book long before I ever cried about a movie.

    I think authors have to be unemotional in the most emotional scenes. In order to show readers what it’s like to be in the situation, emotions must be somewhat removed. The details, to me, allow the reader to participate in the emotion. And emotion sometimes clouds those details.

  5. I’d lean towards disagreeing with that quote. Our emotions can breathe life into our writing, which in turn resonates with our readers. There’s a time and a place for it, however. Something written out of pure, unfiltered emotion (i.e. anger) may not accurately convey what you want it to and end up hurting others, as well as diluting your voice. The trick is being able to take a step back and think through your message.

    Yesterday I wrote my first piece about Grandma dying and I cried through much of it. I had to walk away several times because it was just too much. When I was composed, I picked up where I left off and tried to remember the point of writing and processing this past week. Will it be too much? I guess I’ll find out when it goes live in an hour. But for me, it’s honest and true and speaks to the messiness of grief. I don’t think I could write about Grandma- even years from now- and not have that underlying emotion be present.

  6. Part of the reason my memoir is taking so long to complete is that when I get too emotional, I cannot write it. I cannot take the time and effort to lay out the details of those events while I’m bawling. That’s when I blog and freak out about it! :) I work best when I can look at my memoir as the story of an outsider of which I know every single detail.

  7. I think for me it depends on the stage of writing and the reason for your writing. I write and blog because I have these emotions and thoughts (though you could say they are one and the same) in my head, and writing is the one of the only ways I can make sense of them. I often will laugh, cry, get pissed, whatever during my initial writing. But for me, that’s the stage what I call “emotional word vomit”, I just need to get those thoughts, feelings, emotions out and into words to start. I think if I’m not emotional during those times, I wouldn’t really convey the emotion behind the words.

    But I have to make sure that once I’ve vomited the words all over the page, I go back and clean it up, careful not to lose the emotion, but taking the ugly mess of thoughts and make them make sense. I do think that during that time, you need to keep your emotion on a very tight leash (though not put it away completely), as your purpose at this point of writing isn’t to convey emotion, but rather to make sense of the emotion.

    1. Yeah, I totally agree with this. I think emotion can’t be present during the editing process or you let yourself get away with some less delightful writing.

      Ask me how I know that. ;-D

  8. I have to agree with Joel here. Anyone who knows me even a tiny bit knows I can be a like a firehose on full blast with emotions. It’s part of my charm. :) And yes, writing can be intensely emotive. (As shown above by Brenda, a sentiment with which I can agree). I like the idea that certain stages require different parts of us, and some stages require everything we have, mind, body, sprirt. I’m surprised, frankly, to hear L’Engle say this and even more surprised that I must disagree with her.

    I wonder if she means the writer’s emotions, which is a little more palatable, but still rather sour on this writer’s tongue.

  9. I disagree. Though maybe if I heard her flesh it out more, I could be swayed.

    I feel like I do my best writing when I’m full of emotion. I can crank out pages and pages when my emotions are running high.

    Editing, for me, is the opposite. I have to edit without emotions. Because with emotions, I’d not ever take anything out. Emotions get in the way of the editing process.

    Without emotion, I don’t know if I’d ever get any writing done.

  10. My Fiance just wrote a sermon and cried while she was writing it. When she was speaking it, that was my favorite part.

    1. I sometimes cry when writing sermons. Then I need to work through the emotions again and again. Otherwise, I won’t be able to preach it without losing it.

  11. I disagree. My best stuff comes when I “go under” into the emotion of the scene I’m writing. If the writer feels it when writing, the reader will feel it when reading.

  12. You mentioned “A Prayer for Owen Meany” recently and I just tracked it down and started reading it yesterday! I laughed out loud today reading it… With regarding to writing with emotion. Andi told me not to try and write sentimentally. It changed my thinking. What I took it to mean is that write with emotion, but know that it will never mean as much to the reader as it does to you…

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