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Writing Your Emotional Truth

by Diana Raab, PhD

When working on my first memoir in graduate school, my mentor told me to put a sticky on my computer which said, “Get down to your emotional truth.” While at first I thought it was a corny thing to do, those six words were my guiding light during my two years of writing. What my mentor was asking me to do was to write from my heart, rather than from my mind, in a way that my words will resonate with the reader—they feel embody what I’m going through. In fact, the emotional truth of a story is the truth of how you feel about the story. Each person has their own emotional truth. Your emotional truth might be different altogether from that of another person, even if that person lived through the same kind of experience you did.

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When writing or telling a story, verbally or in the form of journaling, an essay, a memoir, or a poem, it’s important to say what you want to say without thinking what you think others want to hear. While writing, say to yourself, “Here is how I see it,” or “Here is how it happened to me,” or “This is my take on the story.” The focus should be on the story and the details connected to it. Sometimes, small details must be added to liven up a story, but the important thing is that the emotional truth is present.

The point is that the story you are writing should remain true to the way you lived through your experience. Writer Pat Conroy, who died a couple of years ago of pancreatic cancer, said that truth is relative and that he didn’t worry too much about it when writing his memoirs. He said that if you get wrapped up in what the absolute truth in a story is, then your story will not be told, and the silence around not telling your story is what can deplete an individual of bliss. In fact, he brilliantly said that it is the silence associated with untold stories that can get people into trouble. In other words, what is not said can be more harmful than what is actually said.

One thing we know is that over time, details about our lived experiences become blurred or distorted. When recalling events from our past we might discover things about ourselves and our experiences. One way to tell if you’re writing your emotional truth is that you are carefully writing and thinking about your readers and who you might offend. This type of writing will not benefit either the reader or the writer.

Also, writing or stories that don’t represent emotional truth does not have energy or vitality. Basically, the writing becomes journalistic reportage, which is often not compelling. For your best writing to emerge, you must be willing to take risks, and that involves telling your inner truth. As writer and diarist Anaïs Nin says, “The closer a writer keeps to emotional reality, the more alive the writing will be.”

Writing Prompt

Think about an emotional experience from your childhood. Write about it truthfully from your own perspective. Refrain from thinking about what you “should” write; instead, write about what you need to write.

Finding Your Authentic Voice

The truth is that when you find your authentic voice in writing you will know it, and you will also be on your way to finding your bliss. You will know it because the writing just feels right, and your words flow rather easily. You can always tell when someone is writing in their authentic voice because what they are saying rings true. Last year, I met with memoirist Mary Karr. When speaking about voice in memoir she shared that great memoirs can live or die based 100 percent on the voice of the writer. She said that all the great memoirists she knows sound on the page like they do in person and that their voices make you feel close to them, almost as if you are inside them.

Writing your emotional truth means being honest about your feelings. It is about allowing your inner voice to take charge. In other words, you are writing from your heart, not your head.

When I was in graduate school for writing, one of my mentors suggested that when writing I should make believe that I am seated across the table from my best friend. The writing, like the talking, should be personal and intimate. He also suggested that as part of my editing, I should read my work out loud. He advised that this is the best way to identify an authentic voice.

“I want to write like Mary Karr,” a woman in one of my memoir-writing workshops once told me. When I asked her what it was about Karr’s writing that she loved, she said, “It just flows so beautifully and poetically. It has such a nice rhythm. I can’t put her books down.” She went on to ask, “How can I do that?” I told her that she should start by rereading all of Karr’s books and study what was specifically compelling. Then, she should read her favorite sections out loud and write or type them. Copying is one way to imbue us with the writer’s style.

Before her passing in 2009, writer Barbara Moss Robinette shared with me that even though her MFA was in art, she had taught an MFA-in-writing program. She called herself a “self-taught writer.” When I asked how she had taught herself to write, she said that after choosing her favorite books, she copied sections longhand in her journal. She believed that that was the best way to learn how to write. She said that it was her way to infuse herself with the voice of her favorite writers.

When you are in tune with your authentic or inner voice, you have a greater chance of tapping into your intuition and thus can become more alert to messages from the universe. Your inner, authentic voice gives you affirmation and advice. It might also arrive during altered states of consciousness, relaxation, or self-hypnosis. During difficult times, your authentic voice may become even louder.

Some creative individuals—such as authors, poets, musicians, and healers—are often thought of as people who are in touch with their intuition and inner voice. Gandhi admitted that he heard an inner voice that shared this message with him: “You are on the right track; move neither to the left nor the right, but keep to the straight and narrow.” The more we trust our inner voice, the more quickly we will be led to our bliss.

One thing I learned in graduate school is that sometimes it takes a while to find your authentic voice. It also takes being confident about your subject matter. It is a good idea to write about what you know. When writing for bliss, chances are that you are writing about yourself, and there is no one who knows you better than you do. Some people find their authentic voice more easily than others do. When teaching my students, I speak about the “throat-clearing” sessions of writing. That is, when you sit down to write you might begin by rambling; you start to write about one subject and then the trajectory of your writing ends up somewhere else. This process is perfectly fine and sometimes essential for writing. What you may find is that your story actually begins on the third or fourth page. I call those first few pages “throat-clearing pages.” In the final drafts of the manuscript revisions, these pages are sometimes discarded because they often do not move the story forward; however, they are nevertheless a vital part of the writing process. When you are “in your voice” you will speak from your heart. Your true voice emerges only after the throat clearing or false voice has been allowed to emerge.

For most people, it is difficult to write in their authentic voice and edit at the same time. Two different sides of the brain are involved in each of these tasks. Writing with your authentic voice is the voice coming from your body and not your mind. When you are in the practice of writing from your body, you will reap the rewards of a happy and blissful journey.

Thaisa Frank (1994) offers a number of suggestions and rituals to help cultivate the most natural voice for you. Some of the things she suggests include surrounding yourself with your favorite objects, writing when you are angry, humming as you write, and writing with the hand opposite to the one with which you normally write. She also suggests writing only fragments of a story or dialogue, writing in the dark, or dressing all in one color as a way to be different from the way you usually dress.

If you are writing about someone dear to you and you have a piece of their clothing, you might try having their clothing nearby when writing. Some years ago I was fortunate enough to receive a purple cape from a deceased writer whom I admire and whose essence inspires me. Instead of keeping the item hanging in my closet, my spiritual guide suggested that I wear it while writing. When doing so, I found that my creativity flourished and my voice became extremely authentic. It was as if words flowed more easily when I wore the writer’s cape; perhaps in some ways, they might even have been flowing from her.

Writing Prompt

Think of someone whom you view as either intuitive or a visionary. Write about this person and why you think they are intuitive. What personal experiences have you had with them to make you view them in this way? How do you think that you can learn from their intuitive powers?

Writing Prompt

Write about what you believe your authentic voice is. Who is the person who wants to come through in your writing? Give examples of writers whom you want to emulate and what it is about their voices that you admire.

About the author:

Diana Raab, PhD is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, and speaker. She blogs for Psychology Today, Thrive Global, and Elephant Journal. Her latest book is “Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life.” Her website is dianaraab.com.