Label That Feeling

One primary difference between the writing of someone like Sue Grafton and yours is that she writes about Kinsey Millhone, a fictional person, and you write about yourself. Your challenge is to make yourself as real to readers as Sue makes Kinsey to me. One of the main ways she does this is by describing Kinsey’s reactions to events. She has me right inside Kinsey’s skin and head, feeling anxious, smug or delighted right along with her, right down to bodily sensation.

In a quest to sharpen my ability to describe feelings and reactions, I recently began paying close attention to the way I’m feeling at any given moment. As I set my mind to do this, I'm thinking about it increasingly often, and I’m becoming aware of a wide range of subtle nuances. Right now I’m feeling gentle excitement about getting this blog written. A couple of days ago I was screamingly frustrated over that website block I wrote about earlier.

You may have to stretch to find specific names. I recall a grad school seminar once where a classmate said, “Why do we have to be so specific about labeling feelings? What’s the difference between being gently piqued and flamingly furious? Why can’t we just say, ‘I’m angry!’ and be done with it?” Ordinarily, that may be good enough, but it won’t pique readers’ interest nearly as well as precise and imaginative descriptions.

Naming the feeling is a first step. The next is to pay close attention to your bodily sensations as you experience the feeling. How do you experience anxiety? Does your stomach clench? Your neck knot up? How about your shoulders? Mine rise in quest of my earlobes! My breathing becomes shallow, tight and rapid, and lack of oxygen may lead to some minor lightheadedness. My whole body may tingle.

Yeeks! I’d better write about something else before I provoke a panic attack here! Describing feelings is powerful. I’m getting into my own story where a minute ago I was happily excited.

This observation leads to a fringe benefit from describing feelings and reactions: The next time you feel frazzled, beat-up and distressed, write a description of the feelings to get them recorded for future reference, then turn your attention to writing intently about a time when you felt really great. You don’t need a whole story, just couple of paragraphs about your ecstatic glee, and how you felt your could fly, or whatever it was. Shifting gears may be quite a jolt and difficult to do, but give it a try and see how you feel after writing those feelings from memory.

As I read Stephanie West Allen’s recent blog post about the mental health value of labeling feelings, a huge grin spread across my face. I leaned back in my chair with lifted head, tingling with pleasure and waving my fists in glee. Dang! I thought, I knew it all along, and now the neuro-scientists have shown why!

Whether you want to liven up your writing or simply increase self-awareness, invest some time in becoming more aware of your feelings. Practice labeling them and record the accompanying sensations. Whether or not you become more real to your readers, I promise you’ll become more real to yourself.

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal

Countdown: Two more days. Two more days! until the formal release of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. Check with your local bookstore next week, or click over to right now.

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