I don’t know about you . . . but last week was really, really hard.
I live in Ohio, but a massive amount of Inkling’s creative support base is located in Nashville. I was on a business call when I first heard about the shooting at Covenant School, and it felt like a direct punch in my gut.
I have clients in Nashville, as well as friends there that are connected to Covenant Presbyterian Church in a million ways, and all of last week, the hits just kept coming. Friends who were married in that spiritual community, who had their children baptized there and sent them to school there. Loved ones who knew the victims’ families, including two who are personally connected with a family who lost their young daughter.
The loss of loved ones, especially children, in such violent, sudden circumstances, is unimaginable and agonizing. From 400 miles away, I’ve watched my creative family struggle with rage, grief, and overwhelming sadness.
As for me, I have felt helpless, yet I have talked to friends online, donated to GoFundMe pages for funeral expenses and counseling resources for kids, and of course, prayed, prayed, prayed because that’s what I can accomplish from a distance.
I have been thinking a lot in the last few days about how writing is frequently connected to the experience of strong emotions. Yes, we can express our feelings out loud and vent to others about what bothers us. But something particularly profound and surprising happens when we get out a pen and paper and start expressing what is really going on inside us.
I know the Nashville shooting and other current news events have people experiencing intense emotions. I know I’m right there with you. But what I hope to do in this week’s post is give you some strategies for dealing with your responses so you can take your anger and not just express it through writing but also create something that will be useful to others.
I’m going to present you in the sections that follow with some strategies for expressing anger and other emotions in writing, but no matter which you choose, there’s one central principle you have to follow:
Abandon all impulses to censor yourself.
Whether you plan on sharing your work with someone or not, the first draft of anything belongs solely to you. You can be as honest as you want. You can give yourself permission to write badly. You can swear, call people names, and describe your emotions in brutal honesty. No one is going to see it, and simply releasing yourself from the obligation to be formal and respectful can immediately cause the process to be healing.
Remember the phrase “word vomit” from Mean Girls? That’s precisely what I want you to do. Just take all that frustration and rage and blast it all over the page. Don’t worry about being prim and proper and using all the right words. There is complicated stuff going on in your head, and you need to put it somewhere else so it isn’t cluttering your consciousness.
The blank page is a great place to do that.
Express Yourself Through Journaling
Journaling is an obvious way to work through your emotional experiences. I’m a Christian, and I use journaling as a tool for prayer. I’m not saying that I don’t pray out loud or silently, but something very special happens between my Father and me when I physically inscribe my prayers in my journal.
Because of this, the act of writing down the words is just as important as what you say with them. I journal with a Pilot V5 extra-fine rolling ball pen, and something about how it feels to write with this pen is soothing and allows me to entire the proper frame of mind for prayer.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it also helps me focus when taking notes at a conference or writing class.
If you don’t journal and are experiencing intense emotions because of the current state of the world, I encourage you to find a system that works for you. This is up to you, but I strongly recommend using a pen and paper, not the Notes app on your phone or a journaling app.
The act of physically writing is genuinely therapeutic. Please don’t miss out on the power of detaching from our tech-saturated world to give your words a place of honor and respect.
Write an Expressive Poem
“But I don’t write poetry,” you might be thinking. You know what, though? That doesn’t matter.
People like to put poetry up on a pedestal. They think that to be a poet, you have to think Deep Thoughts, reflect on Big Ideas, and have Something Important to Say.
You know what the real requirement for being a poet is? Writing a poem.
The great thing about poetry is that it can be whatever you want it to be. There are no rules. Again, the beauty of first drafts is that they are a starting point, no one is judging you, and best of all, there’s nowhere to go but up. You can always revise it later.
How will you know if poetry will help you express your anger if you don’t even try?
The trick with writing poetry about emotions is to make your ideas into something concrete. Words like anger, rage, and sadness are powerful, but they’re abstract concepts—we all have our own understanding of what they mean and how those emotions feel.
This is great if you’re journaling, but because good poetry lives in concrete, sensory details, it’s helpful and even therapeutic to use these details in your poem.
When I talk about concrete details, I mean things readers can imagine seeing, hearing, and touching. Create a scene in your poem that is easy for readers to enter and use it to explain how you feel.
Again—the end goal doesn’t have to be showing your poem to someone else. But using poetry to portray your feelings can help you turn them into something outside yourself that captures what you are experiencing.
(NOTE: My Ultimate Poetry Workbook contains an exercise about how to write poetry of activism! Grab a copy for FREE here.)
Practice Empathy by Writing a Story
One great thing about writing fiction is that it forces you to practice empathy. You have to imagine your way into a character’s life and portray how they interact with their environment, other characters, and their own emotions.
Writing a story about the issue or topic you are angry about can help you process your feelings by creating an understanding of the events going on outside of your mind. Create a character who is experiencing the issue or concern you’re dealing with, and write a short piece where you imagine how that person would cope with what is happening.
If you’re a poet, try writing a persona poem, a poem narrated from the perspective of a character.
Don't Forget About Self-Care
Writing about strong emotions can be hard work. If you start to feel triggered or overwhelmed by the process, don’t feel shame in putting your piece aside and doing something else for a while.
For example, I experience emotional frustration with my work, my go-to activity is riding my bike. An hour or so on the trail with my favorite music clears all the gunk out of my head. I go home, take a hot bubble bath, have a favorite hot drink, and then get back at it.
If you think writing might be painful before it’s helpful, have a plan like this in mind to take care of yourself should intense feelings arise.
Need More Resources?
If you get started on expressing your emotions through writing and aren’t sure where to start, my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook contains tips, templates, writing prompts, and tools to help.
Sometimes all you need is a small piece of an idea to point you in the right direction. So if you need that today, grab a free copy of the workbook here.
And as I mentioned above, we’ve got one for poets, too.