Voluntary Masochism: Writing with Emotion

I grew up in a dysfunctional family. Chances are many of you did, too. My family’s main dysfunction was that we were not allowed to express negative emotions. We could smile or not, laugh or be quiet but we could never show anger. Never. Confrontation was bad. Expressing pain or disappointment was frowned upon. Is it any wonder that I grew up with no idea how I felt about anything?

GIVEAWAY: Jane is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: writeandtravel won.)


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Award-winning writer Jane Myers Perrine has published books with
Avalon Books, Steeple Hill Love Inspired, and FaithWords, a division of
Hachette Book Group. Jane’s Butternut Creek series is about a young
minister serving in the beautiful Hill Country of Texas and is filled with
affection and humor. The latest book is THE WEDDING PLANNERS
OF BUTTERNUT CREEK (Nov. 2013, Faithwords). Jane lives north of
Austin where her life is controlled by two incredibly spoiled tuxedo cats.  

Then I started writing. Talk about  a foolish career choice: a writer who feels  uncomfortable around emotion. A writer who cannot express feelings.  This pretty much explains why my first three published books were filled with humor and froth. I love my first book, THE MAD HERRINGTONS, a traditional and award-winning Regency, but the only bad thing that happens to the heroine that her parents show up at the house party she’s attending.

Readers expect emotion. Oh, they love humor as well but they expect and really want characters they can identify with deeply, who go through pain and learn and heal and come out on the other side changed and triumphant!

Writer Sharon Sala teaches a workshop on how to express emotion. Her advice sounded easy but opened a new world to me: to convey the emotions your characters feel, dig deep inside yourself, find those emotions you may not have allowed yourself to show before. Remember the time you were saddest or deeply devastated or very happy and imbue your characters with what you felt.


With that, I was able to write how Franny (THE PATH TO LOVE) felt when she realized the hero could not accept her for who she was and had the strength to walk away from him. Who among us hasn’t had to stand up to someone who’d like us better if we weren’t so much who we are?  To write about Franny, I had to overcome my fear of confrontation, my habit of giving in for peace. Not easy, but my writing improved.

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A friend who is reading the BUTTERNUT CREEK series said to me the other day, “Jane, do you realize how autobiographical these books are?” Yes, I do, but probably on a different level than she’d thought. Many of the events in the books came from what my experiences but more autobiographical were the emotions that came from deep within myself.

As well as digging inside myself, I’ve explored the feelings and emotions of other people, real people, observing the battles and heroics. We authors are shameless in appropriating whatever we can from our friends and families.

Sam, one of the heroes in THE WELCOME COMMITTEE OF BUTTERNUT CREEK is an alcoholic ex-Marine amputee suffering from PTSD. I have never been any of these. However, I watched the heroics of my husband as he struggled with difficult health problems. I used his courage and victories to form Sam.

Expressing emotion is like my getting into a swimming pool filled with cold water. At first, I stick my toes in and pull them out. Then, I go down a few steps and get used to the temperature. Finally, I immerse myself completely. For seconds it’s icily painful. I want to leap out and wrap up in my towel.  But after a few shivering seconds, the water feels comfortable.

When we as writers put our deepest emotions and feeling on a page and share them with others, we’re extremely vulnerable. It’s chilling to think that others will read about the most intimate details of our lives and feelings. We’ve exposed our failures. The readers know us and our pain and the ugly events of our lives, the emotions we’ve hidden for decades because we’ve spread them out for all to view. As writers, we’re voluntarily masochistic. Personally, I’d rather leap away and wrap myself in  the comfort of denial and I can do that  but my writing will not be as strong.

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As I write, I attempt to convey the pain throbbing inside where the emotional anguish becomes physical,  the times I’ve curled up and sobbed because I can’t find comfort or surcease. When Gussie (THE MATCHMAKERS OF BUTTERNUT CREEK) has to realize if she doesn’t face the pain of rape that she’s denied so long, she will surely lose the man she loves and when Sam recognizes if he doesn’t tell Willow about the horror of war and the loss of his best friend, she will turn away—the pain of sharing or not opening up is what a writer must express.

Don’t be afraid to feel and to show your emotions. You can always step back. You are allowed to pull your toe out, cover yourself with a blanket, and curl up where you’re comfortable. Or you can step into the cold and deep water and write what you feel, what the characters must feel, and create a far better novel.

GIVEAWAY: Jane is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: writeandtravel won.)


Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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32 thoughts on “Voluntary Masochism: Writing with Emotion

  1. Annalie

    The depth of an author’s work never ceases to amaze me. What a colorful lesson Jane Myers Perrine is teaching. Of course, her talent can not be ignored either, even as she strays from novelist to teacher. Great work and thank you very much!

  2. maupin

    I really enjoyed the topic of this article. If I am writing a story and something touches to close to home the first thing I want to do is stop writing or go back and change everything so the story can go in another direction. I appreciate that you encourage writers to not be afraid if something touches closes to home. Thank you for sharing your wonderful stories and sticking it through!

  3. Clae

    Yikes, what a story. Thanks for the fascinating reminder that we have to work hard to express what we feel, especially when we aren’t sure what we feel. If we are confused, the reader will be, too. Dig deep, write hard.

  4. Andi W

    This is the advice I needed right now! Fellow writers have recently told me I need more emotion, passion, and feelings in my writing, so that the reader can relate to them. It is difficult to put yourself out there, especially when your work becomes autobiographical, but it makes for a story that relates more to the experiences we all share as humans. Thank you for your article, it will help me so much!

  5. writeandtravel

    Thank you for sharing your views on emotional writing. Bearing feelings and truth is like a large woman daring to be seen in a full piece swimsuit. Does she dare to make things worse by wearing a T shirt over it so people won’t see how silly she looks in it or does she throw caution to the wind and enjoy the moment for what it is?
    In my writing, I’ve had to reach way back to childhood pain that can still trigger tears and anger fifty years later in order to bring realism to a character. As you’ve mentioned, readers want characters that they can relate to and sometimes that means pulling back the curtain and saying, “Here I am. Take your best shot.”

  6. vrundell

    Thanks Jane for your article. Truly, we wouldn’t have liked Katniss Everdeen if we hadn’t seen the love she holds for Prim. The spectrum of emotion doesn’t have to be in every book, but those touchstones of elation, sorrow, embarrassment, envy, passion, horror–that’s what humanize the characters we read. It’s what makes a story with reading. Thanks for reminding us to dig deep and bleed onto the page.

    1. JaneMP

      So right! Katniss is not always likeable but she is still a meorable character for the reasons you mention. And, again, you’re right. We as writers have to pick the emotions needed in each book and for each character. Good luck!

  7. Becky Lewellen Povich

    Thank you for a wonderful article. When I was growing up, it was okay to be sad, but not angry. And of course, we never talked about a subject that was sad or hurtful, so I understand. I love your line: “Then I started writing. Talk about a foolish career choice: a writer who feels uncomfortable around emotion. A writer who cannot express feelings.” I would love to win The Wedding Planners of Butternut Creek! Thanks!

  8. Aceyroch

    I wrote a book last year that has a lot of emotion in it. But when I go back to read it, I feel some parts, but not all. I think that when I go back to re-write it, I should really take the leap and put all of my feelings into it. It’s going to be hard, I know, but I have to. The story needs it.

  9. R.J. Carr

    A really great article. I love the fact that you open up about the way you were raised and now you’ve overcome the disadvantages that were caused by your upbringing. You give me hope that we can all overcome anything that is keeping us from writing our very best. Thank you.

  10. smitchell

    Easier to say, than to do, especially with years of practice of shoving those feelings aside. Not only do you talk about this, but you’ve demonstrated that it can be done. Your books are proof.

    1. JaneMP

      Thanks, Quiet. I don’t think a normal person likes masochism. I just know that I have to make my characters suffer and to feel with them for the process to work.

  11. kristybaumer

    What a great column! Digging down deep into ones heart and soul can be like trying to pry the lid off of a box that has been nailed down. I enjoyed the insight into creating characters with real emotion! Thank you Jane.


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