One of the things Jon brought up in that original interview with Duct Tape Marketing is that he likes to focus on the emotion he wants to bring out in the reader. The interviewer asked about his practice for finding that target emotion, and Jon explained that writing the 100 headlines a day helped him a) get better at writing headlines; and, b) find the ideas that seemed to generate emotion.
Headlines with Emotion
Those are the headlines he uses to write his posts: The ones that start with a target emotion, that make you feel something. He wants to write something that might make you cry or get mad. Jon stressed that sometimes you want a reader to get angry because, for example, let’s say something is holding a reader back and he or she needs to push past that—Jon argues the reader should get angry at that block or resistance, so bringing out that emotion can be a good gift to the reader.
The interviewer asked Jon how it all worked, and Jon said he has to get himself into the state he wants the reader to be in. To do so, he might watch some YouTube videos or read a passage in a book or draw up a memory. And when the emotion is stirred inside him so strong that he can no longer contain it, he dumps it onto the page.
When people read and begin to feel that emotion, you create a connection—maybe even form a bond— between writer and reader. This reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous quote:
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
When I work on little snippets of memoir in an article or book, I take myself back and try to not only remember what happened but how I felt. Chapter 8 of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts is titled “Discover (When I write, I discover myself).”
When working on that chapter, I took myself back to a formative stage in my teens and tried to pull up the circumstances and feelings. I keep the emotion understated, but here’s a portion of what I wrote.
Excerpt from On Being a Writer, Chapter 8 – “Notice”
By the time I (Ann) was 14, I realized the children’s department of the local library couldn’t provide the depth I yearned for. Shyly, I made it a habit to browse the adult nonfiction shelves for exercise books, vegetarian cookbooks, drawing tutorials, and a series that taught survival skills, in case I ever acted on my dream of living by myself in the woods, like the kid in My Side of the Mountain.
One afternoon I glanced through books on writing. A title caught my eye: Write to Discover Yourself, by Ruth Vaughn. I looked both ways and plucked it from the shelf, running my fingers over the green cover with a fuchsia Gerbera daisy poking out of a pencil cup. It seemed a little wacky, but . . .
I desperately wanted to understand myself, unearth who I was meant to become. And deep down, I wanted to write.
Cheeks flushed, heart thumping, I tucked the book under my arm to hide the title from anyone who might question my desire to write, or ridicule my search for self. I feared my family’s response most of all. In a household of word-people—both parents were journalists and my brother would eventually become an advertising executive—I was the vegetarian runner who asked for art supplies at Christmas. Compared with my family, I had never demonstrated noteworthy writing talent. I lost every game of Scrabble®.
Nevertheless, I retreated to my room, tiptoeing up the staircase, and secretly penned responses to the author’s writing exercises. I stuffed the spiral-bound notebook far back in my closet so no one would peek.
Over time, I kept a journal and followed instructions to “portrait” the important people in my life, exploring memories, capturing life. I sat on the hardwood floor of my bedroom and composed a word-portrait of my father, struggling to express the way his resonant voice, rising from deep within his barrel chest, could build and fill—even shake—the house. Or was it just me, shaking? Page after page, the author encouraged me to continue being specific, to use concrete details and metaphor. I poured out stories from my little world.
Digging into yourself requires a depth of honesty that is painful, the author said, but imperative. She quoted a professor who said a writer “is the person with his skin off.” This is how I began to decipher my life. On the pages of a journal, I wrote with my skin off—bare, vulnerable.
My journalist-parents didn’t write like that, nor did my quick- witted brother. At least, I was pretty sure they didn’t. Of my family, I alone seemed to practice this private outpouring of words and deeply personal reflections. With the help of that stumbled-upon writing book, I peeled back layers to stare at my heart and soul. I began, through practice—through pain—the lifelong process of finding myself.
Give Purpose and Meaning
As I said, I left this understated, but I tried to go back in my mind, in my memory, and feel something—not to manipulate, though. I think it’s important not to manipulate. Instead, it’s what Jon Morrow said—it’s about connection and a bond between writer and reader, forged through vulnerability so that we can see and respond, “Okay, we’ve both been here; we’ve both felt this.”
Brené Brown says, “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
We give purpose and meaning to others as we discover our own purpose and meaning—when we write to discover ourselves. And it can start with practicing vulnerability. It can start with emotion. So open your heart and invite your reader in.
Click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below to listen to the full episode.
- #50: Stop Waiting for Last-Minute Writing Inspiration (home of the 50-Headline Challenge)
- Duct Tape Marketing interview with Jon Morrow
- The Paris Review: Interviews – Robert Frost, The Art of Poetry No. 2 (Robert Frost interview where you can find the “No tears in the writer” quote)
- Amazon listing for On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts (excerpt used with permission, T. S. Poetry Press)
- Brené Brown’s TEDtalk “The Power of Vulnerability“
Short Memoir I’ve Written
- One Lone Duck Egg – Memoir
- A Foreigner Sees the World – Memoir
- A Prison of His Own Fears – Memoir
- The Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt 1
- The Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt 2
- Teaching Poetry to Children: There Are So Many Blues
- Come Again: Teaching Poetry to Children
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Images by Isabelle Kroeker.
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