The first book that ever made me cry was Charlotte’s Web. At age ten, I wept for a dead spider, my tender initiation into literary grief. I still remember the cathartic feeling of those tears and the sense that I’d touched something profound and mysterious to the human experience. Did E.B. White intend to change the course of a little girl’s life? Hmm…the power of books…
As an adult, I earned a degree in pastoral counseling and volunteered in several capacities as a grief counselor. I journeyed alongside children and families who’d suffered the death of a parent or sibling, and the elderly who would soon embark on their own profound and mysterious transitions. The unsolved murder of my youngest brother in 2003 brought the whole experience home, up close and personal.
So, what does this have to do with writing? As a reader, emotional authenticity is key to my immersion in a story. I swear I can tell if a writer is baring his heart on the page, or regurgitating sentiment witnessed on a movie screen. This doesn’t mean that we as writers must personally endure every painful loss that our characters’ experience. Loss is loss, fear is fear, and they’re often transferable with a little imagination (of which we artists have plenty).
What it means to me is that we have to be willing to fully travel those paths when they present themselves, in life, and yes, in those great books (and movies) that strum our heartstrings. We need to be explorers of our emotional pain, brave enough to embrace it, to pick it apart and feel its sting. We need to dig into the fear that underlies our emotional wounds and speaks ultimately to the human condition—that each of us is here only temporarily. That we matter immensely and matter not at all.
There are days of writing and crying, snot-nosed and puffy-eyed, breathing through my mouth with a roll of toilet paper at my elbow. When I write about loss or pain or a main character’s death, I know where my tears originate. I hope that if someday you read such a scene, you’ll be genuinely moved. Then I’ll have done my job.