There is a temptation for writers to take the easy way in describing emotions. Namely, they write of the emotion and not the cause and effect of the feeling. This is especially true in poetry. It’s common to see something like the following:
He left, rending my soul in tatters
My life was dark despair
First of all, nobody cares. They don’t. Wanna know why? You haven’t made them care. They don’t know you, and even if they did, they’d be thinking, “Ohmigod, would you quit whining?” Personally, I think sad people should not be allowed to write poetry. Wait until it gets bottled up and twisted into anger. Then you can use the emotional energy. But no one wants to see you weep on paper.
They want you to help them weep. Your words are catharsis to the reader, not the author.
Oh, and never, ever use the word “soul” unless you are writing an essay about Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye. Don’t go there. Readers don’t know what a soul looks like. When your soul was “rent … in tatters,” did it actually leave your body? Did the soul leave skid marks, like a tattoo? When you go to the beach, your face pale and body slumped, will there be dialog like:
“Look at that girl’s body. See those marks that look like stretch marks? Those aren’t stretch marks. That’s where her soul left. Must’ve rent her ass something awful.”
“Well, she needs to cover that shit up, with like, some sunblock or something. That looks terrible.”
If you want to reach people, write in terms of things they can see, touch, smell. The old adage show, don’t tell is overused, but important. For the important bits of your piece, give the reader enough information that they can discover the feeling themselves. Within that discovery, you will connect with them, and citing the emotion isn’t needed. Let’s explore the earlier poem, and re-write it, showing cause and effect.
a weekend in bed; no one judging
chocolate is a faithful lover
and doesn’t mind tear-stained sheets
Now, this quick piece is as silly as the first; both thought of while I was lying in bed, trying not to wake up. Still, it is far more effective than the first because it focuses on the what happened and to an extent, the why.
We learn the narrator is in bed after the breakup, for all or most of a weekend. Her only comfort is chocolate. We begin to think perhaps it is a more feminine sentiment as we would look for different images from a male. (Ignore the purposeful stereotype for a moment. The point is to show that even a terrible poem is better when you go deeper than the emotional level.) We also begin to get hints of what caused this: the narrator speaks of being judged and faithfulness. Perhaps her old lover left those marks. The piece focuses us on the cause of the emotion and its effects. It attempts to give the reader bits that they can possibly identify with in order to strengthen the bond between reader and author. Moreover, it allows the reader to formulate his or her own emotional response, instead of being told how to feel.
As a writer, part of the curious delight is in describing scenes, some which hold no emotional context for you, and discovering your words reminded a reader of some poignancy in their own life. Your simple description of a dog could trigger a pained memory of a lost pet that is stronger than any feeling you can describe. Go deeper; find the causes and effects. Make your words specific and the actions believable and finite.
If you go deeper, beneath the feeling, that is where you will meet your reader.