Go Deeper than Feelings


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.


  1. They are super soft. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. cecilia says:

    empathy not sympathy.. i absolutely agree.. and as a side note i have never understood why people (women) go to chocolate or icecream when they are sad. How strange is that. Why do they do that? No-one makes poems about doing the dishes with lots of banging and crashing, or crying into the laundry! My son bless him went through a miserable sadness, his wife had a miscarriage. he went out and rented a digger and smashed his swimming pool to bits, they had always hated the swimming pool it took up all their backyard, so he smashed it up breaking it into itself, then bought two semis full of soil and filled the bugger in. The he calmly sowed a new lawn. Today they are sitting on it.. not very poetic i suppose. But like you say, better than whining.. c

    1. I used to ritualistically take all the photos I had of an ex-girlfriend and set them on fire. But I agree with you; in the real world, people do odd things when they are in grief. It’s hard to relate to people whose response to hardship is to sit and cry – at least long term. So much “poetry” is like that I believe it helped to kill the genre. Now fiction is becoming the same way, with much of it poorly written emotional or sexual nonsense. Soon, only writers will read, like only poets read poetry.

      Sayeth my inner pessimist. 🙂

  3. daniellajoe says:

    Thanks, some writers can bring you into their world…..and you can feel their emotions….

  4. 2Spools says:

    This is good stuff. Same applies to photography. Direct and honest, like it.

    1. Thank you very much.

  5. Hanno Phenn says:

    The really hit the Nail on the Head,you are so true I feel the same about Art .

    1. I think it’s what separates good art from bad art.

  6. You are a phenomenal and refreshing writer

    Much appreciated

    1. You are very kind. Thank you so much.

      1. Thanks for giving us something to read that is of quality…. Anyone can put down words, it’s another thing to write.

      2. Thank you for giving us something of quality to read. Anyone can put down words, it’s another thing to write. I found this piece in particular “a good piece”

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