Sit with your heart before you write. 

I learned a valuable technique for writing quite by accident. I invite you to try it. It will take your novel writing to a whole new level.

I am a project manager by day and my first PM job was to work with our IT department to transfer our data over to a new platform. This was my first experience as a PM and I worked under a senior project manager that was very difficult to work with. She would make grown men cry. I kid you not.

I’ll call her Sybil and yes, I am referring to the movie about a woman with multiple personalities. I wasn’t sure if this PM was bi-polar or if she suffered from insecurities or mood swings but she would run hot and cold in the same meeting. She could start off attacking and then switch to supportive or start off supportive and switch to attacking. Every session was like walking on eggshells.

The example I am going to give is the event that set me off on my Netflix binge of watching documentaries of people with mental illness. I needed to understand her and was hoping to glean insights as to how not to take it personally and learn how to communicate with her in a way that wouldn’t trigger an attack. I was operating on the “look what you made me do” principal that I had to have done something to trigger the change.

I was assigned the task of presenting information to the implementation team. I asked the PM to review the slide presentation with me before the meeting to see if I had the points she wanted me to convey.  We sat outside a meeting room in a cubicle going over the presentation. It was about 10 minutes before the meeting, and we went over each slide, and she would provide comments like that is good, or right, but let’s elaborate on x when we get this slide up. Overall the conversation was positive, and she said she liked the deck.

I was feeling good as I put the first slide up. Then it started. “What on earth did you think when you created this slide? Did you even factor x?” Each slide had a similar attack. Of course, my new boss and co-workers were at the meeting. By the third slide, I had no moisture in my mouth and could barely talk. I was stunned and just stood there like a deer in the headlights or rather the scope of a rifle. My boss and coworkers were not shocked at the behavior and told me that is just how she operates, not to take it personally.

That rainy weekend I decided to binge-watch Netflix documentaries on people with bipolar. I watched from several perspectives,  Interviews with the person suffering, the family members, co-workers, friends. From there I realized depression was almost always a component and started watching documentaries on people dealing with debilitating depression. I shifted to empathy instead of anger. I didn’t know if she suffered a mental illness, maybe she was insecure and attacked the work of others to make her work stand out. I just knew I walked away, thinking this is her stuff, not mine. I’m not going to take it personally, especially since this is how she treated all the team members at one time or another.

After watching a full day of the emotional roller-coaster that individuals and their friends and family go through, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I decided to get some writing done. The chapter I was working on for my fictional character was her suicide attempt. I can only say that I must have drawn on the earlier emotion because the section wrote itself. I went back and read it the next day, and there were parts I didn’t remember writing. I went on to the following chapters and eventually finished the book without thinking of the “suicide” chapter again. I put sample chapters up on a forum for feedback and received comments about how I had captured the “suicide.” I still didn’t make the connection to my binge. Then I sent my sister my first draft. She called me and was upset and asked me how I knew about the suicidal thoughts and asked me if I would reach out to her if I ever felt that way. She had lost a friend to suicide and was scared that I was having suicidal thoughts. I assured her that I had tapped into emotions from binge-watching.

Then I had a friend at work read my first draft. She came by my desk with a look of concern and said, are you free for dinner? I want to talk to you about your book. I was excited. You read it? Did you like it? Not here, she said. Let’s talk at dinner. I was like, wow, does she hate it and doesn’t want me to start balling at work? We went to dinner, and the first thing she asked is if I was suicidal. I gave her the same answer and realized the power of opening your heart before you write a scene can bring in insights and feelings that you may not tap into on your own.

A few years later during a workshop, we did a similar exercise using music. When writing a father-daughter wedding dance, I listened to wedding songs, songs about fathers’ love for their children, and songs about loved ones that had passed. I’ve yet to see a dry eye when I ask people to read that chapter. I think you have figured out the technique. If you want to write an emotional scene about someone expressing love, listen to love songs, if you’re going to draw on inspiration, listen to inspiring Ted-talks. If you want to draw on grief, listen to music about missing someone that has passed or watch a movie about someone passing. Think Terms of Endearment. Even better, write the chapter on your own and then bring in inspiration with music or other media and write the same chapter. Powerful stuff, right?

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