are you emptying yourself into your writing

Are You Emptying Yourself Into Your Writing?

Writing is treacherous business, fraught with fear and doubt on every side. Am I any good? Will I get published? Will I get good reviews? Will I sell any books? But perhaps the most inherent danger of the writing life is the necessary baring of our souls to the world.

Writing, at its most basic level, will always be the story of the author himself. No matter how far removed the subject matter, no matter how diverse the cast of characters, the story is always, always, always about the author. And, to all but the most narcissistic, that’s a dad-blamed scary thought.

The Scary Thing About Emptying Yourself Into Your Writing

In an interview with Mary-Curran-Hackett (Writer’s Digest, April 2007), Janet Fitch, author of the bestselling novel White Oleander (affiliate link), said it perhaps as well as anyone:

Anytime you work with materials that are deep parts of yourself, you feel revulsion at showing things about yourself that you don’t want people to know. … You have to work as deeply as you can to give the reader something worth reading, but you’re also showing things about yourself that you’re not pleased with. It’s your flaws, not your strengths that go down in the depths of your books. You’re exposed, like dreaming you’re naked in a public building.

The best novelists are those who can tap into their characters’ psyches at a primal level. They can reveal a character’s innermost fears, his secret fantasies, his darkest sins. To reveal these things, to bring them to life in a way that will resonate with readers on a deeply human level, means the author must understand and even identify with these feelings to at least some extent.

Why Writing Is Really Acting

A writer is an actor. A one-man show. For two hours every afternoon, when I sit down to write, I become my characters. I am the megalomaniac bad guy, I am the damsel in distress, I am the knight in shining armor. To make these characters live and breath in three dimensions, I must become them, I must understand them and the issues they are facing. When my hero limps in front of a firing squad, I am standing with him. When my bad guy orders his army into battle, I am shouting alongside him.

But the rabbit hole goes even deeper than that. Actions, on the page or in the theater, are just actions. I can go through the motions of trauma and chaos right alongside my characters, but that hardly means I am actually fulfilling them. My hero may be running through No Man’s Land on a German battlefield, while I am safely perched on my chair, feet propped against my printer, typing away in my warm house. It’s in the emotions, not the actions, that a writer truly gives himself away.

When I write of a character’s deep fear of failure, when I tell of her fear churning and churning in her gut until all that’s left is anger, and when I show her lashing out in her anger and in her fear, I am telling something of myself. I am not this character. I am not consumed in this fear-cum-anger. But, somewhere in my own self, I have found the latent potential for this emotion, and, in printing it on the page, I have revealed that potential to the world.

Is Emptying Yourself Into Your Writing Worth the Risk?

Anyone who has ever written more than two paragraphs in a row has experienced the blast of fear that comes when someone else reads his work. He waits, sitting on his hands to keep from chewing his nails, cold sweat touching his scalp, fidgeting and squirming (mentally, if not physically) as he waits for the scales of opinion to tip in favor of either commendation or criticism.

We, of course, fear that our work, our words, our craft will not measure up. But an even more inherent fear is that of rejection on a deeper level. When someone rejects our writing, he is, in a sense, rejecting us. When someone tells us he doesn’t like a character, he’s telling us he doesn’t like a part of us. And, very naturally, that hurts like heck.

Writing is not for sissies. I suppose you could get by without ever really pouring yourself onto the page, without really sharing your own personal slice of the human experience. Perhaps you might even be able to get yourself published. Certainly, I’ve read plenty of novels that didn’t seem to share much of their authors’ souls. But the good books, the really good books, the ones I lay in bed at night thinking about, the ones I can quote even years after I’ve read them, the ones that have impacted my thinking and challenged my soul—those are the books that can only be written by an author who is willing to spill his guts onto the page.

Is it still risky? You bet your birthday it is. Are there going to be people who misunderstand your message? People who disapprove? People who slap you in the face with rejection? Absolutely. But, if you’re called as a writer, you cannot let that stand your way. Don’t short-change yourself—or your readers. If you have a gift, don’t prune it, don’t censor it. You cannot fill someone else without emptying yourself into your writing. Write yourself ragged, don’t hold back, and you’ll find that honesty, in writing as in all else, is the best policy—and the surest path to success.

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever find it difficult to empty yourself into your writing?

are you emptying yourself into your writing

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. You are so right. Writing is not for sissies.
    I have written two books where I poured my soul out. I mean the good, the bad and the ugly. It had to come out and the only way to get it out was to write it.
    I’ve always been that way. I have written my heart and soul in journals all my life. Like an idiot I burned my high school journal in fear of my brother reading it.
    But, when I have a problem to talk over with Jesus, I write to Him. I write my prayers, my praises, my promises, and my problems.
    Since 2001 I have been seriously writing and publishing books, aricles, devotionals. I share my writing where ever and whenever I can.
    Rejection is not easy, but I don’t let it stop me. I realize that everybody is not going to like what I write. when I recieve a rejection letter, I read it, then I trash it.
    That day I submit something somewhere else. It is like a mission!!
    Your blog has been very helpful to me today. I have never written any fiction except for some short stories. This book in my heart and head may take years. That is okay. I don’t have anywhere else to go or anything more important to do.
    Writing is my call. I write so that others will find Jesus. I am not an entertainer-I am a wtiness.
    Now getting this into fiction–that is where my challenge lies at this point.
    I want to learn–so I am reading and absorbing everything I can. I have three different books on writing Christian ficiton going on right now. I am taking every challenge seriously.
    This is a journey, a process and I am having a ball!!
    Thanks again for your blog–you are one of those authors that is not afraid to help other writers. I like that about you.
    Angela again

  2. I’m encouraged that you were encouraged! Writing is crazy life: glorious and hellish at the same time. But somehow the good always seems to outweigh the bad!

    If you’re in search of good writing resources may I suggest some of my favorites:

    Write Away by Elizabeth George
    Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
    Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer by Rennie Browne and Dave King

    Happy Writing!

  3. I love this post. You really nailed what writing is for me.

    “I am not this character. I am not consumed in this fear-cum-anger. But, somewhere in my own self, I have found the latent potential for this emotion, and, in printing it on the page, I have revealed that potential to the world.”

    The above sentence especially hit me. Thank you so much for saying for me what I’ve been feeling for so long, so now I know what it is. 🙂 No wonder I felt nervous writing about my character trying to commit suicide, and that’s why I’m uncomfortable telling people about it. But I know that that is in me, and it is in my character too.

  4. Realizing and accepting this powerful fact about our writing is both scary and liberating. Embrace the liberation!

  5. This is a powerful post. It sums up everything writing is for me. It is truly something that you need to be passionate about. It is something that consumes you. It becomes why you get up in the morning. And to share what you have written with the world is still something that makes me so incredibly, incredibly scared. You said it perfectly here
    “But, I think, an even more inherent fear is that of rejection on a deeper level. When someone rejects our writing, he is, in a sense, rejecting us. When someone tells us he doesn’t like a character, he’s telling us he doesn’t like a part of us. And, very naturally, that hurts like heck.”
    Thank you for sharing this!

  6. I’ve found that one of the best ways for getting past the painful parts of being a writer is to realize other writers go through the very same thing. So I’m glad to hear you’re in it with me as well!

  7. It must be providence that I ended up here today, facing 2013, another year when I promise my self to write THE BOOK. I get stuck every time because of this not wanting to reveal myself. I wish I could fictionalize and hide somewhere. I wish I could write another story but this one refuses to let me bypass it. Perhaps I can just finish it not thinking about publishing it, a small chapter at a time.

  8. There comes a point when you just have to not care what readers may think of you. And that, of course, is way easier said than done. The only way I got my second published book Behold the Dawn written was by telling myself that no one but me would see it. And it’s turned out to be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.

  9. ‘Writing, at its most basic level, will always be the story of the author himself. No matter how far removed the subject matter, no matter how diverse the cast of characters, the story is always, always, always about the author.’

    I feel a little better now after my so called friend called me self obsessed two years ago. Of course I am – I’m a writer after all 😉

  10. None of us is perfect. 😉 There has to be a certain amount of introspection (which can, of course, lead to self obsession, if we let it) if we’re to plumb the depths of the human heart and share that on the page.

  11. As always, this post goes beyond coaching writers in craft alone. It shows the emotions, the zeal you put into all of your posts, articles, books, and more importantly to me… your comments.

    Thank you for being real, for being you.

  12. Thanks for reading! I’m glad you’re enjoying even these old posts.

  13. Jorge Serbia says

    Great piece! Thank you.
    Emptying myself into my writing forces me to reopen old wounds that came from all the most traumatic experiences I’ve had with rejection in my life.
    But as painful as it is I see it as a therapeutic process that helps me move on in life to the new people, places and experiences that are still ahead of me.
    So I’m open to change, love, etc, because I emptied myself into a story.
    Then regardless of what happens with my story I myself can move forward into what life has to offer next.
    If I thought I would empty myself into a story only to get it rejected than I would resist writing it for as long as I could.
    But if I see it as an opportunity to move ahead in my life than I will embrace it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great attitude. Clinging to our wounds only causes them to fester. But if we can use writing to work through them and facilitate healing, then we not only end up feeling better, but we’re also likely to develop thicker skins as well.

  14. Of course, the corollary to pouring yourself into your writing is that when you are empty you must refill yourself. I’ve just become aware of this. Last year I released 25 titles sometimes working 24 hour stints without sleep. It starts with the physical drain and then goes to the emotional drain of exposing yourself whether in fiction or nonfiction to all those strangers out there.

    If you don’t take some time away to yourself to nourish your soul, you won’t have anything left to give. So, this year I’ve had to back away I emptied myself too much. In fact, I shouldn’t even be posting on blogs and stuff. I’ve been advised for the next two weeks to do nothing but watch TV and read and rest. So, remember when you empty yourself into your reader, you need to take time for a refill.

  15. Thanks for this wonderful post, K. It has given me new perspective. Sometimes when I’m writing a character with traits that are so alien to especially our culture here in Ghana, I get scared that people may interprete it as a reflection of me – which indeed it might, and is, sometimes. For if I can imagine it, if it emanates from the depths of my own thoughts, then it is, in essence, me, right? And yet so often characters that have shock value in their personalities and actions are the very essence of the story, but these same actions and personalities are, like I said, so alien to our culture that I myself get sqeamish when I read them, and imagine others whispering, “how could he write something like that?”. What I need, I think, is a little more guts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writers have to have guts. We would never put that pen to paper to begin with without a measure of courage. I like advocating the idea of “writing scared.” If it scares you, for whatever reason, that’s probably a sign you’re on to something important.

  16. What a great article. Thank you for writing this – it sounds just like something Ray Bradbury would say.

  17. Susan Peek says

    I just found this wonderful post (okay, so I’m behind the times) and I cannot tell you how struck I was by your beautiful words: “You cannot fill someone else without emptying yourself”. Isn’t that the very way Christ redeemed us, spilling every last drop of His blood? If we, as writers, can enrich even one reader’s life by pouring out our own blood, sweat and tears — our very selves — onto our pages, wow, what a magnificent and noble calling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Couldn’t agree more. But there also has to be a refilling time. If we empty ourselves into our writing, we have to find ways to refill that well – so we can empty it again.

  18. I really, really, really needed to read this! I am developing myself as a writer and it’s been harder than hell digging out those parts of me and writing them down. In fact, I’ve walked out of my writing space totally exhausted and spent mentally and just want to flop down and veg out. Thanks for the article; it feels so good getting that confirmation!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s likely to lead to some of your best writing though! And it’s excellent catharsis.

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