Educating the Heart, the Writer’s Heart

When Aristotle spoke of educating the heart, he meant that one must be emotionally intelligent. Of course, the term emotional intelligence didn’t come into common use until after the publication of the book by the same name in 1996.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.

–Psychology Today

Educating the Heart

It’s not that you’re supposed to actually manipulate the emotions of others. Too many people do that far too often. What it means is to be self-aware and to be empathetic with other people. How do we become empathetic?

Reading is the number one way most people educate the heart. Stories not only help us define terms we use to identify emotions, it shows that two people experiencing the same event can feel differently.

Why do I bring this up? As a person, this is important. As a writer, it has another level of importance. Storytellers have an obligation to our readers. Our characters emotions need to reflect real emotions. This is where you must write what you know.

Your emotional experiences are real. They are what you must be able to put on the page. Get back in touch with how you felt when you had your first kiss or you lost your first race.

In the first draft, we often slap a label on the words your character is using. Labels aren’t the most effective way to express emotion. Look at these two examples:

“I can’t go,” he said sadly.

“I can’t go,” he said. His shoulders drooped and he avoided looking me in the eye.

Which one resonates more?

Watch out for the tired words like sighed, smiled, and frowned. Get to the gut.

Educating the Writer’s Heart

Having trouble identifying those physical reactions? There are several ways to educate the heart of your writing. One is to, wait for it . . . Read. Highlight or copy passages that strike an emotional chord with you. Read psychology articles and texts. Journaling your own emotions can be helpful. Writing down what your body feels like and what you do can be instructive. Finally, I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s chockful of physical, internal, and mental responses to emotions.

We writers educate ourselves on how the plot works, how to create conflict, and a myriad of other story techniques. That’s great. Those things will help you tell a story. But don’t forget to educate the heart, too.


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