How it feels to be split open

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I’ve been struggling with a scene in my WIP lately, one that’s seemingly innocuous. It’s a scene in which the guy my protagonist has been snogging tells her he doesn’t want to go public with their relationship. It seems pretty simple and straightforward. And not at all difficult to write. But every time I sit down to get it done, my fingers freeze on the keys.

Why?

Why am I hesitating? I’ve written rougher scenes than this. I’ve written scenes with physical and emotional abuse, scenes of coercive sex. Scenes that have left my protagonist bare and raw. I’ve been open. I’ve been accommodating. And I haven’t held anything back.

But there’s something about this scene that inexplicably panics me. Something that makes my eyes burn. My skin prick. Something that makes me want to surf the net, decorate the room, or do ANYTHING except write that scene.

Why?

When I worked with Franny Billingsley, she mentioned three terms she called “The Vacuum,” the “Controlling Belief,” and “The Default Emotion.” And it’s by thinking about these three terms that I’m coming to grips with why I’ve been struggling with this particular scene.

According to Franny, the Vacuum is the great hole in a character, the thing he or she craves most (whether or not he or she is aware of this craving). Ex: Acceptance, Love, Visibility, etc.

The Controlling Belief results from The Vacuum; it is the way a character perceives him or herself as a result of the aforementioned hole or empty space in their emotional life. Ex: I’m unworthy, I’m unforgivable, No one will ever see who I really am.

Finally, The Default Emotion is the emotion your character naturally “falls back to” in times of stress or great intensity. This emotion is tied directly to The Vacuum and your character’s Controlling Belief. Ex: Shame, Anger, Longing.

If A + B + C = D, where A = The Vacuum, B = Controlling Belief, and C = Default Emotion, then D = who your character really is. (That person you’ve been trying to figure out all this time).

Yeah. I just went all mathematical on you. In a writing blog. 😉

Ex: In Franny’s novel, Chime, Briony’s Vacuum is acceptance (due to a tragic incident in her childhood). Because her Vacuum is acceptance, her Controlling Belief is that she’s wicked. And because she believes she’s wicked, her Default Emotion is guilt.

Whew. Complicated, I know. But it’s really a profound way to get in touch with your characters’ emotions and the things that make them who they really are.

So as I began to think about these three pieces and about how they shape who my protagonist is, the reason for my hesitation became painfully clear.

Why was I getting so upset?

Because my character’s Controlling Belief/Default Emotion is exactly the same as mine.

She’s not me and I’m not her, and we both arrived at our CB’s and DE’s in different ways, but we both have a controlling belief that we’re not worthy of attention/love. Which means we both have the Default Emotion of Fear, specifically of being ignored/rejected.

ALL of which we both have to deal with in that particular scene.

Yikes. Intense stuff.

This, I think, is what Natalie Goldberg means in Writing Down the Bones. I have to be willing – just as all writers do – to face my own fears and emotions. To understand both myself and my character, and find the courage to tell the truth of that experience.

What about you?

What scenes are you avoiding? What sections stand out as so emotionally painful or intimidating that you can’t bring yourself to write them?

I challenge you to sit down and look at both your and your character’s Vacuum, Controlling Belief, and Default Emotion. And if you see some overlap, don’t be surprised.

And take heart. You’re writing something real.

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9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, writing, writing life, YA

9 responses to “How it feels to be split open

  1. Ah, I remember Franny’s CBs and DEs. I’m glad you shared this, Megan. Being split open gets to the very core of things, doesn’t it. The Truth. And sometimes that’s the hardest place to be. Keep going and you’ll figure this scene out. Good luck!

  2. Great post, Megan. And a helpful reminder to remember my own protagonist’s vacuum, controlling belief, and default emotion before writing an important scene today!

  3. Shawna Lenore Kastin

    Wow, this is a great post, Megan! And thanks for the reminder/explanation of Franny’s concepts. I’ve always felt so confused by those terms but you really clarified them for me. I need to think about these things with my characters…And you’re absolutely right about the terror of having to write a scene like that that delves into your own personal fears. I’ve struggled with that, too.

  4. Megan, Megan, Megan. You’ve put your finger on why the scene I’m writing has been so difficult. Thanks for this great reminder of controlling belief. This is what the scene is missing and why going there with my character has been so difficult for me. Yes. It’s hard to be split open. Sigh. Got some work to do.

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