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The Creativity of Emotions

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Fiction-Therapy-WU-logo-2022.jpg?resize=My friend’s 15-year-old son has just had his heart broken for the first time. He’s also just written his first song. It’s about a guy who got his heart broken. He’s a talented musician, so it will probably be a pretty good first song.

Many wonderful creative works have come from strong emotions. Aristotle wrote that everyone who “attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.”

In a recent episode of the excellent Happiness Lab podcast, Helen Russell, author of How to be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned About Getting Happier by Being Sad Better, called sadness a creative emotion. “When all is going well, there’s little need to do anything different. When we’re sad, we think about our next step.”

That next step could be organizing a fun night with your friends, looking for a new job or throwing your ex-lover’s record collection in a lake. Or it could be to write a poem or a story, paint a picture or craft something from clay.

Russell also says that we should try to accept sadness as a part of life. If we can accept it, not be afraid of sadness, that acceptance can enrich other parts of our lives . If you’re not afraid of sadness, then you won’t hold back in other parts of your life, you won’t be afraid to give more, and so your happy times could be even happier. Sure, the sadness might come again, but that is part of you, part of life.

Let it all out

We need to accept our sadness and anger and other strong emotions, and maybe even learn to enjoy some of the things they bring us as individuals, like the idea for a new novel or the inspiration for a love song.

Love, in general, not just heartbreak, can motivate us to be creative. Think of all those songs from people who just wanted to tell the world about their love. And all those novels too. There’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. And The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir is based on her affair with the writer Nelson Algren.

And there are too many examples from poetry, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning deserves a special mention. She wrote a series of poems to her husband, which ended up in the collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese. It includes, How do I Love Thee. “Let me count the ways.” Swoon!

Then there is anger.

There are some brilliant angry comedians. Bill Hicks remains my personal favorite, and Larry David has managed to apply his particular brand of rage to fill 11 seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm.


A group of psychologists in the Netherlands showed that people experiencing anger brainstormed ideas in a more unstructured way than those who were not angry, and that this type of flexible thinking produced more creative results. This makes sense since anger can be an invigorating kind of emotion. It really does get the blood moving and gets us thinking in irrational ways, which, in the right conditions, can lead to some great creative works.

Protest songs are obvious examples of anger used in creativity, and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam is one of the greatest, written after the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls.

That moment of anger is a great time to try some stream of consciousness writing. Just get it all out there in one rapid burst. This works even better with a pen and paper where you keep writing and writing without even taking your pen from the paper. It will probably be completely illegible, but you just might get some useful ideas from it.

Research by psychologist Eddie Harmon-Jones and his colleagues suggests that it’s not the specific emotion that is important but the intensity of the emotion. And other research from the department of psychology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania reported that people who experienced intense emotions performed better in creative tests than those who experienced their emotions as either negative or positive.

These and other studies suggest that experiencing the high and lows of life, the whole range of the human experience, can lead to the intrinsic motivation we need to be creative. And that counts for any creative activity, not just writing.

So, as much as I don’t want to see that 15-year-old boy heartbroken, we know that this is just one time in his life when he’ll experience a strong emotion. And we’ve all gained from the creativity that the happiness, rage, sadness and other emotions have brought in others. Maybe we’ll gain from him, too, some day.

How do your emotions affect your writing? Have your emotions inspired your writing?


About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist.

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