WIP: Getting to the Meta-Emotion

A few years ago, I took a writing workshop with songwriter Carrie Newcomer. She gave us a “prompt” to start us writing, with the instruction to “be brave, detailed and don’t stop to think or censor.” The prompt was “I’ve kept it all these years.” Here is an abridged version of what I wrote:
I still have my childhood braids, wrapped in blue tissue paper. My hair has always been a problem, ever since I insisted my braids be cut off when I was six. In junior high, my hair was very short, coarse and dark brown–not black and smooth like my sister’s. It was frizzy with stubborn curls. . . I wore it with a bow in front to match my clothes or my pink glasses. In the ninth grade, I started ironing my bangs. I wanted them to be eyelash long, like model Jean Shrimpton’s (whose sister Chrissie was lucky enough to be Mick Jagger’s girlfriend). My mother was always at war with me over my bangs. She wasn’t impressed when I showed her pictures of Jean Shrimpton. When I started making hundreds of dollars a day as a model, Mom said, I could wear my hair any way I liked.
At that point, Newcomer stopped us. She told us to skip a line, then write the phrase “but what I really want to say is. . . ” Here is what I wrote:
But what I really want to say is–I was normal. If Mom and I hadn’t argued about my hair, we would have argued about something else. If my hair had not been the focus of my angst, something else would have taken its place–perhaps my glasses, my skin, my stick-like legs. It was normal girl stuff and I wish now I could have seen that and taken pleasure in that normal aspect of myself instead of focusing on how I was different and imperfect.
What a great exercise this is! I employ the concept of digging deeper (“but what I really want to say is. . .” ) all the time with my characters. First, a definition: I’ve used the term “meta-emotion” for years, but before committing it to my blog, I thought I’d look up the “real” definition. I discovered there are many, and none of them fit exactly what I mean, so I’ll offer my own definition. Meta-emotion: that emotion that is beneath a character’s actions, words and  superficial feelings. A good example: a mother can’t find her child in the grocery store. She searches frantically for him. When she finds him she gives him a small swat on the bottom and scolds him, “Don’t you ever leave my side in a store again!” Her action, words and superficial feelings are angry, but her meta-emotion is fear, pure and simple. We do this all the time. I bet you can think of an incident in the last few days in which your behavior and words implied a certain emotion, while your meta-emotion was something else entirely.
In Newcomer’s exercise, she tapped into our meta-emotions when she prompted us with “but what I really want to say is. . . ” My job as a fiction writer is to understand the meta-emotions of my characters.
The first draft of any of my Works in Progress is always full of dialogue and scene setting. There’s very little detail. I save that for the third draft. The second draft, which I’m working on at this time, is where I search for the meta-emotion. Today, I worked on a scene in which Sara (the Mom in the story) is in conflict with (Marcus) her former brother-in-law. She says a lot of mean things. I like the scene a lot, but I (and the reader) need to understand what’s behind her angry demeanor. So I asked her, “What is really going on with you?” She had to think about it for a few minutes, but then she told me how she was feeling on a meta-emotional level. It was up to me, then, to determine how much of that insight to share with my readers and how much to leave to their imaginations. But either way, I now understand Sara better and that will make for a richer character.
ps   After writing that exercise in Newcomer’s class, I donated my childhood braids to Locks of Love.


  1. Cher on April 18, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    I was missing you after my trip to North Carolina (and adventure on Topsail Island), so stopped by your blog for a virtual visit with you. I enjoyed your articles about writing and your parents. I never knew they spent so much time in Hawaii! Now that I live on the west coast, I’m getting very fond of Hawaii myself. Also, am very glad you stopped “ironing” your hair for good and let it go curly.

  2. Diane Chamberlain on April 18, 2007 at 11:31 pm

    Hi Cher! I miss you, too. It was wonderful to spend a whole week with you.
    One of the things I miss about living in San Diego is its closeness to Hawaii. My parents were very lucky to be able to spend many of their winters there.
    I’m glad you like my hair curly, but I’d trade it in a heartbeat for your silky straight locks!

  3. Margo on April 19, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Locks of Love, a wonderful organization. If I ever decide to cut mine, I will ask if they accept tresses from an adult (someone once told me only donations if 18 and under so not sure?)…I’d gladly share my hair with a child. As for your curly hair Diane, I think its beautiful. Some people pay alot of money just to get that look! P.S. I LOVE HAWAII too!

  4. Cheryl on April 19, 2007 at 9:19 pm

    Margo, I had a friend that donated her hair a year or so ago and she’s in her 20’s, so I think you can be any age. She told me you have to donate at least 12 inches.

  5. Margo on April 20, 2007 at 8:32 am

    I’m glad to know age probably doesn’t matter. Thx Cheryl. I definitely have more than 12 inches and will remember this great organization if and when I decide to chop it off.

  6. brenda on April 21, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Am setting up my new laptop today-had to go with Gateway again and a wireless mouse this time-am still not sure about my internet-might change…just want to make sure this works.
    Just read the latest Alice Hoffman-great as always!!!!!
    One of my students donated her locks to that organization…it was great for her.
    Take care…
    My graduation date-if nothing else happens-is May 5th-Saturday…
    By the way-the tea party (Jane Austen style) was great in the class the other night-I enjoyed doing it and we had such fun…perhaps some of us can get together at one of D’s conferences and do that…

  7. Diane Chamberlain on April 21, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    brenda, i just got a gateway laptop and i love it (so far. . . ).
    oh, great, another book to add to my stack of to-be-reads. i’ve heard from several people that cormac mccarthy’s THE ROAD is fantastic. then i want to read picoult’s new one. right now i’m reading escape suspense–SLIPSTREAM by leslie larson. Not my kind of book, but i’m definitely into it. she has a stephen king-type gift at characterization. i really admire that.
    2 weeks til you graduate brenda! hooray!

  8. brenda on April 22, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Am going to read Tami Hoag’s latest next-library just contacted me.
    Diane-I got my computer yesterday-this is my second Gateway laptop (the other is 5 years old and going strong-used every day of the week) I wanted a wireless.
    Have you tried yours as wireless-at your location where you write?
    I am trying to put in my essays,etc. I got a basic laptop–they did the virus thing for me-I bought nothing extra (I never do) except for a wireless mouse-love it love it love it.
    This gateway was much less expensive than my last one and does the same…they also installed my copy of my Microsoft word so didn’t need to buy the new one-the Vista-well I see no difference with that yet…
    Let me know about the wireless.
    Graduation–I will only go to the hooding ceremony…my kids are coming and want to see that…
    Keep writing-I am looking forward to that book (no pressure or anything.)

  9. brenda on April 22, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Diane-I think when pressure is on-we go to escape suspense-how ironic-I read a couple of those this week-although it was difficult for me to read with the tragedy at VT unfolding…as a teacher-I always worry about April 20th week–and find it difficult to concentrate. Have lived through many bomb threats when I taught in the south and a few up here…several lock downs, etc…it is not funny to go through…I remember the Columbine DAY and my students huddling around me and then 9/11-some of them wanted to stay in my classroom with me…so so so sad…

  10. Diane Chamberlain on April 22, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    brenda, the wireless feature on my gateway has worked great–at home, at starbucks, at the beach house on topsail island. i like the look of vista and have had no problems with it yet. i installed my beloved word perfect.
    the VA tech tragedy– two of my stepdaughters went there (and lived in the ambler johnston dorm) and i spent a glorious week there teaching a writing course a couple of summers ago. truly the most beautiful campus i’ve ever seen. ironically, when i’m stressed and need to go to a “peaceful place” in my head, it’s a july evening on that campus that i picture. i doubt that’s the place i’ll be going to settle my mind in the future, though. my heart breaks for the families who lost their loved ones, including the family of cho. it breaks for him as well. somehow he fell through the cracks, never having received the help he desperately needed as a child and young adult. not to get TOO political, but the whole tragedy demands a reevaluation of our mental health system and our gun laws–or at the very least, the flaws in the background checks necessary to buy a gun. searching for the silver lining, i’ve been moved by the students and faculty at tech as they pull together during this time of heartbreak.
    from poet Nikky Giovanni’s address to Tech’s student body: “We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.”

  11. brenda on April 22, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Diane-am at Fazoli’s in Huntington and the computer is working wireless.
    The Starbucks in our area charge.

  12. brenda on April 22, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    I agree-not to get too political–how many more slip through the cracks? Those poor families-including the man who did it…

  13. brenda on April 23, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    no comment on latest Tami Hoag

  14. brenda on April 23, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Have you guys read “IF I AM MISSING OR DEAD?

  15. Diane Chamberlain on April 23, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    uh oh, i guess no comment means you have nothing positive to say. I read her a long time ago, but don’t remember much about the book.
    I haven’t read IF I AM MISSING OR DEAD. intriguing title, though!

  16. brenda on April 23, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    I really like Tami Hoag’s books…they are intriguing…I said no comment because of the LANGUAGE–part of my message did not post…go figure that one…I would NEVER leave out at least one positive comment esp. from such an intriguing writer…her stories are spell binding.
    I hope others read this and let me know.
    IF I AM MISSING OR DEAD is by an author I have never heard of-is about abuse…
    (Janine Latus)

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