Grist For the Mill: Emotion and Creativity


As you read this, I am driving home from New York City having just dropped off my daughter at NYU. She’s a freshman this year, so all of this is pretty new to me. The last-minute shopping, the packing, the move-in day and orientation and getting settled. The bills — oh my GOD the bills. And underlying all of it, the emotions that come with seeing my eldest child go off to college: excitement on her behalf, sadness at the thought of her leaving home, happiness at the thought of her leaving home (yeah, some of these are pretty mixed), trepidation at all that she has to face in the coming years — we’ve been taking care of her for so long, and while she is bright and mature and confident, is she ready? I am more aware than I have ever been of my age, of the swiftness with which time passes, of the fact that, at least for this child, most of my parenting is done.

All of this, of course, is what a friend of mine refers to as “Grist for the Mill,” by which she means fodder for future stories and books.  Writers are pack-rats.  At least I am; I never throw away anything.  If I’m working on a book, and I wind up cutting a large section of text, I don’t simply delete it.  I copy and paste it into a file of scraps so that if I need to I can use it later in that book or in a future project.  But being a pack-rat means also holding onto memories of emotions, experiences, conversations.  It means that, in a sense, nothing is so personal that it can’t be stored away so that at some point it can find its way into a story.

That probably sounds incredibly crass.  I suppose in a way it is.  But it’s also as honest as I can be.  Many years ago, when I was still working on revisions of my first novel, Children of Amarid, I lost my mother.  She had been through a long and debilitating battle with lung cancer, and my father had been there with her, every step of the way, dying a little bit himself with each day he had to nurse her and witness her decline.  I wanted to work through my own pain at losing her; I wanted to lose myself in my work on the book.  But I couldn’t.  I was distracted; I was mourning.

Until, as I rewrote a key scene, I used as a point of view character an older man who had recently lost his beloved wife.

For nearly two years he watched her waste away, taking care of her as best he could.  The local healers were powerless against the illness, and his own magic could not reach the disease that raged within her.  He could ease her pain for a time, but that was all.  Gradually it took her, bit by bit:  her joy, her beauty, her spirit, and finally, mercifully at the end, her life.

The character’s name was Niall, but for this passage, and for several of the others, he was my father.  At first I felt odd using such personal emotions in my work, and yes, I felt guilty as well.  This was many years ago, and I was still figuring out what it meant to be a writer.  But I think my father would have understood (he died before that first book was published), and so would my mom.  Using the grief, the pain, the stark images that were so much a part of my real life helped me through those difficult months.  They also got me writing again.

Of course, “Grist for the Mill” is not always painful.  In 2005-2006, my wife, daughters, and I lived in Australia for a year.  While I continued to write, and my wife took her Sabbatical in a biology lab in Wollongong, we also explored, discovering a land that was both familiar and beautifully, wonderfully novel.  Later, when I wrote my Blood of the Southlands trilogy, in which characters from my Winds of the Forelands series move to a new land, I drew heavily upon that experience.

Just as eventually, after I have had time to process what I am feeling now, I will use the experience of dropping my daughter off at college in a story or book.  The circumstances won’t be exactly the same; the emotions will be blended with others appropriate to the particular circumstances of my point of view character.  But the emotions of this episode in my life will inform that writing, as emotions and memories always do.  I may use them in a month; I may need to let them percolate for a few years.  But all of them are Grist for the Mill.  I will hoard them, file them away in my head until they are ready and needed.  I’m a writer, and this is part of what I do.

Have you drawn upon key emotional moments in your personal life to strengthen a passage in your writing?  Care to talk about it?  Care to share a brief (very) excerpt?

David B. Coe

18 comments to Grist For the Mill: Emotion and Creativity

  • I don’t *think* I’ve really used a specific piece, but I’ve definitely used feelings and emotions from my life. I know what a stab wound feels like in muscle tissue, what a perforated bowel feels like, how your ears are affected without protection when a loud bang like a gun or firework goes off in an echoing or enclosed space (don’t ask). I know the pain of loss, I know the elation of finding love (and the uncertainty), I’ve known fear, pessimism, guilt, jealousy. And I can, when I think about it, remember where it’s coming from. However, I’m sure if I look close enough, there may be some scenes that may at least use elements from life experiences. But mostly, it’s the feelings I tap into and try to convey on the page. If I make my reader shed a tear in a scene, hold their breath in a tense situation, or pump their fist when a bad guy gets it, it’s all worth it to tap into them. 😉

  • sagablessed

    For this scene I used the deaths of my dog and the death of a man I considered the brother of my soul. In fact, it was because of those I started writing: as a way to express the pain. Now I write because I have can.

    Christopher’s rare, violet eyes stared at him from the portrait above Hershey’s bed, his black hair combed for once.
    A sudden chill sent mocking fingers down his spine. He was trying to brush that one strand of Christopher’s hair. The one that had never behaved. But brushing it back into place was not possible anymore. A single fingerprint marred the otherwise spotless glass.

    “Why did you have to leave me, baby?” he murmured to the lifeless thing in front of him. His Adam’s apple moved against the harshness in his throat. It was a futile exercise, as always.

    David turned away, pulling his sweater tighter around his shoulders. No magick in the world could bring his husband back. He would know: he had tried.

  • sagablessed

    Daniel, so true: “If I make my reader shed a tear in a scene, hold their breath in a tense situation, or pump their fist when a bad guy gets it, it’s all worth it to tap into them.”

  • While I was working on Mad Kestrel, we went to the mountains with a friend. My husband and son decided to snowboard, and my husband fell and popped his shoulder out of joint rather badly. I spent the next several hours driving him to the ER, watching them work on him and eventually taking him home again. I learned more about joint injuries that night than I’d ever expected to know.

    I had a scene in MK in which Kestrel fell and dislocated her own shoulder, and after watching my husband suffer through the same thing, I realized I’d written it ALL wrong. Once we were home again, I went back to that chapter and changed the injury to something much less traumatic.

    I would not, however, recommend that anyone injure their loved ones just to see how it looks. 🙂

  • […] with the dropping off of my oldest child at college for her freshman year.  So it is called “Grist For the Mill:  Emotion and Creativity,” and it is about using personal experience and emotion and memory to strengthen the emotional […]

  • David> One quick note: It might feel like it now, but you’re no where near done parenting. As you know, I think, I lost my mom my senior year of college, and then, less than a year later, I moved to Ohio (from CA) to grad school. I so still needed parenting! I was setting up my own apt, paying my own bills, learning to be a real adult (as opposed to a dorm-living college student)! I’d ask my dad for advice and he’d say “you’re smart etc. you can make your own choices.” Well, duh! I knew I could, but I was asking him because I was smart enough to ask for advice. 😀 So don’t worry you guys have lots of parenting left to do! Just not of the “curfew” variety!

    As for using emotions: I used the experience of my grandmother’s funeral: I was around all these people and I suddenly realized that they were all gushing about a woman I didn’t know. Their experience of her was radically different than mine because of the fraught relationship she’d had with my mom (her daughter) and hence with me. Very much an “alone in a full room” moment.

    I also stole someone else’s story and used it in a novel. I stole a story Sarah told me about her brother and used in the backstory for a character of mine because my character had siblings, and I don’t. When Sarah read it she said “That’s mine!” and I said “I know. Is it okay?” She said it was. 🙂 And I promised I’d confess it was hers, too, so I have.

  • Thanks for sharing this glimpse in your life and in your writer’s mind, David. I have incorporated situations and emotions which I have endured in my writing before (as you say, “grist for the mill”) but it’s not really something I want to share at the moment. Sometimes I do my best writing in the darkest times of my life and as such, those emotions do certainly creep into my words.

    I hope your daughter has a wonderful time at NYU!

  • Razziecat

    To me, this is what “write what you know” really means. After all, I’m never going to go into space, visit an alien planet, or create an elaborate ritual to defeat an evil mage and send a god back to the spirit realm. But I can tap into the emotions that are behind my characters’ choices and actions, and I can use the physical experience of joy, pain, grief, etc., as well- the strongest emotions affect the body as well, and physical pain can manifest emotionally and mentally. The following is a bit from one of my stories in which the MC dreams of his dead wife:

    He woke with his heart pounding, Arrian’s face melting away into the darkness. He made a sound, harsh and incoherent, his hands clutching emptiness. Dry-throated, he swallowed, while tears, hot and useless, ran down his temples and into his hair.

  • sagablessed

    Misty: aw poop. there goes one idea for emotional connection. 😉
    Just kidding. Sheesh,people, get a grip.

  • Save passage, my friend, that passage of long roads and time and change, too. See you at DC soon.

    I had just found out that my dog, Bear (a flame-colored Pom) was not well and his days were numbered. Here my character is finding a lost dog who she will eventually adopt.

    The little dog waited patiently beside the step, panting and bright-eyed. I paused and petted the small head, no bigger than my fist, and was surprised how soft the hair felt. My only experience with dogs was helping Tee Dom bury them, and the scrawny strays he shot with the twenty-gauge were never so clean and furry. Most were mangy, starved, and sickly, abandoned on a deserted parish road by uncaring owners who no longer wanted the responsibility of a pet.
    The little pink tongue licked my fingers, coating my hand between quick little pirouettes. I checked for a tag or collar, finding only a thin rhinestone band buried in the fur, with the word Perkins spelled out in colored stones. He wore no other identification. Because he seemed lonely, I scratched his chest between his front legs and smoothed his pointed ears. His fur was warm from the sun and smelled faintly of flea spray.
    “Perkins, huh. You don’t look like a Perkins.” The dog whirled again, his front paws held just below his jaw, his back feet dancing. “I’ll bet your owner isn’t happy to have you loose. Did you slip out somebody’s door and take off after a little lady dog? Are you lost? Humm? Are you lost?”
    He wore an expression on his small face that reminded me of the Precious Pup cartoon, the way the dog got all content and happy-faced after he was given a doggie treat. I half expected Perkins to float up to the ceiling in ecstasy just from the attention.
    Standing, I headed for my van. Perkins sat down on the doorstep to Cee Cee’s shop and panted.
    I pulled the van around and off-loaded my oils as the dog watched, seeming perplexed that one would move heavy furniture in the sweltering heat.

  • I can’t think of a specific event that I’ve used in a story, but I do use the emotions of those events. Not always pleasant to relive.

  • While I was living in Japan, I lost both my grandfathers within two weeks. It was eleven months before I could come home, and the feeling of not only having changed and not fitting into the place of my past, but the family having properly grieved without me, inspired me to rewrite the ending of THE MARK OF FLIGHT. This is the start of the final chapter.

    “She stepped forward, her figure warping the light, gouging an appropriate shadow out of its presence on the ground. In her mind, the trail had simply frozen the way she’d seen it last–blood-spattered, scattered with broken arrows and Ysedda’s slumped figure. If she’d thought about it, Arianna wouldn’t have expected to see the trail still scattered with the detritus of Tashda’s betrayal. Of course someone would have tidied up the mess. But she hadn’t thought about that.

    Ysedda had been found here, eleven arrows piercing her from abdomen to throat, by Warsman Captain Eclemm. The part of Arianna’s heart she had steeled for this moment, the part she had unconsciously prepared to find the dead body of her handmaiden, seemed suddenly lost, powerless against a fight that had come and gone without her. The castle had buried, mourned, and tidied away the handmaiden’s presence while Arianna had been gone. There was nothing left behind to help her understand its reality. There was no arrow to pick up. There was no blood to mark the spot. There was nothing at all amiss.

    Ysedda might have disappeared–a snowflake, melted away and evaporated, gently as seasons changing, and just as unimportant. Arianna stood in the light, heart throbbing. Her hands ached to break everything in sight, to make the trail mourn her handmaiden’s death as if she could force the castle to dredge up the past and all she had missed.”

  • Oh the mixed emotions! Yes, I packrat experiences away for writing – my own and other people’s. I set Kinslayer Winter (still looking for an agent) in Buffalo NY, my college roommate’s hometown. Fortunately, she was touched instead of insulted. In the same book, I had to give in and accept that I couldn’t write the sister-brother conflict without channeling my own issues with my family. I’ve never had to send a sibling to jail like MC, but I know what it’s like to try to opt out of dysfunction and get punished for it. Now I’m writing a high fantasy YA and realizing I have to pour my own conflicts with religion into it or the internal conflict will be flat. I didn’t set out to be autobiographical and I don’t want to write memoir, but I find that if I want things to be real on the page, I usually have to bleed a bit out of my own experience. Sometimes this is really, really hard – I don’t necessarily want to relive negative emotions that vividly, but when I do, the writing gets better.

  • Just back from a long, long day on the road, and more, a long weekend of packing, driving, unpacking, saying goodbye, and driving some more. I am spent, exhausted, excited for my daughter, but also a bit melancholy. I LOVE the responses you all have put in these comments, both the sharing of emotions and the passages from your fiction. Many thanks for sharing.

  • quillet

    This reminds me of Faith’s post from last week. One more reason to be a writer: You suffer something painful — an illness, an injury, loss, betrayal — and at some point you take notes on how it feels, so you’ll be able to put a character through it accurately some day.

    Mind you, sometimes there are no notes and you just have to remember. I’ve done that too. As you said, it all becomes grist for the mill. And as SiSi said, not always pleasant to relive. Therapeutic, though!

  • Thanks for this, David, and thank you for sharing the wonder and loss of your daughter’s fledgling flight into the world. As someone whose “baby” is 28, I can assure you that she’ll always need parenting. 🙂

    Almost everything I’ve ever written has some emotional grist from my past in it.

    She dug her fingers into the loamy soil. Dead leaves, black soil, tiny bits of the forest’s detritus rose between her fingers. Kyl stopped speaking. Silence pressed in on her. Cautiously, she raised her head.
    The meadow, so warm and alive only moments before, seemed cold and brittle now, as if formed of crystal and ice. She raised herself slowly to a sitting position, sure that any sudden motion would shatter her. Each leaf, every blade of grass, every flower sliced into her eyes, the colors so pure they hurt. Kyl stood waiting, watching. He too, seemed crystalline, sharp-edged and unreal. A bird trilled and Tirae flinched at the sweet sound. The air seemed thick, like water, swollen with the scents of sap and grass, moldering leaves and rich, black soil.
    His voice cut like shards of glass. She recoiled. Concentrating on her movements, Tirae rose to her knees, to her feet. For a long silent moment, she dared nothing more. She vibrated like a plucked harp’s string, off key, wound too tight.

  • I’m like Daniel, in that I’ve had a lot of experiences that have not yet made it to the page, but that I feel will eventually.

    Like the time my friends and I were attacked in a suburban park at night because we went on a junk food run to 7-Eleven at midnight.

    Or how it feels when I accidentally inject into a capillary when taking my injections, and the surge of adrenaline and panic through my body.

    Or the sometimes-crippling anxiety that can get to me at odd moments.

    And the list goes on…

    I’ve written a lot of these down in various places, and when they need to be drawn on, I will. Klutz that I am, I’ve tripped and fallen to the ground on gravelly earth. I used that for a scene when my main character was being attacked, and gets thrown down.

    Loys’ whiskers brushed my ear, his rotten breath wet on my neck. “One word and you’re dead—”
    He tossed me to the ground. I tasted blood. Gravel scraped my palms and chin.

    That “rotten breath wet on my neck” was grist, too—from a date with a boy I met in Yahoo Chat. We went to see a movie and I was *so* not interested, but he was trying to get lucky and wound up making out with the right side of my neck. Ewwwno.

    These details really do stick around! 😀

  • Quillet, Lyn, Laura, thanks for the comments. I agree with Lyn’s comment that all we write has some basis in past experience, even if it’s just drawing on memories of love or anger, joy or fright, confidence or confusion. Again, great stuff.