Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Don’t worry. I’m just writing.

Someone explain this to me:

It’s 1 time out of 100 that I write in public (usually by necessity, not by choice).

It’s 1 time out of 100 that I write a scene that makes me cry (again, no stopping it).

It’s 100 out of 100 times that these two overlap. Why the hell?

I’ve had stewardesses (twice) ask me if I’m okay. Another time in an airport waiting at the gate. And this morning at breakfast (a really nice guy this time, who seemed willing to discuss my problems or give me a lift or whatever I needed).

What’s weird is that I never tell these nice people what I’m doing. People have real problems to cry about, and all I could possibly say is: “Don’t worry. I’m just writing.”

Have you had this experience? I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

58 replies to “Don’t worry. I’m just writing.”

I did six death scenes over a week a few months ago for two upcoming books. I balled my eyes out. Afterwards the cafe staff needed counselling.

In a perverse way I couldn’t have been happier!

You are definitely not alone in this! I’ve only cried while writing in public once… of course a co-worker had to come in and offer me comfort. They didn’t believe me when I said I was only writing, aaaand cue rumors circling around the workplace haha. Since then, I’ve been hesitant to write in public again, but I’m starting to wonder about this cute little coffee shop down the way.

It doesn’t happen to me often, but it has happened. I usually write in public in only a few locations around town and they’re all known art hangouts so it’s never been an issue. Killing off characters I like, or writing the fallout scenes after their deaths, does it for me. You’re definitely not alone.

I can totally empathize. Then you get the really awkward looks when you explain you’re just crying because of a scene you’ve written, nothing is wrong except for the death/injury/loss of a character.

However, I do think that if a scene moves the author, it’s going to move the readers.

So it’s a good thing that you’re crying!

I read and cry all the time, but I’m less attached to my own work. I’ve become very sensitive to the emotional manipulation created by our hands and minds.

By the way, I have over 6k words of a Sand, fan fiction story written which might frighten a few, including you, Hugh.

Because I’m a plotter, I write to a fairly detailed outline, so I know in advance what I’ll be writing. If I know I’m going to be writing an emotional scene, I make sure to do it at home. I forgot myself once while revising/editing over breakfast at IHOP and worked on a scene in which my favorite character died. I’d honestly thought I was over it when I started reading. I wasn’t.

it’s strange, I hardly ever cry when I’m writing. When I read it over though, especially if a little time has passed? I can turn into a quivering, sobbing mess, and usually during scenes I didn’t expect! That might make public readings a challenge…

Hey! That’s what happens to me. I never cry while writing the scene, but when I’m reading it later – to revise, to double check for typos, to find a piece of information I need for another story, whatever – then I tear up big time. I’ve always felt a bit of an idiot, but now I won’t. Thanks!

I am right there with you, Hugh. I’ve had so many times that I have to avoid people because I know what I am working on writing will make me cry. It comes with the territory I guess.

Yes. I write in a little, local cafe and there are about 10 tables. The owner knows I’m a writer (but doesn’t know my pen name). Last summer I wrote a romance novel that has two miscarriages in it and the scenes where the male lead comforts the female lead had me really close to ugly crying and wetting my keyboard. I think I scared some patrons. The owner asked if I was okay.

I realized I can’t write those scenes in public!

A lifetime of carefully constructed emotional barricades are worthless when the call is coming from inside the house. Life can be rough, life can be unfair, life can be tragic, and we grow calloused, but writing doesn’t come from that side of the wall. It comes from inside, from our raw place. It’s an expression of what we’ve stored up, a carefully controlled stream of the raw essence of us.

Only sometimes it’s not so easy to control. Sometimes the gates open and much more flows out than we’d planned. Sometimes this leads to the most amazing writing of our careers, and other times we fix it in revision.

To the brain, though, there’s no difference between an event we’ve experienced and one we’re making up. Our worlds and our characters are as real to us as anything else in our life, fictional only by an intellectual understanding.

And when we’re in public, these emotional reactions are stronger because they become a form of communication. We might not want to broadcast our distress to the rest of the tribe, but evolutionally speaking the species benefits when we do. We might want to control ourselves, but it’s correspondingly harder to hold it in than when we’re alone.

This is literally what makes us part of humanity. It all adds up to make you a good person, in touch with your emotion, and a good writer, who puts real genuine emotion into his art.

I don’t think I ever physically write in public but I almost always write in my head as I’m walking around in public. I don’t think I’ve cried in public as a result, but I have vocalized dialogue and laughed out loud.

There’s quite a bit of swearing and confrontation in my current work so when it does spill out in public it’s a bit awkward.

It sounds like I’m having a raging argument with myself.

What do I say to passers by or the person at the checkout desk?

“I’m not crazy I’m just writing. You know, here In my head…” (tap head for emphasis).

I haven’t cried in public, yet, but I have written scenes that have left me in a funk for days. When people ask me what’s wrong I have a hard time explaining to them that I’m upset over what I just did to a fictional character.

There is a scene in my memoir that took me 11 years to write and now as I close in on getting my memoir finished – I can’t touch that chapter without kleenex. I’m really not sure if anyone has ever written about selective reduction. Yes Hugh, just tell them “I’m just writing, here is my card where you can get my free ebook. Thank you for your caring.” : )

Some scenes of earlier books I simply cannot read again. I know they’ll force tears, no matter h ow hard I resist. I just hope readers feel the same. But usually when I’m *writing* such passages, I’m too shocked at what just came out of my cob-webby brain to react. The tears come later, in re-write.

I can’t write in public. I wrapped up some business early in L.A. once, had six hours to kill before my flight, went to a Starbucks near LAX and tried to write. I kept paying attention to the people around me. Same thing at writers retreats: I’m the guy who disappears for a week in my spartan little room only to be seen at meal time. I have to focus and can’t do that with people around.

Having said that, I do think about scenes I’ve written or am about to write and break down in public all the time.

It is obvious you need to be vulnerable – before you can write scenes that make you cry well. Being in public MAKES you vulnerable. You subconscious grabs the chance.

Any more easily-solved logical questions?

Correlation is not causation in general, but this time it might be.

Theory:

We know that writers (and any creatives) tend to be incredibly emotionally aware.

We can feel when others around us are hurting, in pain, often from underdeveloped empathy muscles/lack of self knowledge. This is why public school feels like hell for those students who enter with their empathetic capacities developed. When these young students first attempt to sublimate the hurting around them, it’s (at first) scorned.

But after public school and childhood, creatives are allowed to practice the sublimation of transferring emotions into stories or art.

The creatives who endure the initial scorn of their abilities, get a chance to master the, “subtle wriggling” required to translate the lesser emotions of hurt, pain, lust, fear, into socially acceptable stories.

When we go out into public places, we’re around a large pool of lesser emotional states that need to receive meaning. If we write from these places, we’re able to pick up on these emotions and sublimate them into our writing.

Hugh- I’m excited for the Master Class at JRW tomorrow, are you really teaching it??

Hmm, I’ve definitely experienced heightened emotional awareness at times during my writing or when pondering back on great, dramatic scenes I’ve written. And I did cry towards the end of Harry Potter 7 (if you’ve read it you know why). But I haven’t ever cried from my own writing. I’ve felt somewhat sad about certain events for sure. I’ll probably hit that point eventually. Wonder how much this depends on genre (let’s assume most great books provoke emotional responses) vs a story’s quality.

What’s even more akward is the times I’ve described the violent death of a character to someone and end the description with “and that’s how I’ll kill him” while in public. I get the strangest looks.

I once had a woman behind me on a flight to Denver start crying. I heard people ask her if she was alright and all, but didn’t want to turn around and and embarrass her more by actually looking. An hour later we landed and she tugged on my sleeve as we were walking off the jet-way. She had been reading the scene I was writing over my shoulder.

So here I am smiling, as my writing had produced this strong emotional response, and shes still crying at the same time. We walked and talked all the way to baggage claim where I passed her off to a very confused husband. Awkward.

So I made a stranger cry and felt good about it. Sorry?

I don’t write in public, but if I have to read a passage I wrote – like the scene in COLD APRIL where the men on the deck of the Titanic watch their wives get into lifeboats and know they will never see them again – I have to hand the book to someone else to read. In fact, I cry just reading that scene to myself four years after I wrote it.

I have giggled/laughed in coffee shops while writing some silly scenes. I think some people have moved to other tables as a result.

Tonight at an open mic (I read the prologue of my novel), a young guy who did rap or hip hop (he wore his cap backwards to prove it) said he’d heard me do open mics before. He liked a lot of my stuff but he thought some was was kinda (his voice went higher) crazy. He seemed less than half my age, so that both made me feel good and made me want to know what was crazy.

OMG, you and I both crying over a sad writing scene in public on the same day? Lol. Yes. Yesterday was my Panera morning, the one I get because I have a babysitter once per week so I can write like the wind. And of course, it was the morning I write a sad scene. Been there.

It sounds like we share the same life! Those moments when I escape the children (my cute little gravity wells) and write write write can be so good. It’s nice when I know the barista and can ask things like, “Give me five character names,” or “Who’s your favorite warrior character and why?”

I do most of my writing in coffeehouses, and because I zone out, I’m sure I look wacky sometimes as I replicate movements so I can describe them better. I’ve cried, too.

More embarrassing is when I read out loud, like at my afternoon writing group Wednesday. After we write, we can read and get feedback. I usually read prose, but I’d dusted off three old sonnets and while reading one to eleven other writers, I choked up big-time and barely gasped out the rest of the poem.

It’s not the crying in public that is my problem. It’s the writing sex scenes…tap my shoulder and the startled words out of my mouth might be more fitting for an…adult film…

Cried like a baby after finishing my novel. Luckily, the only one witnessing this was my Netherland dwarf bunny, with whom I share my home-office. She was very supportive, though.

You should know better than to write powerfully emotional scenes in public, Hugh :P

I never realized it until I noticed my kids asking me the same question while I was writing. Daddy, are you upset? I answered that I wasn’t. My five year old followed by making a mad face that resembled Spanky when he would get upset with Alfalfa in “The Little Rascals”. “Then why do you look like this?” she asked. I couldn’t stop laughing the rest of the day.

Not while writing, but it’s happened to me several times when I’ve had scenes come to me on the bus or the train. Fortunately—as I’m a huge introvert—nobody’s stopped to ask why I’m weeping as I jot down my notes.

Music really drives this for me, I think. Even though I usually can’t write with it, it’s great for brainstorming. Sometimes the soundtrack is just right, and you suddenly realize how it all ends for one of those poor, poor characters.

I’m glad I’m not the only person being made to cry in public by his imaginary friends.

Oh, absolutely.

I had just killed a minor character, I was awash in tears, and a neighbor and good friend came to my door to borrow an onion. My “Sorry, I’m writing.” was met with a slightly disbelieving stare.

So glad it happens to others. Hehe.

Glad to hear I’m not alone.

I frequently write in public, because I’m a mom and if I try to write at home I am always distracted by laundry or cleaning or that science project that my son needs help with. I recently found myself sitting in my local Panera with tears streaming down my face writing a scene that I did not expect to be as emotional as it was. Sometimes characters just surprise you and take things further than you planned.

Luckily, the cafe manager is one my readers. She knows not to bug me when that happens.

Crying can be an issue, but in theory I can avoid public writing when working a sad scene…

But I’ve got this whole other problem: my face reflects what I’m writing, ALL the time.

If my characters are angry, I look angry. If they’re puzzling something out, I’m wearing a quizzical squint. Startling revelations? Transcendent epiphanies? Betrayal by presumed sweetie-pie? Right there on my face.

And, oh, yes: I write Science Fiction and Fantasy, so monsters are possible. And bloody death. And even exaltation.

More than one total stranger in a cafe has asked me if I’m all right. Worse yet, a friend once treated me to a re-enactment of my sequence of expressions, which he thought was completely hilarious. He laughed and laughed. I just sat there stunned and appalled.

Since that, I write in public, I rarely write actual prose. Generally, it’s analyses, outlines, journal entries — working through ideas in some way. Much safer.

I’m a crier and I work better in public. The baristas at the coffee shop where I work daily must think I need meds because not only do I cry; I giggle manically; and my lips move as I type. Not to mention I don’t talk to anyone while I work so when I come out of my mental cave my one-on-one interaction with other humans can be overly-energetic (think lacking social cues). I can only imagine the secret nicknames I’ve acquired behind the counter.

Yes, happened to me but not in public. I try to hide it in public. I was reading a piece in my recent book, and it made me cry of course. It does nearly each time. My son walks in on me – he’s got this strange look in his eyes. I can tell he’s trying to think of something to say. “Are you okay Dad? Are you..you crying?” I smile. “Yes. I was just reading something I wrote.” He walked away, no more questions. Good. I don’t like being caught like that..or like when my wife walks in and I turn away so she can’t see my face. Bizarre I know. I’m not even in public. I figure my time will come when I nice person walks up to me and asks if I’m doing okay. I’l smile and probably do the same thing. What do you say ” yeah, I’m crying over my story. I write you know. This stuff on the page.just make me bawl my head off from time to time…” I wonder what reaction you’d get.

Comments are closed.