MFA Nugget: 10 Ways to Get Your Heart on the Page

“Less mind, more heart. That’s what it comes down to.”

What do all of us writers long to hear from our readers, asked Robert Vivian in his lecture here at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing summer residency? We want to hear that our prose or poetry has moved said readers.

And why do we sometimes fail to move them?

“Because we’re afraid.”

Robert Vivian, not afraid to share, or upset his mother.

Vivian is a writing polymath, as a novelist, playwright, essayist, and poet. He’s obviously overcome a lot of fear in his own writing.

Overcoming fear was Vivian’s first key to getting your heart on the page. He articulated several sources of that fear, including a fear of:

  • Sentimental or hokey writing.
  • Offending others.
  • Being judged as eccentric or insane.
  • Even more criticism.
  • Overcoming a conditioned state of being emotionally dishonest.

It takes great courage to share yourself through your writing, he said, but as a fiction writer it can give you great power, as you fill your character’s hearts with your own creative blood.

The word “courage,” Vivian said, derives from Old French, from the same root for “heart.” “Heart equals courage,” he said. “Courage equals heart.”

Not all courage needs to explore those dark places in our own hearts, he said, admitting his mother often tells him she wishes his novels weren’t so disturbing. Writers can also build upon those “sacramental” moments of stirring joy. They can risk being funny, or weird, or absurd, or risque, or sexy.

“My first lesson is this,” he said. “Take one emotional risk in your writing every day.”

Those of us who have developed a sense of Vivian know that he is nothing if not self-effacing, and appears congenitally allergic to demanding obedience. So, of course, he then said his words need not be taken as a mandate. “You can do it every other day. Or once a week.”

Bob, I will aim to do it every time I sit down to produce creative prose, freely admitting I don’t find time to write creatively every day.

By my count, Vivian shared four ways to get your heart on the page in his one-hour lecture, titled “A Writer’s Ache for Sympathy: 10 Ways to Get Your Heart on the Page.” He admitted at the start, in his self-effacing way, that he wrote the subtitle of his lecture before he knew what his ten ways were, but assumed there must be at least ten. At the end of his lecture, he suggested he might share more in his next lecture at our upcoming winter residency.

I hope he feels no obligation to do so. I would welcome another such lecture, but he provided real value in this one, and I would hate for him to feel creatively obligated to continue on this topic.

I also celebrate the fact that he did not share what was promised, a top-ten list. In the course I teach at The Writer’s Center on writing compelling blog posts, I advise my students that lists are extremely popular in the blogosphere. Come up with a list, write it down, and identify it as such in your headline, and you will get more readers and generate more social-media sharing of your post.

That said, I also confess to my students that I have an allergy–I’m not convinced it’s congenital–to blog lists. Perhaps it’s my years in journalism, where I learned lists are a quick and lazy way to generate more column inches without much intellectual effort. Vivian clearly put a lot of thought into this lecture, and I learned a lot without him moving through a numerical list.

Here I am, overcoming my fear and putting my own passion into the digital page. What am I risking here? Hmm. I suppose exposing myself as a cranky old man. So be it.

Do you risk exposing your own heart in your writing? Or in other forms of art? Vivian also discussed painting, printmaking, sculpting and other expressions of creativity.

19 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: 10 Ways to Get Your Heart on the Page

  1. Heart, blood, sweat… all of it on the page. Easier said than done! In fact, very rare. In fact, we probably don’t need it sloshing about the page in large doses. Probably needs a slow build to even one tiny drop. But that’s enough. Even still… easier said than done! I wish I could accomplish this open-heart writing at will, but I can’t. Which makes writing all so very much worthwhile when it happens. I hope it happens in the next hour because I want to get another blog post up. And who wants to read my all-too-intellectual ravings? Wish me luck. Here goes…


    1. Hey PJ! It is not at all easy, and it’s what I’ve been focused on in one way or another throughout this program. Just went to your blog and didn’t see a new post up; I’m guessing it wasn’t just there for you yet. I know Bob Vivian would be supportive of your continuing effort on that front.


  2. Interesting timing, here. I am currently struggling with that balance between emotional honesty and respect for others in my own poetry memoir. I’ve just finished the final draft of it, and I have a lot of thinking to do about how far back to scale the emotions that can still hurt others in my life. Writing it with complete emotional honesty wasn’t difficult for me at all — it wasn’t even really a choice — but editing it that way is another story. It isn’t an easy answer.


    1. Congratulations on the final draft, Annie!

      As to this: “I have a lot of thinking to do about how far back to scale the emotions that can still hurt others in my life.” Oh my, I hear you. Have I mentioned that my critical thesis this semester is going to explore writing about people who are living and in our lives? They say we should study what most troubles us, and that is what most troubles me. I blogged about that awhile back, “Who has your creativity sold out?”


      1. Just occurred to me, Annie and Patrick…these emotions than may hurt others…isn`t it possible to turn the laser around and apply it to our own failings. I.e., I’m critical of someone else… so what is it in me that is so hurt by this perceived folly in someone else? Keep the light of responsibility on the self. Far more interesting, too, when the writer is fessing up. Just an idea, just thinking on my feet here.


        1. Some of my favorite memoirists say that to whatever extent they may write things that hurt others, they are always shining a brighter light on their own failings. That is, of course, the ultimate honesty, to reveal your greatest flaws. I fully agree, PJ.


  3. I definitely fear being sentimental and I think I overcompensate, which means that sometimes my writing ends up feeling like a summary rather than an experience. Today, I’m off to write, ready to indulge myself in the emotions that show up on the page. Thanks!


    1. Ah, I’ve done that, Shary! You know, I’ve been reading Joan Didion during this program, and she can create the impression that she’s just offering up journalistic summary, but then she has these plunging reveals. Easy to describe, hard to produce. Hope your writing went well today!


    1. Hi Sion! Wish you were here, of course, but when I write these posts, I think about you, Emily (below), and others I’ve met here who have since graduated. I hope someone does posts like these after I graduate next summer!


  4. Kate Arms-Roberts

    Thanks for this. I always look forward to your MFA nuggets, though I often have to go back and catch up with them after your residency is done. There is always something to be gleaned both from the words of your instructors and from your reflections.


  5. Jenny Alexander

    You do not come across as a cranky old man!!! I think this post gets to the absolute crux of who we are as writers. For me, writing about things which might have the capacity to hurt or offend or even intrude upon the privacy of someone I know is private writing; when I’m writing for publication, I keep an artistic distance. I’m sure this has hampered my career, but life feels more important to me than art.


    1. Hi Jenny! My teenagers might differ with your interpretation, but I’m glad you don’t find me cranky or old.

      I hear you on the publish/not publish issue. I am inclined to “not publish” but know writers I really respect who do choose “publish.” I suspect they don’t publish everything, though, and I do hear writers who say they always try to be hardest on themselves.

      I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild right now. She is really hard on herself, phenomenally gentle on her ex-husband.


  6. Pingback: MFA Nugget: Standing Naked Before Your Peers « The Artist's Road

  7. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road

Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s