From a Distance

A friend was telling me a story the other day. It was a funny, sad, dramatic story, and I was listening. But I was listening as a writer, which meant I was listening from a distance. I cared, and made appropriate facial expressions and sounds. But there was a part that held back, and took mental notes. I could use part of her real life story in one of my written ones. And I will.

As I become more entrenched in my writing life, my distance grows. I hesitate to call it emotional distance, because I am present. But I do find that the writer is with me, taking notes on my day to day life. Once I was in a meeting that got very heated. Afterwards a colleague followed me to my office, still ranting. I nodded and “tsk”ed a few times. She finally asked me why I never lost my cool.

“I write murder mysteries.” I explained.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Rather than get riled up, I step back and think about how I would kill you all. It is how I relax.”

Now, of course I was kidding. Sort of. The truth is that the writer was in the room and she was observing everyone. And taking mental notes. Crafting a new character, or giving an old character more dimension. Plotting. Or doing the important daydreaming part of beginning a new piece–the collecting part where thoughts, ideas and observations are churned around and around until an idea starts to form.

I don’t think this emotional distance is the purview of writers alone. I suspect it is also the curse/blessing of actors and musicians. Anyone who channels humanity in order to recreate it for art and/or entertainment.

How about you? Do you find yourself stepping back and observing more than you did before you started writing? Do you listen to stories and decide what parts to use in your writing? Do you mind the distance?

J.A. Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource. She is a mystery writer who has her story “Her Wish” published in DEAD CALM, an anthology by Level Best Books. She is a huge social media fan, and tweets under @JulieHennrikus. She wrestles with allusions of athleticism, is an avid theater goer and a proud member of Red Sox nation. Her website is

30 thoughts on “From a Distance

  1. Ha ha ha! You made me laugh! Good answer, I´ll try to remember that one if I dare to say that I actually have a killing list. But I do. I know exactly what you´re saying. I am stepping back more and more, and pretty often I find myself writing about that window. It can be writing craft or creative writing, but Im writing about that window. On one side is what we call reality, on the other side the story and its characters, and as an author I can jump through that window whenever I want. It´s very interesting, especially since I try to stop in the middle of the two worlds and make them melt down into one world. Nothing is true, nothing is a story, or rather every story is the truth and my truth is a story. Or what if I´m your story, and you´re mine? 🙂

  2. I’m a life writer. As things are happening to and around me, I’m writing them up in my head, jotting down notes at the first opportunity. I’ve done it ever since I can remember, finding the humour, the pathos in every situation.

    I don’t mind it.

  3. Oh my goodness that’s what I do. I watch the little habitual things that people do : Like commuters on the packed train who look uncomfortable being so close to each other, or how they keep from falling when they have nothing to hold on to or how someone manages to hoist their luggage on the escalator. I am always looking at ways to add a personal touch to my characters by ‘people watching’. I also like the different ways people fidget.

  4. The emotional distance that benefits my writing also has greatlhy benefitted my interpersonal relationships since I started writing very day again. Also helpful to give me perspective is blogging with all of you guys. The surface emotions are flushed away. The waters are calmed; and I can walk towards my Lord without sinking!

  5. Wow. That was one of the best entries I’ve read so far on what it is like to be a writer. I’m a baby-beginner writer, so I cannot say that I can fully relate to having such a strong The-Writer within you. However, it is inspirational and at the same time a nice “warning,” if you will, that fully committing to writing WILL change your life. I can only hope that one day I will find myself within the dual-identity as you often as you do. 🙂

  6. In all honesty I have felt like this for most of my life, but have recently only began to realize how to draw out those emotions to put them on to a page. I have just began tinkering with short posts on my blog about my inspiration, helping people find the beauty in life again. I call this the wonderland. I would love to get your opinion on my writings, and what I can do to improve on as a now aspiring writer. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much!


  7. I do this constantly. I’ve had friends look at me in awkward or intense situations and ask why I’m smiling. It’s because I’m thinking about the great story it’s going to be after all the present drama is sorted out. I enjoy this part of what I do, and I don’t think my distance necessarily effects my presence. Or at least I hope it doesn’t!

  8. I will definitely remember the “killing you all” comment. A gem. I work with psychs, so if I used that one I might get put away! I write bits and bobs so I don’t think I have that observant separation with what is going on around me yet. I will be more concious of it though!

  9. “What’s the matter honey?”
    “What? Oh. Nothing.”
    “Just thinking?”
    “Um. Yeah just thinking.”
    “Want to tell me?”
    “You can read it in three months time.”
    “Oh. Goodnight then.”
    “Night hun.” Checks the magazine on HK, sees it’s loaded.
    Yes, HK magazine. Loaded with great articles and pictures! Shoot!

    I have to admit, it’s a very observant article. You lookin’ at me?

  10. I am not a writer (i.e. I am a science writer, but that is a whole different ball game, isn’t it?) and my dream is to write a novel sometime. Only I have no idea how to go about it.
    I am always aloof, observing, hoping that I can include it in my novel that is not yet to be, but when I put it down in writing, it seems too personal – I can I dare expose a private (or semi private, as the case may be) moment to the outside world?
    Some day I will learn.

    • I always struggle with how much is too personal. But I find that if I just go for it in the first draft, and write the story with honesty and raw emotion, I can edit it and clean it up in the next draft. Just go for it. Tell your story, hold it close while it is vulnerable and then change a few details. Best of luck with your writing.

  11. Wow, I’m not alone and it is called “listening from a distance”? lol. I’m an aspiring writer who has finally given in to the calling. I have always been very observant and thought it strange that I am always writing in my head. Thanks for this article, more confirmation that writing is a part of my destiny.

  12. I absolutely, 100% agree with this post. I’m only a high school graduate, but because I’ve been doing some pretty cool things and I’ve started writing as a way of telling my story, I’ve definitely noticed myself taking notes for blog posts and noticing what reminds me of something else that’s going on. It’s gotten a little bit more complex, my life, and I love that. I also love this post!

  13. Thanks, I needed to hear this, to know this. I have the not so pleasurable option of sharing my life with a host of characters. Many of whom I’d sometimes like to weave into a complex storyline, but I’ve always felt it might be a violation of our relationship…now, I feel okay about it. Especially if it’s murder. LOL


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