What a dead guy teaches us about emotional writing

I recently got this post published on The Writing Cooperative, a great community of writers honing their craft. I hope you like it. 


Søren Kierkegaard wrote a lot. He obsessed over it. And he wrote on a topic that not many people were writing back in the early 1800s: mental health.

The early 19th century Danish philosopher wrote 21 books in all, in addition to many essays.

Kierkegaard wrote about many things: about his mind and emotions; about living a Christian life; about what it means to live life as an individual.

What’s important is that he never stopped writing. What’s even more important is that he did this despite garnering almost no recognition during his lifetime. Kierkegaard didn’t care. One, because, well, eventually he died. Two, because writing in this way was important to him.

Nonstop writing about feelings

Kierkegaard was a spelunker of his mind. There was no crevice or corner that he did not explore. In the process, he attained an intimate knowledge of his mental health. His obsession led him to become acutely aware of emotions like anxiety and depression. He didn’t shy away from this personality quirk of his; he took his budding awareness of fear, darkness, and uncertainty and ran with it.

His increasing self-awareness drove, as well as defined, his writing process.

About anxiety, he wrote:

“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self… — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever.”

For him, anxiety was central to the creative process. And his words are applicable almost 200 years later, to writers struggling to put words to the page today.

Because we have the freedom to write, anxiety about writing is only natural.

Producing art to share with others only becomes possible when we embrace this anxiety. We have the choice to write or not to write. We have the ability to produce something. Our potentiality is right there in front of us — we can seize it, or we can do nothing. But attempting to blot it out the anxiety is removing ourselves from the process altogether.

Write with emotion and infuse your mental health into your writing

Kierkegaard knew this. He knew that to write was to understand. He knew that mental health is not something to be shunned or to be feared. For him, mental health was writing and writing was mental health. He saw it as one of the fundamental tasks of the curious human. And he knew it was not only his task; it was society’s task — for the generations of men and women who came before him and the generations who would come after.

He wrote:

“Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing…Thus no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation.”

He knew that there are things that we do because we are human, that we cannot learn from other generations. Basic pursuits like discovering the meaning of love. Coming to terms with intense emotions. The paths we walk to find our purpose. Coming to know emotion because emotion is what defines us, is what gives us meaning.

These were elemental truths for Kierkegaard. In discovering them for himself, he learned that, century after century, the path has been the same. His power came in his ability to put words to truth, to describe the one path that winds through the ages.

If no one reads it, keep writing

Write because you feel compelled to do it, not because you are seeking a certain response. If you write with passion and write something that only you can write, then the response will follow. Being genuine is contagious, and it evokes feelings in the people who read what you write.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote and wrote because he had something to say. He plumbed the depths of his mind and soul and discovered universal truths in the process.

Yes, it took years for him to get the recognition that he deserved. Yes, that recognition did not come until after he had died, but now he is recognized as one of the great thinkers of all time. Quite the accomplishment.

His influence on philosophy and psychology is without question. He is viewed as one of the founding fathers — if not the founder — of existential philosophy and psychology.

Be yourself

If Kierkegaard had aimed to make a great impact by carefully tailoring his message to please his readers, he would have strayed from his true self.

Instead, he wrote what he felt, neurotic as it may seem. His neurosis was that he was forever curious about the inner workings of his mind. In it, he discovered truth about the human condition. He used an understanding of his mental health to connect him to humanity. His writing was an exploration of his mind, and it is that which made him great.

He teaches us that we must put our heart and soul into our writing. He teaches us that it is perfectly acceptable to get caught up in our emotions when we write. In fact, he teaches us that it is not optional, but necessary.

When you write with insatiable curiosity, you come to know yourself better. When you discover the reality of who you are, that’s what you need to share with others. People know it when they see someone who is committed to the personal search for truth.

You need to share your truth with the world.

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