Writing from the Heart

By Michelle Gunnin

People tell me that I write what they feel but cannot express.  I am often asked, “How is it that you seem to know exactly what I am feeling?” The question has come up enough times that I began to reflect on the answer. How do I do it?  Writing comes naturally to me.  From the time I was young, I journaled to process my life. Especially in times of conflict or hardship, it just seemed easier to express my feelings on paper than in conversations. It didn’t occur to me that anyone else would ever be interested in what I wrote until I was in my thirties. Even then, I would have never called myself a writer, because that title was so official sounding. I felt as though I was a dabbler.  Before I began writing a monthly newsletter for my job, my writing had been a private affair; just me and the page, a secret place to pour out my heart. I was shocked, (and a bit scared) to find that what I wrote resonated with others. However, as I have become more comfortable with being a writer, I have found my voice. I have recognized that I have important things to say and that how I say them can have a significant impact on my readers. To have that kind of influence in the hearts of others, I have to consider several things.

  • I have to open up my own heart. Vulnerability and transparency are two things which strike fear into every writer’s heart. Sharing my stuff. The pain of it. The messiness. The heartache. Because, what if? What if the readers do not like it? What if I put myself out there and I am rejected, or they are indifferent? If I want to write from the heart, it’s a risk I have to take. If I want to connect with my readers, I have to show them myself.
  • I have to know my heart. Before I can open up in my writing, I have to understand myself. It’s easy to write opinions. It’s easy to write facts. It’s easy to tap into the emotions of my readers with a few explosive phrases. That works, if all I am looking for is surface level reactions in return. The deeper connections happen within the deeper places of the heart; meaning, I have to seek to understand why I feel the way I do at its root, and then express it onto the page.
  • I have to respect the hearts of my readers. If I am going to win their trust, I must be careful to respect them. Seems simple enough, but so many times writers just put stuff out there without considering the impact it will make upon the heart of the reader. Being respectful of their pain is critical to building a bond with them. I have to create a safe space for them to have the ability to open their hearts to me.
  • I have to validate life experiences, my own and theirs. When I share my life, it means I value it. For me as a writer, if I take the time to write it down, that means it is important to me. Just the act of choosing the words validates the feelings I have and makes them real, instead of vague ideas floating around in my head.  When I give my readers access to my feelings, it creates in them a sense of being understood. Most haven’t hashed out their lives in this way, so I let them borrow my life-wrestling, and they are appreciative. They feel that I “get” them because I do. In reality, I “get” me, which translates to getting them as well.
  • I have to resist the urge to preach. This is a tough one, and it does not refer only to religious content. Any topic I feel like an expert on can get preachy. It’s the attitude of superiority I need to try to avoid. As a writer, I feel deeply. I want others to feel deeply too, so much so that sometimes I try to sway them with my words.  When I do that, I am dishonest in my motives and manipulation follows. Just look at the media to see this in action. I don’t always know when I cross over from expressing my feelings into trying to change the opinions of others. Usually, when I re-read a piece out loud to myself, I can hear my point of view shift to “you should…” then I go back and put it in the first person. When my writing sounds holier-than-thou, I have lost my focus. It requires humility to recognize I don’t have all the answers. Readers become fans when I allow them to see the real me instead of the façade of me.
  • I have to look for places in my writing to bring in the heart. When I am writing from my own life, a story or a memoir piece, this is not so hard to do. However, when I am writing non-fiction, it is a bit trickier. After all, the thesis for my Master’s degree is pretty dry research stuff, as is an obituary for a family member. I have found that when I read the finished product, I can ask myself, “Where can I put the heart in this piece?” Then I see places, such as the case studies in a thesis, or the family details in the obituary. There is room for the heart in most pieces, but you have to look for it.
  • I have to understand writing is a conversation. Even though I write in solitude, I am in fact, conversing with my reader. It’s a two-way thing. I write, and they take it into their hearts. They respond. In their minds, they mull over my words. They decide to keep some of them for their own, or they decide not to. Either way, they have taken action. I do not always get to see the response, which is hard for me when I put so much effort into selecting just the right words. Many do not comment or show that they have even read my work, yet they have honored me by giving their time to read it. That in itself is a response of respect, just as if they were standing face to face and listening to my voice.
  • I have to be true to my heart. If I am true to my heart, then I can more easily deal with not always knowing what my readers think. I write my life. I put my feelings out there. Then I let it go where it will.  Sometimes it goes to amazing places, and I find out much later that someone used something I wrote in a Bible study, or a prayer meeting, or a family reunion. Sometimes people ask permission to read a piece at a funeral, or a birthday party, or at a hospice staff training. If I write in honesty, from my heart, I find that people will respond from theirs.


  1. I loved when you talked about wanting your readers to feel the same way you felt “deeply” and that you had to evaluate your motives. I have been self-reflecting not just in my writing but my relationships with others. The whole paragraph spoke straight to my heart. Beautiful and uniquely written, Michelle!

  2. I’d even dare to say, as a writer opening up your heart, you do NOT have to know yourself so well-but you have to admit that you don’t, or that you don’t think you do–that vulnerability and honesty about what feels like a weakness though it isn’t. Excellent read here, thanks. Amy

  3. This really resonated with me, Michelle. I write mostly nonfiction; the only way I’ve been able to show my heart in my pieces is by using a conversational tone and humor. But I’ve often wondered if it’s enough. Now that I’m beginning to dabble in fiction, I realize how much easier, and scarier, it is to just hang your heart out there for the world to see. The courage to do so is something I’m grappling with now. Thank you for your insightful post.

    • Thanks Stephanie! I think I learned and continue to learn a lot by trial and error. When heart goes in to a piece so does myself…so it’s a bit scary as you said. Courage comes each time you do it, and it gets easier because your realize you won’t die if someone hears what you have been thinking. 🙂

  4. Hi, Michelle. This is beautifully written and conveys what many writers want to express, but just as importantly, I think it outlines what makes a reader begin the post and read to the end. It is honest, heart-felt and sure to endear you to our readers. Thank you.

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