The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.
**Trigger warning: The following narrative contains disturbing historical facts. You can skip down to the “emotional residue” heading if need be.
I walked down the narrow hallway.
Professors’ names adorned the doors, though the nameplates were clearly temporary — deep ruts ran along the floor, made by German students and faculty over the past hundred years.
I couldn’t breathe. But the air circulation was fine.
What was it?
Dizzy, I grabbed the banister.
What was wrong?
I had to leave the building. Now.
Something evil had happened in there.
As I left, I turned and looked at the Institute of Political Science at Freie Universität in Berlin. I stared at it. Students filed past, chattering as they rushed toward the smells of baked goods wafting from the next corner.
I spotted a tarnished plaque at the entrance. This is Berlin. Berliners do not install plaques for mundane reasons. I did my best to translate the many crammed into the small space.
The plaque — only installed in the 1980s under pressure from students and staff who conducted their own historical research — said the Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics was founded in 1927 (made possible, in part, with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation). During the Nazi era, scientists at the institute, including Josef Mengele, performed experiments and sterilizations on people.
As I found out later, the Nazis experimented on African Germans and Romani people in the building. Then they shipped in peoples’ body parts from the concentration camps for further experimentation.
I also discovered from further research (not included in the plaque) that prior to the Nazi era, scientists conducted eugenic experiments with a collection of 4,000 to 5,000 skulls housed in the building’s attic:
“The kwi-a’s [Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at the time] collection, known as the ‘S-Collection’, contained around 4,000 to 5,000 individual pieces, including skulls and other human remains from German colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as from numerous other locations across the world. Remains of genocide victims from the Shark Island Concentration Camp in Namibia were also sent to Berlin, and the S-Collection contained at least 30 Namibian skulls obtained during German colonial rule (Stoecker 2012, 2013). Prior to becoming kwi-a director, Fischer had himself dug up Khoikhoi graves during his time in German Southwest Africa in an attempt to bring human remains back to the University of Freiburg” (Barbosa, Owen Brown, Julia Kirchner and Julia Scheurer, 2018, p. 34).
If you don’t know about the first genocide of the 20th century, find out more here, including Germany’s failure to provide reparations. Lest you believe I’m letting the United States off the hook, it’s time for reparations here, too.
Emotional residue & “bad vibes”
How does this history relate to writing?
And if you have even a fraction of that residue in your writing space, guess what? You may find it difficult to write.
If you’re a rational/scientific/empirical skeptic (like I used to be), then hold on for a minute while we examine the scientific evidence for emotional residue.
Emotional residue is what scientists Savani, Kumar, Naidu, and Dweck (2011) define as “the lay belief that people’s emotions leave traces in the physical environment, which can later influence others or be sensed by others.”
Though Savani and colleagues’ research is about cultural differences and emotional residue, they document evidence for this “superstitious” belief: “the notion that humans emit nonvisual, nonauditory emotional signals has now been shown to have a scientific basis: Human sweat glands emit distinct chemicals when people experience different emotions, and these chemicals can, in fact, be sensed by others even at a later time (Pause, Ohrt, Prehn, & Ferstl, 2004; Zhou & Chen, 2008, 2009).”
In their cross-cultural study, Savani and colleagues found that Indians and Americans have some overlapping beliefs about emotional residue, suggesting that “emotional residue is likely to be an intuitive concept, one that people in different cultures acquire even without explicit instruction.”
Researchers have yet to explore how people can detect emotion or tragic events which happened decades ago. Perhaps we unconsciously pick up subtle cues we pick up. Regardless, emotional residue remains an issue that writers can face.
How to deal with emotional residue
Writing in new spaces
Writing in new spaces can shift your perspective and help you write more.
Understanding emotional residue may also alert you when you should leave a new writing space. If you walk into a coffee shop, sit down and can’t seem to write — even though all other conditions are perfect — then you might need to move to another space to write. You don’t waste time or feel guilty that there’s something wrong with you — it’s not you, it’s the space. But be careful it isn’t a sneaky subconscious procrastination technique!
Energy inventory your space
What happens if you don’t feel right in your home office? A friend had this happen to her. She couldn’t write because of two pieces of artwork from her ex-husband on the wall. This isn’t strictly a case of emotional residue, but it’s the same idea: your unconscious mind is distracted by previous negative memories.
Once my friend removed the artwork, it was full steam ahead. She felt at peace in her office.
You can try the same procedure if something is nagging you in your home writing space. Pick up different objects and see how you react. Your reaction could have nothing to do with emotional residue — maybe it holds an unpleasant or distracting memory.
Of, perhaps you know something happened in your space, but it’s your home office — you can’t leave! If you’re into it, try cleansing or renewing rituals. If that’s not you, try rearranging the furniture, opening the windows, or repurposing the space.
Harness the energy
Take the energy from your residue experience and transform it into writing fodder. Write about the history of the space or use your insight to analyze your writing process.
Even if emotional residue is a hard idea for you to swallow, there’s no harm in considering trying these strategies:
Move to new spaces until you find one that suits you. If you’re the inquisitive type, find out what happened there before.
Inventory, ritual, and rearrangement
Conduct a home office energy inventory. Remove objects that bother you when you look at or touch them. See what happens. Try rearranging the furniture, hold a ritual, or try writing elsewhere in the house. See if the move makes a difference.
Enjoy your good vibes
Harness that negative energy for writing — do this somewhere else, not in the negative space.
Start noticing when your writing space has positive energy. Guard that space and have gratitude for the writing gift it has given you.
The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.
— Toni Morrison, “Black Matters” in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)
This post was previously published on The Writing Cooperative and is republished here with permission from the author.
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