Andromeda (from the archives) | Make them laugh, make them cry. If only writers knew how!

Today, I was working on a creative nonfiction essay about lachrymosity, a.k.a. tearfulness, including my own increasing, often unexpected susceptibility to brief bursts of emotion. While I won’t necessarily well up during a sad song or movie and rarely cried as a kid (not when pressured by bullies, not at funerals), I do find myself moved to tears now–more often joyful tears– at very odd moments: seeing demonstrators waving political signs at 10 below, or listening to an especially effective National Public Radio fund drive. I can be watching a commercial for an item or brand I don’t like, or a trailer for a movie I don’t plan to see, feeling myself being strategically manipulated, and even so, that little tap will turn, and I feel the itch behind my nose and the threat of tears on the way. (Yes, I know, I’m a middle-aged sap.) The prospect of attending a high school graduation this spring has me weak in the knees. I’ll be blubbering for the kids I don’t know even before my own son accepts his diploma.

My essay was a short investigation of the science behind this: why my stepfather, after several strokes, would break into unexplained tears. What tears contain (some really cool chemicals that affect both the crier and people nearby, actually). Why, evolutionarily, we started crying.

And I found out about this.

University of California Berkeley researchers Robert Levenson and James Gross spent years screening over 250 films to narrow down the best clips for eliciting a short list of singular emotions, from surprise to laughter to sadness. Their results were published in 1995; Levenson and Gross have been cited in over 300 scientific articles. In the weepy category, their second-best film moment was the death of Bambi’s mother. The first-best was a scene from a less-fondly-remembered 1979 movie, The Champ, about a down-and-out boxer trying to make a comeback. During the movie’s most poignant scene, a young Ricky Shroder breaks down as he watches his boxer father, played by Jon Voight, die. Cue the violins. It makes little difference that the movie received lukewarm reviews.

According to a 2011 Smithsonian article, this single scene is so reliable at stimulating tears that it has become a key tool in the emotion researcher’s toolbox. It has been used to test whether depressed people cry more easily than non-depressed people (they don’t) and whether older people are more sensitive to grief than younger people (they are)—both findings that corroborate with my own experience as a mid-life sap. (By the way, the most successful movie scene of all time for eliciting laughter, according to Levenson and Gross: the orgasm simulation scene from When Harry Met Sally.)

As a writer, I was hugely envious of the Levenson and Gross movie-emotion studies. I love knowing that people cried twice as reliably watching The Champ as they did watching Kramer vs. Kramer, for example, and knowing that a scene from Silence of the Lambs made the top-two ranking for most frightening. How cool is that. But it does it help me as a writer? No! (Turn your attention to books, L & G: please!)

I recently attended a lecture by a very good writer and teacher (this will not be one of my pedagogical rants) who exhorted us not to attempt to stimulate common emotions. To really push the boundaries in literature, we need to present new juxtapositions of ideas, and we need to stimulate unfamiliar emotions.

I admire the idea and the effort; I understand what he was saying, about not lowering oneself to cheap sentiment. But in truth, I don’t think most of us know how to inspire even the old-as-humanity emotions, just as most of us don’t know how to emulate high-quality-albeit-formulaic plots and authors– you know, like Jane Austen and Tolstoy and Shakespeare. (Those trite panderers.) Making a reader laugh out loud, or cry, is not an easy thing to do. It’s certainly something I want to be able to do (which is why I wish Levenson and Gross had studied books as well).

A few years ago, I asked myself: If I could have the ability to swamp a reader with an unexpected shower of either melancholy or hilarity, which would it be? The answer suprised even myself: while I admire quirky humor the most in what I read, sadness — hopefully, of the fleeting and cathartic kind, fading into a poignant resignation not incompatible with mellow, hard-won contentment — is the bull’s-eye for me as a writer.

Laughter or tears: which is the greater emotional height for you in your reading, what books made it happen, or which emotion would you most want your own writing to elicit?

(And P.S, about those little eruptions of sad or joyful crying: if you get briefly teary, too, even in the absence of depression, don’t worry. They defuse stress, bring on a sense of calm, and may be good for your health.)

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and the author of Behave. Her next novel, set in Asia in the years 1934 and 2029, will be published in 2018. Meanwhile she is writing two nonfiction books, including a memoir about running public lands in all 50 US states during a year in which she grappled with mid-life health and aging issues.

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