Deb: What Words Can Express

“Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find
your short story.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Emotion is among the few things we don’t have to be taught,
assuming that all the normal synapses are firing. No one has to tell us how to
be sad or angry or cart-wheel happy. So when we speak of emotional resonance,
or of the emotional core of our work, or of the emotional depth of our
characters, we’re talking about what comes naturally, right?
Not exactly. It is true what Ron Carlson says, that “The
literary story deals with the complicated human heart…people bearing up in the
crucible of our days.”  It’s also true
that feelings, translated as empathy, are what make our writing memorable and
meaningful. But if the transfer of feelings to words were as instinctive as
breathing, we wouldn’t need literature. And you can’t simply season your
writing with emotion, like pepper in a pot. In the wrong hands, emotion comes
off as sappy or melodramatic, or as toying with readers.
“I was full of a tense excitement as well as regret,” says Del
in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, when her father announces he’ll have to kill the family’s wayward dog. That won’t do, you say. She’s telling, not
showing. Yes, but Munro has earned the
right to announce these feelings, through the careful peeling back of who her
characters are and the trouble they’ve gotten into.  And in a scene where Del’s brother prays that their dad won’t go through with the shooting, Munro proves she can show
emotion, not just tell it: “With the making of his
prayer his face went through several desperate, private grimaces, each of which
seemed to me a reproach and an exposure, hard to look at as skinned flesh.”
You have to go deep to convey real emotion, boring to
bedrock and sometimes beyond. You can’t be lazy or complacent with it. Consider
this passage, also from Munro’s novel, in which Del,
desperate to not have to view the body of her deceased uncle, bites her mentally
challenged cousin, only to be forgiven by her hovering relatives:
“Being forgiven
creates a peculiar shame. I felt hot, and not just from the blanket. I felt
held close, stifled, as if it was not air I had to move and talk through in
this world but something thick as cotton. This shame was physical, but went far
beyond sexual shame, my former shame of nakedness; now it was as if not the
naked body but all the organs inside it – stomach, heart, lungs, liver – were
laid bare and helpless. The nearest thing to this that I had ever known before
was the feeling I got when I was tickled beyond endurance – horrible,
voluptuous feeling of exposure, of impotence, self-betrayal. And shame went
spreading out from me all through the house, covered everybody, even Mary
Agnes, even Uncle Craig in his present disposable, vacated condition. To be
made of flesh was humiliation.  I was
caught in a vision which was, in a way, the very opposite of the mystic’s
incommunicable vision of order and light; a vision, also incommunicable, of
confusion and obscenity – of helplessness, which was revealed as the most
obscene thing there could be.”
Munro starts with a physical sensation associated with
shame: “I felt hot.” Avoiding cliché, she expands on it:  “I felt held close, stifled, as if it was not
air I had to move through but something thick as cotton.”  She pushes deeper: “This shame was physical,
but went far beyond sexual shame,” connecting Del’s
feeling with backstory, “my former shame of nakedness,” and goes on to evoke a
unique and horrifying extension – organs laid out, bare and helpless. She
doesn’t leave us there, shocked, but reels back with a comparison we can all
relate to, being “tickled beyond endurance.” A lesser writer might have left it
there, but Munro probes deeper, describing the “horrible, voluptuous feeling of
exposure, of impotence, self-betrayal.” From emotion comes revelation: “To be
made of flesh was humiliation.” To know we can’t escape shame is an anti-vision
of confusion and obscenity – one more way for us to feel what Del
Not every emotion must be mined this fully; if it were, the
reader – not to mention the writer – would soon grow weary. Like all decisions
we writers make, the depth with which an emotion is explored has everything to
do with the characters and the spine of the narrative, as well as the style of
the writer. In Swamplandia, Karen Russell shows what her main character Ava feels
as she tries to deny to her brother that she’s like their sister Ossie, who claims
to channel the dead:
“But in fact I was like Ossie, in this one regard: I was
consumed by a helpless, often furious love for a ghost. Every rock on the
island, every swaying tree branch or dirty dish in our house was like a word in
a sentence that I could read about my mother. All objects and events on our
island, every single thing that you could see with your eyes, were like clues I
could use to reinvent her: would our mom love this thing, would she hate it?
For a second I luxuriated in a real hatred of my brother.”
With simple adjectives and verbs, Russell conveys the
paradox inherent in most strong emotions: “helpless, often furious love” and “luxuriated in
real hatred.” Like all good metaphors, hers have a visual effect, implying
action as she heightens our understanding of Ava’s love: ordinary household
items are each “like a word in a sentence I could read about my mother,” and
“everything you could see with your eyes” contains “clues I could use to
reinvent her.”
Emotional depth is of sufficient interest among writers for
Ann Hood to have written an entire book about it:  Creating Character Emotions.  In it, she identifies mistakes writers make
with regard to emotion, warning especially of vagueness and ambiguity. “Instead
of considering the plot of the story and the character’s own emotional place,
the writer relies on a nonspecific emotion and hopes the reader fills in the
blanks,” she says, noting that ambiguity is often the result of a writer not trusting enough in her own emotional experiences and therefore not being
willing to explore them.
To get it right, Hood suggests making an emotional timeline,
first for yourself and then for your characters. Another idea is to use props
to suggest emotion, or to show a character trying to hide her feelings. Interior
monologue can sometimes be used to great emotional effect, as can an
unpredictable emotional response, like Uncle Benny in Munro’s novel, who starts
to laugh when confronted with the truth about his mail order bride, who beat
her child:  “Uncle Benny chuckled
miserably…Once Uncle Benny had started chuckling he couldn’t stop, it was like
hiccups.” This is the complicated human heart: paradoxical, challenged, and
Try This: From Poets and Writers newsletter “The Time is
Now” comes this exercise: The term “bewildered” can mean many
things–to be perplexed, confused, or mystified; to have lost one’s bearings;
to be turned around or disoriented; to be baffled or bamboozled, befogged or
befuddled. Write about an experience that left you bewildered–focusing not so
much on what brought you to that moment but what it felt like once you arrived
there. Try to put the feeling into words without using any of  the
dictionary’s many definitions of the word.
Check This Out: In Creating Character Emotions, Ann Hood
devotes a chapter to each of thirty-six different emotions, offering bad and
good examples for each, along with exercises. While her approach is a little
too clunky for my taste, it doesn’t hurt to maintain an awareness of all these
emotions, and good examples of anything literary are always a plus. 
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