From the Archives: Deb Vanasse on 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 feels.
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 real.
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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