Last week I talked about the difference between sentiment and sentimentality in our stories and, in particular, I invoked the cut-away technique used so much by films. Bring your readers/viewers right to the brink of the kind of powerful moment they already know as inevitable, then leave them to play the details out in their own minds. But stepping back from such moments isn’t the only way to play them or the only point to consider about effectively drawing feelings from our readers.
How do we move our readers in a genuine way through the artifice of story? I think the answer begins in ourselves, with our own emotional control. I remember Madeleine L’Engle’s saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that if she made herself cry when she was writing, she had to throw the scene away. To bring her readers to tears she had to write with her own emotions under tight control. The emotion we bring to our work must be sifted through layers and layers of art. We need to work as a potter works clay, close in, our hands and hearts immersed, but separate, objective at the same time.
During the years of my son’s illness and death, the pain I was living through, a pain so deep I had no words for it, touched and transformed everything I wrote. My grief intruded even on stories where it didn’t belong. But I could no more set that pain aside when I sat down to write than I could do so in my daily life. I never, however, tried to write about Peter’s illness and death directly. Not enough art stood between me and the event to make that possible.
More than seven years later, I am, at last, ready to take on this loss more directly, not his actual death but the experience of losing a son. In Blue-Eyed Wolf one of the topics I am exploring is the death of a son through the perspective of that boy’s mother. And when I write it, I know it won’t be sensational, melodramatic, sentimental, because whatever I say will rise out of the heart that made the story, not be snatched from the air and inserted for impact.
I have had writing students who came from the kind of family background I do, one where feelings of any stripe were considered to be not quite “nice.” And that kind of background can be a liability in many circumstances. But for my writing, I’ve found that the habit of holding back feelings can be a strength . . . as long as we find the right moment and the right words for letting go. And once the time comes, stories are a perfect place, a safe place to play them out . . . because it’s not me, you understand, it’s that character emoting.
When I spin out a story, I hold the feelings close, waiting, waiting for the moment to come when my characters can express what I’ve been holding back. And only then will my readers weep or rejoice or simply sigh with satisfaction. It’s the holding, the reluctance to let the feelings out that finally gives emotion power on the page. And for me, the holding back is easy.
Those who come from a background that allows, even encourages, displays of feeling, have, I presume, a different challenge, to find a way of holding back on the page that doesn’t feel natural or necessary in their real lives.
As with so many aspects of writing, there is an irony here. To manifest genuine feeling in our work, feelings that grow our readers larger rather than simply manipulate them into a response, we need a light touch. You might even say we need a good dose of repression. I remember an editor saying to me as we were working on an early draft of Foster Child, one of my first novels, “Marion, you are asking people to cry too often.” Now, I rarely call for tears. Nor do I cry myself.
I just write my way toward the moment when my character does the work for me.