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Beware of emotions

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So many students, particularly those writing poetry, have told me that they are interested in expressing their emotions. I have to say, whether you are writing prose or poetry, emotion is not a good place to start. As a writer, I find that if I am full of anger, fear, happiness, sadness, whatever, then I need to calm down before I start writing. And if I want to write about how one of those emotions affects someone else, real or fictional, who I want to write about, then I have to stop thinking about their emotions, and start thinking about their actions and the actions of those around them. Effective writing does not arise out of a strong emotion. Once you name the emotion, using, for example, one of the above abstract nouns, your writing is damned.
Writers need to think about people, places, events, actions and maybe objects. The readers will soon understand which emotions are being evoked, especially if the writers use powerful images which could be accurate or metaphors. Metaphors, of course, are mostly lies: for example “The moon was a ghostly galleon” but writers lie in order to get nearer the truth.
The trouble with naming emotions is that they are so generalised. You or one of your characters might be happy but that is a generalisation: the reader may well know the cause of that character’s happiness but the interest for the reader comes when the writer can describe how that happiness is shown. In other words, we are back to the old but very useful adage: show, don’t tell, or find an objective correlative for the emotion. T.S.Eliot coined this term in his essay on Hamlet written in 1921:
“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
In his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck never tells the reader what emotions might be going through Tom Joad’s mind. What we get are his actions and what he says, plus the description, for example, in an early interchapter, of a tortoise plodding along in the dust. The tortoise is a symbol for Joad’s own behaviour throughout the novel.
David Lodge has described how symbols work in his book, The Art of Fiction (Penguin 1994 p.138-141). He takes a passage from D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love where Gerald Critch is trying to impress and terrorise the two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, by forcing his mare towards a passing train. Gerald is proud, angry and arrogant but Lawrence does not use these abstract words: the image of the way his character tries to subjugate the mare is enough to show these emotions or characteristics to the reader. The language Lawrence uses is also sexually suggestive: “and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark.”
Some times symbols can be more like metaphors in which one thing is turned into another. Even scientists resort to metaphor in order to describe the facts of science though not all scientists would like to admit to the use of metaphorical language, but prose fiction and poetry writers certainly need metaphors and symbols.
I have just been reading reviews of Harry Parker’s new novel, Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber and Faber 2016) in which the multiple narrators are objects from the protagonist’s experience as a soldier in Afghanistan. I have come across this technique in poetry, in fact, I’m writing a sequence at the moment myself, in which the narrator of each poem is an article(s) of clothing owned by a famous woman eg. Isadora Duncan’s scarf; but this is the first example I’ve seen in prose fiction. Of course, the object-narrators (or their authors) could fall into the same trap as a human narrator (or their author) and use abstract words, but they are less likely to, being visual objects themselves. I’ll have to wait and see what Harry Parker has done.
So to use an apt French saying which relies on a visual image, revenons a nos moutons, let’s get back to our sheep. When you are writing, don’t stray into the quagmire of abstract words denoting emotion, or you will lose sight of your sheep.


Posted by author: Liz Cashdan
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9 thoughts on “Beware of emotions

  • My understanding is that we need to BE AWARE of our emotions rather than suppress them; “beware” suggests an unconscious reaction!
    If one is aware of emotions then one can understand them and express them but to blurt them out may well be futile unless the expression of them is given context.
    Yet the most important response to emotion is to surely examine them before confining them to the bin as when “… you name the emotion, using, for example, one of the above abstract nouns, your writing is damned.

      • It’s not that we shouldn’t have emotions and hopefully, yes, art of whatever genre, can change our emotions. My concern is that the artist/writer should not express those emotions in sentimental cliches, but should look for images that are new and provoking. Then the viewer/reader is more likely to be affected by the piece of art.

  • Thank you for this insightful post. You have put into words. as far as I’m concerned, exactly what is meant by ‘show’ not ‘tell’. Brilliant post

  • Brilliant post, Liz. I will be directing students towards it, so am about to save the link for prosperity!

  • It is a very inspiring blog post. Thank you for sharing. Have you ever considered that the creative process behind writing and (realistic) acting is virtually the same? The “show, don’t tell” attitude applies to both: you should not act or write emotions, rather think about or even experience the actions that somebody with those emotions would and put them on paper, or on stage. Let the audience/readers interpret the actions. Beautiful.

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