I have been taken to task by bippy101 in a couple of comments about not sharing my emotions and relying too heavily on my head instead of trusting my heart. I also spoke with a dear colleague in New Orleans a few weeks ago who felt that I am “holding back” in this blog. I have been familiar with such observations all my life, but these days I feel as if I’m much, much more in tune with my emotions and that I am able, in turn, to convey those feelings in my writing much better.
The posts in question, if you want to read our exchange, are “Normalcy,” in which I talk about how wonderful it feels to go out in Boston and just do normal things, and “Marriage.” The gist of both sets of comments is that, as bippy puts it, “you talk of the surface of things and not the emotions of things; what’s it really feel like?”
I’m game, and I’m willing to try tell an emotional story, “stuffed with the stuff that is fine, stuffed with the stuff that is coarse” (as bippy cites Whitman). But before I try, I would like to do what I think I do best, namely, try to understand the nature of emotional writing so that I may recognize it. I know, I know — it’s an intellectual response but that’s how I want to start, and I promise I’ll follow up with another post that aims at the most coarse, emotional writing I’m capable of.
The first thing I have to get my head…. er… heart…. around is just what we mean by head and heart, what we mean by emotion in writing. Is what I need to do is express my emotion better in writing? In other words, is my writing being judged deficient? Or is the writing just fine, but it’s just that I don’t feel at all, and thus have nothing emotional to write about? Or is the complaint that the readers feel too little, or the wrong sort, of emotion when they read my writing — in other words, is there a problem with the transmission of the concepts?
Let me start by assuming that what we’re talking about is using writing to express myself. Just how do you express emotion in writing? I have generated a list of no particular order or thoroughness as a way of starting. I don’t know if any one of these would be seen as more emotional or less emotional, or if they’re simply different techniques for the job:
- Metaphor. I feel like a single glove in the lost-and-found box.
- A clinical description of the emotion. My heart was pounding 140 beats per minute as I imagined all those people reading the blog and finally learning what I’m really like.
- A story. When I told her I was a transsexual, we lay there in the bed, listening to the wind in the trees. After a long time of sobbing and sighing, she turned to me and asked if I still loved her.
- A collage of images. Eyes of skeptical shoppers, tags on bras that read 38C, 38B, 36A, but no 38A, a “4-items” tag to try on clothes, blue-light special, intercom announcing a sale in aisle 42.
- Physiology. After a good session of group therapy, I always feel just like I have eaten a big, fat bar of chocolate. Peace must exist in those same overlapping neurons, no?
- Internal monologue. Fine mess I’m in. Wonder if that student was smiling because she… how could she? Do I stand out? Where can I run? Where did I put those keys? What would happen if I suddenly looked like Joyce — tight throat, panic, run for the exits, knocking people down. Call the fire marshal. No escape ladder big enough for this.
- Imitation of conventionally-recognized emotional writing. Like schoolgirl’s diary or text messages “OMG I can’t believe that person looked at me like that! I thought I would die right then and there!” or novelistic conventions like flashback “never, not since the night that my father died, have I felt so trapped.”
- Emotionally-sharged words or images. I’m not sure words themselves are charged, but we imbue them with power, and that’s where this idea comes from: “My psyche has been brutalized” or “That email was nothing short of child abandonment.”
- Outward signs of emotions. “As I lay there that night, hot tears of dread and pain poured out of my eyes, followed by sobs so deep that my stomach muscles were sore the next day.”
Do any of these techniques strike you as more emotional or less emotional? More or less authentic? I ask because all expression has to take physical form at some point, and when you decide to turn an idea into words, you are forced to pick word #1, then word #2, and so on, as you build your writing. All techniques are learned and may seem to some as forced, to others as completely real. I would probably argue (if this were an argument) that the “realness” of any emotional bit of writing may be conveyed by pretty much any means, and that consistency probably has more to do with believability than the style does.
The second thing I think I’d like to ponder is where, precisely, emotion lies. Is it in the words? The reader’s reaction to those words? The writer’s mental state in crafting those words? Somewhere outside?
Since words are signs and since emotions belong to people, it seems unlikely that the words themselves are the location of emotion. Reader response theory would say that the emotion lies in the reader: the writer tries to create resonance through techniques she has learned and can only hope that the reader feels something.
But what does “feels something” mean? Do I want to transmit my emotions across time and distance directly to my reader so they feel the same feelings? That can’t be right. Do I want empathy, anger, or some sort of reaction to my words?
If I cool-ly, emotionless, use a word that normally inflames people (and you can imagine all sorts of racial, homophobic, xenophobic, ideological, and misogynistic words of your own), and you are filled with emotion, then that’s gotta define some sort of emotional writing because of a deliberate use of a word designed to evoke feelings.
Likewise, I might pour my soul on the page, every word filled with emotion, and the reader may feel nothing (they don’t care, or they’ve seen it all before — who knows?) — that also has to be defined as a kind of emotional writing by virtue of the emotion of the writer.
I guess I’m perplexed by just how you write emotionally. If I’m honest and emotional and I use my best skills and my most honest soul to write a line, let’s say like this one, “I became so anxious today that I felt all reason slip away and it was as if I was a trapped animal,” is that sufficient to convey to the most hardened aesthete what kind of emotions I felt today?
I myself am not a poet. I’m private and write for you, dear reader, only to the extent I try to convey what it’s like to be me. The coarseness you desire feels dangerously personal, but it occurs to me that avoiding that sense of danger is precisely what you chide me for, the danger of feeling deeply, of going beyond what feels to me to be a gaping openness in discussing my gender and my relationship with the world in this blog.
I’m game, but I need to ask my third and final question — is all coarse writing necessarily dangerously personal? Is it possible to simply convey emotion without crossing that line? And what about the converse: Is it possible to write dangerous coarseness without crossing an emotional line? In other words, are those two things yoked? I’m thinking of some examples, such as Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover or Molly Bloom’s soliloquy that comprises the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or in cinema, Jimmy Stewart’s eyes as he realizes the danger he’s in at the end of Rear Window or the farewell scene between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at the airport in Casablanca.
My hunch is that we all have our levels of taste, and what seems raw and emotional to you seems crafted and dull to me. I’ll give it a try, dear reader, and you can see what you think. Ultimately, though, isn’t “emotional” writing kind of like “authentic” writing — you’ve gotta be pretty gutsy to declare what’s authentic and inauthentic, don’t you?