Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writers Teach Others How To Feel

I don't know if it's old age, but more and more I think about what the point to writing is. And, lately, while rereading one of my favorite books, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, I realized yet another thing that we, as writers, are able to do. We are able to teach readers how to feel.

Writing happens through words. And, often, words help us to understand amorphous concepts. Words allow us to contain ideas by serving as symbols for these ideas. This comes in handy when we talk about emotions.

So often in an emotional situation, I feel overwhelmed. Several different sensations run through my head and heart at the same time. Often I don't stop to reflect about these sensations until later, at which time the emotion may be lost. But, sometimes when I read, a situation in a book is able to bring up my past emotions. And, with the very best writers, I am helped by the reading because I can suddenly understand my own emotions through words I may not have had before. The language helps me to frame my own emotions in a way that allows me to understand them better.

When I used to work with language in my own writing, I would try to come up with a unique way of stating something. Now, I think it's not about finding simply a unique way, but it's about finding a more accurate way of expressing ideas than other people may have done in the past. Just as the Eskimos have multiple words for snow, each one representing something different, I think writers should create different words for distinct emotions. How many types of sadnesses are there? How many happinesses and angers and melancholies?

Have you written or read an expression of emotion that you had never seen captured before?


  1. I've become better lately at recognizing where my emotions spring from. If I suddenly feel pissed off or sad, I will go back through recent moments to what I saw or heard or read to figure out what triggered the emotion and then I try to sort out why. It's amazing to do in life and would be a tremendous gift to be able to give through our writing.
    "A more accurate way of expressing." Wow, that is quite an insight, Davin. When we understand why our characters react as they do, what brings them to this point, we will find the language that is authentic. This is such an excellent post and topic.

  2. Thanks, Tricia! I too work harder to sort through my emotions now, and I am also better at figuring out the source of my emotions. I think that's one of the big benefits to being a writer.

  3. This is beautifully stated, Davin. I often have emotional experiences during which I'll think of things I've read before and relate the emotion to the words. I don't know if it's because I'm a writer that I think in "words" like that, or what, but it certainly helps me get through some of the tough things in my life - and helps me appreciate some of the most poignant moments, too. I pay more attention now that I write.

  4. I tend to develop a fuller understanding of the emotions surrounding an event while I'm writing about them. Perhaps it's a matter of focus. In trying to describe what happened, I visualize it more clearly along with the feelings I had at the time.


  5. Michelle, I think it's very comforting to find a writer who has captured the emotional experience we have had ourselves. I know Dostoevsky has done that for me. That's why Notes From Underground is so meaningful to me. It's nice to know we're not alone.

    Malcolm, I have always used writing to better understand my feelings. I think my most personal stories all stem from me trying to understand something or someone. In a way, I think thinking through words can be limiting. But, in another way, I think language helps to clarify ideas.

  6. Completely agree with this post - words are powerful and have the power to bring thoughts and emotions into one's life. They are a way of challenging a reader's views and making them confront how they really feel about something. This is why I write - to have an effect through words.

  7. By the way, I love Virginia Woolf. My favorite is Orlando, then The Waves, and then To the Lighthouse, which I've only read once, sadly. I need to get a copy of that one.

  8. Lovely post!.

    "Accurate way of expressing ideas" - Exactly!!!
    When I began writing/thinking about my WIP, I was more fascinated by (what I thought was) the possibility of unique story lines and unique means of expressions (phrases and metaphors). I think it was Coetze who changed that for me- while reading Disgrace sometime ago, I realized that an accurate description of truth or emotion is what characterizes most great writing. Even though it is tempting to experiment with form, that experimentation means something only if it gets you closer to your truth.

    I'd always thought this was true only for writing (for me)- but I have begun to realize that it is true for any great piece of art (that great art allows you to understand yourself and your emotions). The example that is most striking for me in the recent past has been Michelangelo's Pieta (with Nicodemus) in the Duomo in Florence. It helped me articulate how I was feeling at that time

    More recently a book that I've loved was Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk- with him it is not so much the language, or a sentence that nails a feeling- but more the sequence of events and incidents which provides an insight.

    And ofcourse, writing has always helped me understand 'stuff' better..Not necessarily the end result of the writing but even just the process of writing.

    Now back to work!


  9. A lot of times I'll see emotions represented in surprising ways in some of my favorite novels. That's what makes the novel sing to me is the way the author can convey every day things in an unusual way.

  10. Davin- sorry- this is going to be a long comment.

    Damn it would you stop making me cry, man? Many more posts like this and I'm going to need to buy stock in Kleenex.

    Reason being- I can't single out from books all of the ways I've learned about my emotions because so many varied writers have had this effect on me, from Douglas Adams of all people to Charlotte Bronte (honestly, the only way I can possibly like a writer's work is if I connect to it personally on an emotional level).

    Risking looking like I'm slathering on shameless flattery here(which I assure you, I do not do) you are the writer I've most recently discovered who has helped me put my emotions in context- specifically but not limited to my feelings about writing itself which I've always had a hard time sorting out. So thank you for that.

    The fiction you've written and linked here- each piece touched me for a different reason- all reached my heart. So thank you for that too.

    I felt the same way when I read Michelle's flash piece, "This". Thank you, Michelle.

    You also asked if we'd written anything that expressed emotions we hadn't seen captured before.

    I immediately thought of a few lines I'd written a couple years ago for my favorite of my characters of all time. We are very different- for starters, he's a man LOL. He was a soldier and had given up much for the 'greater good'- I have never been to war.

    Only now do I realize that when I wrote the following I understood it because believe it or not- I look back now and think of the choices I've made- things I've given up as a wife and mother- and so that is why this resonates with me. It was more about the sacrifices I've made in my own life than it was about the character, Keiran.

    This was written as an entry in his journal.

    "For some, like me, that ultimate sacrifice is not the giving of the lives that we have.

    It's the giving up on the lives that we know we might have, if we could but stretch our arms wide enough to outreach the grasp of the Fates, just once."

  11. Davin: Some of my most valued "reading" moments have come years after finishing a book, when I'll be in a situation that suddenly makes sense to me because of something I read. "Oh," I'll say. "That's what Chekhov (or whoever) was talking about! I get it now." Like I tried to say yesterday, writing tells us who we are. You've done a much better job of explaining it today.

  12. I agree.

    It can also teach us to see and think differently -- perhaps this is another way of saying the same thing, or perhaps it's slightly different. Or perhaps the two are interdependent. I am thinking, for instance of Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, in which a time traveler goes back in time to the Black Plague.

    For me, the book did two things. One, it made me feel, as though grieving for people I knew. Two, that emotion made me think differently about the Black Plague. From our point of view, centuries later, it's easy to talk about all the "good" the plague did Europe. Destroyed the material base of feudalism, ushered in the Renaissance, all that rot.

    This book showed the human cost. It made me FEEL the cost. This novel changed the way I read nonfiction -- for instance, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

  13. YES!!!

    I love To The Lighthouse. I learned more about elegant prose from that than from any three other books!

    And I think you're right about putting words to emotions. Ultimately we're trying to create empathy on the part of the reader for our character. If we can do that, we've enlarged the human experience a bit, haven't we?

  14. I think this is lovely. Learning how to say precisely what you mean is a huge part of writing - and emotions are what tangles us up the most, no?

    Wonderful post!

  15. Bethany, Challenging and confronting are great words! As a reader, I am always very appreciate when a book feels uncomfortably intimate in some way.

    Michelle, the opening section of The Waves is one of my favorite prose pieces of all time.

    Lavanya, Very well put! I agree that experimentation should always bring us closer to the truth. I think those are the experiments that have the highest payoff. And thanks for the link! That is a lovely piece.

    T. Anne, I agree. It is a special piece of work that does that.

    Bru, thanks for posting some of your own writing! I think you're the only one to do that. It really is a gorgeous piece too. The emotion caught me off guard in a really wonderful way. It makes me ache. And thanks for saying nice things about my writing! I need that at the moment, LOL.

    Scott, that is a wonderful thing. For me it usually goes the other way. I'll read something that makes me recall a life experience. I always feel like authors are really brilliant when that happens. And the world feels more unified.

    Tara, Lovely to see you! And, you're right about stories making us think differently. That just happened to me recently when I read Remains of the Day. The whole book was eye-opening for me.

    Simon, Woolf is a prose master for sure. I think she may be my favorite prose stylist, although there are some other great ones around.

    Susan, thanks. I find that as I write I always benefit from spending more time on the emotion, thinking harder about it and not just taking the easy way out.

  16. I find understanding the slight variances in emotions is a good tool to have in the classroom, where kids sometimes don't express their feelings clearly. It does make a big difference when reading a novel if the emotions are portrayed well.


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