An emotional state

Monday, December 11, 2017
At a certain level, prose simply makes statements. There are times when all you need to know is that it is raining, but a hell of a lot more is going on. And there are other times when you've got to get into every raindrop.
- William H. Gass, from a 1991 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman

We just finished the persuasion chapter in my class, and studied the effectiveness of emotional appeals to motivate people to action. As writers, we aren't always trying to move readers to act, although some nonfiction does. But when I'm writing fiction, I am more likely to try to convey emotions.

By connecting to my emotions, I am more likely to connect to the emotions of others. How do I convey the feeling of a sunrise? How do I interpret the motion of leaves rustling in the breeze, or do I want to do that at all? I may ask myself if this is a scene I can describe literally, or compare to something else.

But when a scene or character goes deep, how does that look on the page? Which words are effective to convey the fear of a child who can't find her mother after school, or the anguish of the jilted bride at the alter? How do those emotions turn into words?

I've heard theories about paragraphs containing thought-action-dialog sequences in writing, and to be honest, even when I try to keep that in mind, it doesn't always work. For me, it's more of a feeling that drives my work, and when the emotion rises in me, I try to capture it. But I have to give myself time to try to understand what I am feeling. These scenes take longer to write because I need to let them build inside me before I make that connection.

The process isn't difficult. I like to sit quietly and let my brain process the emotion on its own before I can identify and translate it. I go deep inside myself and try to feel my way out, trying on words to express that emotion.

I have been known to use a thesaurus to capture a feeling, but usually that's not what leads me to the right word(s). Sometimes, while remaining quiet, I am able to hear the language of emotions in my head.

Reading poetry also works because language and meaning are condensed. I may go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop on those around me, or watch videos of author interviews and listen to the way that writer uses language to her advantage. Sometimes a book speaks to me, or I'll interpret my emotion with a random word that I heard on television that shouldn't work, but does.

Connecting emotions to words is not easy, but keep searching for the right words so your readers will become addicted to the emotional state you put them in.

Mary Horner's story Shirley and the Apricot Tree was recently published in Kansas City Voices. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sitting quietly--and sometimes even acting out the action all by myself--does help.

You're so right, Mary. We have to get in touch with our emotions (even if they're just channeled and put onto a character) if we want the reader to connect emotionally.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Beautiful post, Mary. I tend to write with a spilling of my emotions at first, then work to refine the words. If I don't feel passionate, it's hard for me to write anything creative (in nonfiction). When you said, "For me, it's more of a feeling that drives my work, and when the emotion rises in me, I try to capture it." - that's exactly how I write. I also do the opposite. Sometimes I write just to write and see what happens, even write about the act of writing, and then all of a sudden, I find that emotion on the page and write towards it, hunt it down. I think this method is pretty successful. As Robert Frost said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." I've made writers in my writing group cry when reading an essay that stemmed from hunting an emotion and riding the wave. And that, to me, is spectacular. :)

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Sioux and Angela! Sioux, I would like to be a fly on the wall when you are acting out the action! I tend to see the action in my head, and have these complete conversations that go along with them. And Angela, I think digging deep and finding that connecting emotion can be powerful.

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