“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
— Joseph Campbell, American author and professor
I’m reflecting this month on the role of emotion in art, primarily on the page. Not portraying characters in the midst of an emotional experience, or not just that, but creating an emotional experience for the reader.
My friend, Rachel “Rusti” Warner, a well-known tonalist painter who lives in our valley, often talks about emotion on the canvas, and quotes her teacher, painter and print-maker Russell Chatham. Art, he said, as opposed to a well-made picture, is able “to bring forth the tears.” Or as she puts it, it should communicate more than an excitement or response to the object.
And on the page, too. As my teacher, Don Maass, writes in The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2016), “Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings. You may curate your characters’ experiences and put them on display, but the exhibit’s meaning is different in thousands of ways for thousands of different museum visitors, your readers. …
When readers feel strongly, their hearts are open. Your stories can not only reach them for a moment, but they can change them forever.”
Bitterroot Winter by Rachel Warner (2017), collection of the author
In mid-April, I spent a week in Hood River, Oregon attending the Breakout Novel Intensive Graduate Learning Retreat. What? you say. It’s a six-day intensive writing workshop lead by agent, teacher and novelist Don Maass. This version is aimed at students who have already attended the basic intensive — known as BONI; it’s smaller with more individualized instruction. When I attended BONI in April 2012, I had a 3-book contract for the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries. The first draft of book one was due August 1; I had about 60% of a first draft and was feeling pretty good about it. I went home and started over.
But that book, Death al Dente, won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. So, I’m a BONI fan, even though it took me longer than any of my classmates to come back. (Scheduling problems, mostly.)
Maass talks a lot about emotion on the page, but more significantly, about evoking emotion in the reader. His 2016 book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, gives writers practical insights and exercises for giving readers an emotional experience. So that’s my theme for May.
It starts, I think, with E.M. Forster’s dictate: “Only connect.”
Or as American novelist and short story writer Dan Chaon said in The Writer (June 2009), “You can’t tell people how to feel when they read your work. You can only hope to connect.”
But I think maybe you can do a little more than that, actually creating an experience. How? Stay tuned.