“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.
“Creative writing is not an escape. It’s the opposite. Fiction demands that we dive headfirst into puddles of conflict others might choose to sidestep. It asks that we scratch and dig until we unearth emotional truths, and then find a way to convey them so that a reader we’ve never met can share the same journey.”
– Kathryn Craft, on Writer Unboxed: Seeking Truth in Fiction, 1/10/19
(painting: The Barn, pastel on sandpaper, by me)
“The most important thing an artist has is the will to do something – it’s evidence of life and a spiritual wellness, even if the body is decrepit.”
– dancer, choreographer, and arts leader Bill T. Jones, interviewed in the Washington Post, 3/22/19
“Art may be triggered by a moment of inspiration or epiphany, but it arises from a lifetime of observations, ideas, imagination and skills honed by practice, practice, and more practice.”
— Lauren Wolk, author of Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea.
(hat tip, Beth Schmelzer, via the Sisters in Crime “Guppies” chapter discussion list)
Speaking of April:
“Month of my birth. What record do we poets leave? Not on stone tablets, but in books like leaves that have matted together under the snows of indifference. That we were fretful, mostly, but that now and then we looked up and glimpsed something wonderful passing away.”
– Ted Kooser, in The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book (2014; Univ of Nebraska Press)
I’m wrapping up two months of quotes from Spark: How Creativity Works (2011) by Julie Burstein, based on interviews conducted with artists of all media for Studio 360, which she produced.
Painter Chuck Close on how he creates his portraits: “I know where I’m going to end up but I don’t know the route I”m going to take. So much is embedded in the process of following that path wherever it leads, and the things you bump into, the ideas that occur to you through the act of painting, through the process of building a painting, are so different from the ones that you sit around and dream up. I don’t wait for inspiration. If you wait for the clouds to part and be struck in the head with a bolt of lightning, you’re likely to be waiting the rest of your life. But if you simply get going something will occur to you.”
So much like writing a story or a novel. I often find that I’m “sparked” by interaction with other arts — going to a concert or a gallery opening, taking a painting class, sitting nearby when my singer-songwriter husband and his friends take turns around the circle with their song. I hope these quotes have done something similar for you.
The meat of Spark is, of course, the perspective and experiences of the artists themselves, but Julie Burstein, who produced the radio show and compiled the interview excerpts, offers a few insights into the creative process from her own experience. Here, she’s recounting part of a conversation with her mother, a college professor and author.
“My mother often reminds me that beginning a new project doesn’t start when you sit down at your desk to write, or stand in front of a canvas with a palette full of paint, or figure out a new tune on a piano. For most creative work, there’s a period that she likes to call ‘pawing the earth,’ when we must create the environment in which we can begin.”
– Julie Burstein, radio producer and author
I’m continuing to quote from Spark this month.
Architect Robert Venturi was interviewed with his wife, architect and urban planner Denise Scott Brown
“Quoting T.S. Eliot, [Ventura] pointed out that the creative process consists enormously of criticism. You don’t invent all the time. When you get an idea, you try it out, then you critique it. You work much of the time as a critic of your own ideas.” And he and his wife are critics of each other’s ideas.
Being seen as creative because he’s male, the lone genius, with his wife less creative is a problem. “Both views are stereotypes, and neither acknowledges the complexity in our tasks that pushes us to work creatively together. It’s relevant that we’re not performing artists. If we were, the nature of the collaboration—who is doing what work, how the creative work is shared—might be more obvious.”