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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 08, 2005

thoughts about feelings

Hot sun in the afternoon, after a morning of coolness in the dark-stenciled September shade. I'm in from my errands (main one: getting a 6-inch-to-4-inch reducer for our dryer hose, available only at a warehouse in Burnaby). Life is far from bad. What are my thoughts?

This morning I checked in again with the Grumpy Old Bookman, whose post mentioned a book called Emotion: The Science of Sentiment by Dylan Evans (how Welsh can you get?). (The GOB's post was mostly devoted to Placebo, another book by Evans.) I felt intrigued enough, and encouraged enough by GOB's recommendation, to actually buy myself a copy (used, through Abebooks.com).

My spiritual training, such as it is, has been in the Buddhist tradition known as Vajrayana, the late-developing branch of Buddhism practiced mainly in Tibet and Mongolia, and now, thanks to refugee Tibetan teachers, in many places in the West. The teachings in this tradition are profound and difficult to realize. And they, like all the Buddhist teachings, have much to say about emotion.

I'm trying to sort out my thoughts about this--and my feelings. GOB remarks in passing that anyone "even remotely involved in writing and publishing fiction" should read Evans's book. It's known that emotions are what involve people in a story. In TV I remember executives and story editors invoking the word emotions.

My suspicion is that in storytelling--page or screen--it's counterproductive to make a goal of evoking emotional responses in the audience. Yes, it's necessary and desirable to get that response, but, like happiness, it is elusive if one makes it the object of one's quest. The thought I seem to be heading toward here is that the deliberate attempt to evoke emotions in the audience is essentially what is called sentimentality.

My Webster's gives this definition of sentimentality:

the quality or state of being sentimental esp. to excess or in affectation

And to be sentimental?

1 a: marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism; 2: having an excess of sentiment or sensibility

There: excess, affectation. My own definition of sentimentality: "unearned emotion". To my way of thinking, this applies to tear-jerkers, but also to fear-jerkers or lust-jerkers, among others. The writer (publisher, producer) seeks to hit emotive buttons with the minimum of buildup: storytelling economy.

This approach is, I believe, disrespectful of the audience. It is the equivalent, at a slightly more elevated level, of trying to ingratiate yourself with someone by putting your hand down their pants. It's crude, and it only works on a certain segment of the population.

Yes, storytelling should be an emotional experience--very much so. But the writer who is focused on evoking emotions is, I think, taking the wrong approach. Emotions flow naturally from events that are significant to a character--that have meaning. I think that emotions are honestly evoked by the writer who engages seriously with his or her work at the level of meaning. Genuine emotions are evoked by writers who have something genuine to say. Honest emotion arises in response to a writer who speaks from the heart. Sentiment arises in response to a writer who simply kills off a young mother's baby.

So: I'm not trying to make you cry; I'm telling you my inmost truth, directly and simply. I'll leave your emotional response up to you. This is a respectful approach--one from which real feeling can arise.


  • yes

    By Blogger Kyle, at October 02, 2005 8:40 PM  

  • Such a great article which GOB remarks in passing that anyone even remotely involved in writing and publishing fiction should read Evans's book. It's known that emotions are what involve people in a story. In TV I remember executives and story editors invoking the word emotions.Thanks for sharing this article.

    By Anonymous Jeff, at April 02, 2012 5:10 AM  

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