DON’T WRITE WITHOUT THEM
He [the writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
William Faulkner, Speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize [December 10, 1950]
A friend of mine once gave me quite a tongue-lashing for expressing surprise. We were discussing a bit of news which I found startling and sad. “I didn’t realize anything was wrong,” I confessed, still trying to digest what I’d learned. I, unlike my friend, was taken aback by the disclosure. I hadn’t expected it nor had I divined clues which would have both prepared me, and eased my shock. “You’re always surprised,” she chided me, as though my astonishment was proof positive of a major character flaw for which I should feel shame. The browbeating put me on the defensive. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my subconscious a response took shape. “I hope,” I responded, without anger, “I never lose my ability to be astounded.” She abruptly shut up. Later, during a period of quiet reflection I replayed our exchange. I was nonplused by her cynicism. My feelings eventually led to a reassessment of our relationship for this outburst wasn’t the first time she manifested a negative attitude toward a situation calling for understanding and acceptance. I’m so glad I can feel: anger, joy, amazement, sorrow, excitement, exhilaration, desire, satisfaction, and yearning. Is there any other way to experience these states of mind? More importantly, how can I write meaningfully, provocatively, or passionately if my life is devoid of them? I cannot. Rene Descartes, a seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher, cut to the chase with his succinct observation: Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. An unfeeling person is often perceived negatively, yet a gifted storyteller can transform this same individual into someone who comes across as sinister, taciturn, laconic, evasive, laid back, quixotic, coy, or perplexing. To do so the writer must feel the pathos or bathos of the character’s situation and explore the depths of his or her humanity. The raconteur’s capacity for hooking, reeling in, and keeping readers attuned is contingent upon her or his skill in generating interest. Feelings are what we know and perceive. They define our existence, clothe our dreams, inform our actions, and determine our choices.
Doubt that the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
Hamlet, II, ii, 115
Hamlet’s enamored declaration to Ophelia speaks eloquently of love – an emotion – and opens the active imagination up to limitless possibilities. Ask yourself, could someone who doesn’t believe in romance, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Halloween, or the tooth fairy compose such evocative lines? Who is more likely to craft memorable text?
- The person who imagines a face on the moon?
- The one who is adamant that those images are actually craters on its surface?
Writers see, hear, observe, and absorb the ambient environment. Feelings stimulate our collective consciousness. An exchange here, or a tidbit there, can blossom into an engrossing saga whose grasp enthralls, compels, or persuades. Such writing is less likely to emanate from the mind of a cynic for whom a flower is…well a plant. The name is unimportant – the genus is irrelevant, and its beauty is overlooked. Why? Someone incapable of feeling cannot appreciate the radiant colors of a sunrise, the soothing rhythm of calm waters, or the breathtaking majesty of snow-capped mountains against a cloudless sky. The inability to feel, or an unwillingness to allow one’s self to acknowledge feelings, reduces life to a malignant existence which robs its unwitting victims of their dignity. Belletrists must claim their emotions and learn to use them advantageously in the art of storytelling. When we become desensitized to violence, cruelty, abuse, and intolerance…when we lose our ability to feel concern, to respond to a hug…a smile, or a loving touch, we lose our capacity for empathy, sympathy, or compassion. When we can no longer feel, we lose our vitality and the essence of what makes each one of us unique. Scribes must never succumb to the fear of being – amazed, inspired, vilified, challenged, saddened, repulsed, criticized, happy, overjoyed, outraged, awed, overwhelmed, rejected, accepted, loved, appreciated, outnumbered, outwitted, or outmaneuvered. We cannot capitalize on our gifts and talents if we deny ourselves the right to feel, the opportunity to own those feelings and our ability to express them imaginatively.
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Julius Caesar, I, ii, 134
Lyricists, composers, musicians, and poets have explored the bane and beauty of feelings through the ages, demonstrating their role as humanity’s common denominator. Without engaging the gamut of emotions, there can be no return on the inditer’s investment. When all is said, and done, feelings are all we have.
Guildenstern: Prison, my lord?
Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.
Hamlet: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons. Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why, then, ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
Hamlet, II, ii, 11
Writers must be diligent in recognizing skepticism, disdain, disbelief, and ignorance. We cannot allow misanthropy, pessimism, or sarcasm from others to demean our work or belittle our talents.
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
Ernest Hemingway Interview in Paris Review [Spring 1958]
Adopt an attitude of gratitude for who and what you are. Nurture those dreams and trust those emotions – who knows, there may be a compelling narrative awaiting your tender loving touch. Feelings, don’t write without them. ©December 2015 by Theresa Bennett-Wilkes. All rights reserved.