How to Write with Emotion and Balance

The Maid of Orleans

Years ago (and long years after our relationship ended), my high school girlfriend disappeared in Colombia. She was never found. She was my first true love, a unique person whose intelligence, creativity, looks, unaffectedness and a charmingly open goofiness bowled me over. I was still in love with her when she disappeared, and am in love with her memory today.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to shape with words that sense of appreciation, loss and regret I feel for Joyce’s life and her passing. But I have been unsatisfied with the results—I can’t hit the right marks without veering off into gloppiness, or in trying to avoid that, into some parched field of objectivity, plucked of passion’s flowers. It’s frustrating, because pulling up the bucket from the deep well of emotion can produce the sweetest water. When done skillfully, opening the flesh of an old wound is when the blood pours most red, most true.

Mark Twain considered Joan of Arc to be one of history’s most extraordinary figures, as indeed she is. His biography of her, though praised in some circles, was widely panned for its sentimentality and reverential, plodding, un-Twainlike style. Yet he thought it one of his greatest works. Perhaps the Joan-besotted Twain was unable to write with the same sharpness in his pen because of his admiration for one of history’s legends. His love clouded his writerly craft.

Emotional, Yes, Emoting, No
The reason I’m mulling these things is because of my father’s recent death. I wrote a short piece on him just hours after I’d learned of his passing. Though it’s in the same room with the thoughts and feelings I wanted to convey, it’s not actually at the bedside, touching the man, relating that touch.

It’s funny about writing and writers: I was crying when I wrote that piece, but yet I was in my writer’s mind as well: weighing words, syntax, rhythms, as you should for any piece of writing. I very much wanted to pull from my own well, but not so that the bucket overflowed, making the results sloppy, the expression mushy. That writing didn’t do what I wanted it to do, but at least it served as a purge for overflowing feeling, and its sense of love for my father was true.

Fact, Fiction and Feeling
I’m thinking now that I’ll try again to write both about my father and about Joyce, using the essay form I admire. However, it might make sense to make them fictional characters at some point, twist some facts and details, layer some composites. Fictionalizing people and events might provide a conscious perspective, without losing that quickening, the essence of the models, the breathing people as you perceived them.

It’s strange to deliberate over how to write about people you love. It sounds too calculated. You might think the best way is simply to let it out, to gush, to let the sobs show in the lines. There is emotional value there, surely, but here I’m talking about the finer construction: to get at your honest feelings—past the first juddering of shock, despair, loss—you need to probe, to ponder, to position and reposition your points. I think we owe that care to the memory of our subjects, whatever the cost of the honesty.