Emotional Writing Can Cut the Cake (But It’s Not Always Sweet)

Channeling emotion to drive your creative writing can be a two-way street: Writing fueled by emotion can pulse with the power of realness, show broken skin or broken heart; it’s where you write from being in the game, rather than watching it. But writing from a personal current can also produce florid overwriting, work that’s colored by mawkish hues, or even blindly inaccurate prose that freezes on a fixed point of view. I think focused, emotional writing can smack a ringing bell, but that misdirected emotion in writing can dilute its strengths, making it merely personal.

I was thinking these things because I’m down in my Southern California home town, staying with my parents for a bit. In the last year, my 92-year-old father has fallen deeper into his advanced Alzheimer’s, and is now mostly confined to a bed, only “rising” by means of a hoist that has to be operated by two people to maneuver him into a wheelchair. But he’s still at home, still sloppily able to feed himself, still brightening when people enter his room and greet him, though he’s likely as not to not recognize the greeter.

I’ve written about his condition before, when his diminished capacity wasn’t as advanced, but lately he’s turned a corner, and even if his body lingers, his mind is becoming more ghostly, his world a small, small corner, with dimming light. I again want to write about my father, want to write again about how I never truly knew what he wanted, what his aspirations were, whether he judged his life a good one, if he even did pause to judge it.

Fathers and Sons, Arms Linked, Arm’s Length
I’ve previously touched upon how my father’s manner resembles mine in some ways: a person quick to make a joke, but in the joking also perhaps making a space between himself and others, perhaps more comfortable with a certain distance. I know that is true of myself, but I don’t absolutely know if it’s true of my father, because I never felt intimate enough with him to probe. I know he’s always been a warm man, a reliable caretaker of my siblings and mom, a war veteran, a guy who taught me, to my great pleasure, to play baseball and basketball. But those are thrown-off evaluations, resume-writing; the core of the man is elusive to me.

So, my father, diapered, his country now a small bed, the tv on to keep him “company,” attended by my valiant, near-blind mother, at 87, herself slowing to time’s great watch. And I want to write about it, with emotion, but accurately, with the precision my father is entitled to, not to force anyone (or myself) to feel my discomfort, but just to write with the deserved passion that testifying about someone’s life requires, without twisting the words to torque feelings.

An aside: I’ve been reading my friend Jule Kucera’s blog, where she is recounting the early days with her husband Trent, some years before his untimely death. Her writing is frank, revelatory, vivid and sometimes embarrassing. And undoubtedly painful for her; I can feel its emotional power—and yet there’s still a writerly sensibility and restraint. I appreciate Jule’s model.

Here’s to writing that’s real.

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6 thoughts on “Emotional Writing Can Cut the Cake (But It’s Not Always Sweet)

  1. Oh, Tom. I didn’t know… I’m sorry to hear about your father and the gulf that will never be crossed, the innner world that will never be known.

    I have to admit that I smiled at your description of yourself and the “certain distance.” You may not know your father but you know yourself and that is where the writer starts.

    Whether you write more about your father or yourself or whatever catches your attention,I am glad that you write. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–I love everything you write. I love the way you dance with words.

  2. The more we learn about ourselves the more we learn about our fathers. Even after his death in 2006 I still discover things in myself that I saw in my father – his fears of never fitting in, of his fascination with photography, of his utter drive to be the best at something…we know more than we know we know. The writing brings it out. Nice post Tom…..

  3. Thanks Jule. I don’t need to encourage you to seek out (and reveal) the undercurrents of your life events–you’re already doing it with care and grace. (Though some of those in-the-moment recountings deal with the less than graceful.) I’m looking forward to more of your revelations.

  4. Becky, there is so much that I don’t know about my father, and now I never will, but of course it’s useless to wallow in that regret. Even at this age, I’m puzzled by what I chose to pay attention to back when I was a kid, and what I just let breeze by. But it is interesting to see how our interpretation of events changes over time (whether it’s more accurate or more clouded, I can’t say with certainty).

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I’ve spent much of the 30 years since my father’s death trying to get to know him better.

    Half the time, it’s helped me to know myself better.

    The other half of the time, it has prevented me from knowing myself better.

    I’m not sure which half was which.

  6. That’s a tough one, Joel. I’m grateful that I’ve seen a long bend of my father’s river, and though I might not know all the undercurrents there, I’ve waded in at different points and seen different views. That it’s drying up now is just a reflection of his long years.

    I think it must be harder to lose him when he’s young, still defining himself, and by extension, at least tracing those definitions on you. Maybe you could explore his character in a fictional piece, just to see where it goes?

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