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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.

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8 thoughts on “How to Write with Emotion and Balance

  1. “it might make sense to make them fictional characters at some point, twist some facts and details, layer some composites”
    I wonder if that isn’t what we do most naturally in loss. We shine the edges – or sharpen them, depending on our purpose – of the memories. We shape our beloved lost into what we need them to be, to best serve us as we continue on without them.
    Perhaps, deep down, I know the flawed truth of those I’ve lost. Yet, when I share the stories, it is with a hint of necessary fiction. To protect the innocent, the guilty, the others who knew, the good name, my own image, I color the tale.
    Or maybe it is just to hold back something for myself. I’ve already had to give up so much. The nuggets of truth I withhold may be my way of preserving the relationship.
    Thought provoking. Thank you.

  2. Dorothy, I think we can’t help coloring the tale, no matter how we struggle to bring it to life in crisp black and white. I’ve written of my father’s alcoholism in the past, and of how he possibly used a joking manner to fend off deeper incursions into his personality—a trait I think I carry—but I still wonder at the accuracy of my representations. And wonder if my siblings would express the representations with sharp differences, different people that we are.

    I fear we are often fictional characters to ourselves, and that much of our conscious apprehension of ourselves is actually unconscious, carrying so much conditioning and reflex from the past, which challenges the ability to see things afresh. But it’s always worth the effort.

    Hey, thank you for coming by and giving me something to chew on!

  3. We are all fictional. Nothing we do is fact for more than an instant before it passes into perception and is stored as an inaccurate memory which we’ll argue with the other participants about.

    My sister gives me grief about ‘reinventing’ my childhood. I suspect that at the very least, I have a better memory of certain events which took place before her birth, but the others? I don’t care any more. If I could have film of the memorable moments of my life, I’d slap whoever offered it.

    I don’t want my memories polluted with reality. And when I write my autobiography (Book One will be called “But, I Digress . . . “) it will read like the fiction my life has felt like.

  4. Of course, Joel, some of us are more fictional than others. As a yarn spinner, you have many skeins, most of which I don’t even know about. Have you reached the point where you even think of yourself in the third person now?

    Please work on that biography (and be sure to include your meetings with Howard Hughes—that always guarantees an audience).

  5. First of all, that’s shocking to hear that your friend Joyce disappeared like that in Columbia. It must have been so hard to recover from that kind of grief, Tom. I can’t even imagine what you went through.

    I’ve written pieces while grieving and, like you, I retained my writer’s mind while pouring out my emotions. For me it was even purging to do so, because in writing I was able to grasp some control over what I was feeling. I could sort it out with my syntax and punctuation and the right words. I can say that it always helped.

    Continued good wishes to you and your family, Tom.


  6. Jai, thank you again for your kind words. Yes, Joyce disappearing (and her body never being found) was/is a lingering shock. And so hard for her family. But we all experience major losses in our lives—no dodging that, no matter how lucky we are. And I’ve been one of the lucky ones.

    You are on target regarding writing being a release and winnowing of tough feelings. It does help, to try to cast our fears and pains into words, and lead emotion through the logic of language. It does help to “sort it out,” as you say. Thanks for being here.

  7. Personally, I write in the fourth or fifth person – as though from a parallel universe. I refer to myself as though I were moving in an alternate reality, ripe with potential – like the figs on the trees in my Lebanese neighbor’s spring garden.

    Hearing of Joyce’s disappearance is one more reason to never visit a country that hasn’t turned out a good children’s book. (Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling, the UK; The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis; Why Mosquitoes Buzz in Children’s Ears – Verna Aardema, Caldecott winner in 1976, the year me in an alternative universe contemplated the sanity of a creator who invented mosquitoes).

    On writing on emotional losses – I’m assuming you’re inviting my unsolicited opinion by the fact you have this comment box here. What else is it good for if not if not filling it with random and teary-eyed advice from my own past.

    Writing with emotion:

    Begin with the simplest of things – like how the loved one parted their hair, or which hand they buttoned or unbuttoned their shirt with. Was the darkness under the fingernails from motor oil or coffee grounds? What did they first do upon awakening in the morning?

    My father – dead five years now, is referenced in my memoirs with his most enduring, if not disgusting habit – the way he picked his nose, purposeful and deliberate. He extended an index finger vertically as if to test the wind direction before inserting it to the second knuckle. From there he clawed the olfactory detris into the light of day where he rolled it between thumb and forefinger before flinging it onto whomever was within an indefensible trajectory. He also farted often – long, wet flatulence that lingered on the woodwork and scared the dog.

    When we reduce people to the elements that make up their character we create the parts that make up the Gestault of their essence. When we create or remember each action or memory on its own, it lacks the power to tear our heart like tissue paper. We recreate those parts in small sound or visual bites – the Hershey kisses of our past.

    You can treat your character and your heart as though you were a pen-wielding leather clad dominatrix’ whipping the tears back, back – “Sit! Now Beg!” and hope you can keep the emotions at bay or at least under some semblance of control while we saw away at the memory of a Christmas hug. Or you can construct your character like Mr. Potato Head – a piece at a time. It’s mostly like reverse engineering – and it allows us the luxury of a crescendo of hand wringing and tears after the fact – not during.

    Ah! Here’s an eye, so blue, watery with age, vacant with dementia. And here’s a nose, paper-thin skin, pocked with a childhood of sun-burned summers on a Miami Beach, the hair – the jet black of raven’s wings and new radial tires, now gone to gray – the color of ashes in the cup where she crushes her Marlboro’s. Her spirit left after the third act, shortly after the divorce papers came. Her mind soon followed, wandering out the door as an afterthought – on its way to find chocolate. My mother.

    It is, after all, those personal remembrances, that we cling to most fiercely. Much luck in your struggle Tom.

  8. Becky, some beautiful writing there. I think you’re on to something, in being able to tunnel into the personal by route of the physical. The tangible aspects of your father’s absorptive nose-picking—they do tell us something of his person.

    I gave a eulogy at one of my father’s services where I spoke of having just noticed the similarity of our hands. I’ve always lamented my hands a bit, because big strong hands are very helpful in many sports, which have always been on of my interests.

    But though tall, I have small hands with delicate fingers, and in watching my father ever-so-slowly struggle with guiding his spoon to his mouth in the last couple of years (being able to still feed himself was obviously one of his last pleasures), I saw how sharply similar the shapes of our hands are.

    My father, a high school quarterback, with small hands. It gave me another connection with him and into him, and into me, and helped to peer into my own lineage, and the hard—but inexorable—workings of time.

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