since feeling is first who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you
— e.e. cummings
That has always been one of my favorite stanzas of poetry. Many years ago, a couple of years before I met my wife, cummings’ words helped me understand why I had to break up with a woman I was dating who was making me miserable. I wrote the lines in a small notebook of quotes — one that I still keep and even add to occasionally — along with a few other phrases that captured the angst of mid-twenties failed love. Eventually I grew up a little, moved on, built my life with Nancy, and my need for that little notebook lessened. It had been a while since I’d read through some of the older entries in the notebook, but a couple of weeks ago, while rummaging through my bookshelves for something else, I found it and sat down with it again.
I’m working with a graduate student in writing; his university requires that he have an outside mentor to advise him on his final project, and he chose me. He writes well, has some terrific ideas, and is generally making good progress on his work. But he has been unable to connect with the emotions of his main character, in part I think, because his project is, at some level, autobiographical, and in connecting with his character he would be connecting with elements of his own emotional life that he’s not ready to face. The point is, the last batch of chapters he sent me came in right around the time I rediscovered that little quote book, and I found myself thinking that cummings’ love poem also works as a statement about art in general and writing in particular.
My student isn’t the only young writer I’ve encountered who shies away from delving into the emotions of his or her characters. In part I believe this is because whatever scant exposure students have to creative writing in primary and secondary schools tends to focus on the mechanics of story telling: plot and description, grammar and sentence structure. The syntax of things. And in part I also think this is because it’s simply easier to tell readers what happened and why, than it is to explain how events made someone feel. I recall working at a writers’ conference a few years ago and finding again and again that the writing samples I read were devoid of emotional content. Not all of them, of course. The best pieces I read were those in which the writer went beyond narrative and exposition to explore the psyche of the point of view characters. But these were the exceptions. Most of the sample chapters or short stories skimmed along the surface like a flat stone on water, skipping from plot point to plot point without ever showing us what lay beneath.
I would never tell a writer to ignore the rules of grammar, to jettison structure and form. Turning that perfect phrase is one of the great joys of writing; discovering a passage of elegant prose is one of the great rewards of reading. But I have said before, and will repeat until the day I stop writing, that character is the key to great storytelling. And there is no character without emotion, without feeling.
This may seem so elementary as to be worthless. But if you’re struggling right now with a story or book that just seems flat, that isn’t working at some level you can’t identify, it may well be that you haven’t fully tapped the emotions of your main characters. I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years and I still struggle with this from time to time. I’ll get so caught up in other elements of my story — the intricacies of my narrative, the details of my setting, the flow of my prose and the sound of my dialogue — that I forget the emotional foundation. I’ll look over my most recent chapter and find that it reads well, but that something is missing. And then I realize what it is.
We are emotional beings. There are days when I notice every detail of my surroundings and others when I stumble around oblivious to everything I see and hear and touch. There are days when I’m so busy that I barely have time to breathe, and there are days when I laze around for hours doing nothing at all. But I’ve never experienced a day without emotions. I’d wager that I’ve never gone an entire hour without feeling something. That’s just how we are. And that’s how our characters ought to be, too.
since feeling is first….
For our characters to do what they are supposed to do — capture the hearts of our readers — they have to be more than conduits for storytelling. They have to be more than props, they have to be more than eyes and ears. Our characters have to be living, breathing people, or at least they have to be as close to alive as literary creations can be. In other words, they have to feel. And your readers need to experience their emotions right along with them.David B. Coe