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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Are Writers Heartless?

Faulkner said, "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies."  Which, is a pretty cold thing to say.  Particularly if he said it on Mother's Day.
A student came to me today, not in tears precisely, but very distraught - a research project she was working on for my class had led her to distrurbing revelations about her family.  She wanted to know if I thought she should include this in her paper.  My reaction, after appropriately consoling remarks, was she should begin her paper with it.  Then I thought about it, and said, "If you're strong enough."  I told her it may take time to sift through the emotions, that she should hold on to her paper, and that she might return to it in college or even beyond.
It's impossible to work while in the heat of emotion - either every word will seem to the author to communicate passionate feeling.  (The word "paperclip" in the third line - is filled with fury!  It's a paperclip of rage!)  Or else the writer will spew out emotions without any sense of form or structure or even consciousness of reaching a reader.  What my mother used to call, "Emotional Vomit."  The coffee has too cool on some subjects before we can write about them effectively.
Of course, this is dear old Wordsworth's "emotions recollected in tranquility," we have passionate experiences, and write about them when we can examine them cooly.  It sounds nice when Wordsworth says it.  Better than Faulkner who commends robbing Mom.  Some people - my friend John Evans, for example - say writing is a form of therapy. Maybe.  But tonight the mischief is in me, and I'm siding more with Faulkner than Evans or Wordsworth.
We all want to share the terrible things that have befallen us.  The urge to blather on about a traumatic experience is one of the hallmarks of human nature.  But the writer is different.  He does not spill his emotion right away.  He savors, turns over in his mind the stones of misfortune until they are bright and smooth.  He does not tell until he is ready.  Even the most - especially the most - devastating experiences.  He does not tell them.  Until the only emotion he feels is the consciousness of having told it well.

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