EMOTION IS NOT PLOT: Using Detachment to Create Powerful Fiction
by Claire Rudy Foster
In her recent essay on fiction and failure in Electric Lit, Ramona Aubusel asserts that “part of what makes a good writer is the ability to be porous, to feel all the intricate and complicated notes, the particular music of each moment.” To be present in your skin, then, instead of feeling something in your bones.
Here’s my greatest fear: that I will never be able to name the essential emotions I perceive in myself and others. Our shifting tide and all its smells and sweat and words and secret hidden codes and eyelashes and old letters and emotional ephemera that moves across the surface of the human world like that gyre of discarded belongings and trash that is so large it could cover Texas and is comprised of plastic, the things made of plastic that surround us our whole lives, including baby pacifiers and Barbie dolls and old soccer balls and parts of cars and rubber duckies and condoms and tiny things collected by the swale of the sea the way we will accumulate a hundred precious objects and love them as though they were anything but trash, our collection of special garbage with our memories attached, our stories which burrow deeply into our minds and tell us that there is more to this than plastic, more to this, more.
“We have to feel everything,” Aubusel says. When I read that line, my stomach turns over. It feels like a taunt, a dare. It implies that feeling nothing or not enough makes someone less of a writer, when in fact what I feel is only a small part of what I do when I am writing.
Great writing, I think, awakens lost feelings in us. We cry, laugh, and ache over our favorite characters; our experience of reading becomes imbued with the power of our emotional response to what we’ve read. Feeling everything is the gift a writer gives to the reader. Reading helps me name those feelings, which have no name for me; I experience an emotional intensity I may never encounter in my waking life. Reading Kundera or Dostoyevsky or Nabokov, I am transported. Writing of this caliber opens a doorway to that other world, the place where it’s safe to feel despair, passion, and all the reckless emotions that would wreak havoc in our real lives. Do I need to point out that this “other world” is a carefully crafted creative illusion? Would you be disappointed if I did?
The fact is that when I write, even if I’m writing about “myself,” which is an essay for another time, my real feelings are none of the reader’s business. Nobody wants to feel everything, just as nobody wants to read work by a writer who is emotionally incontinent. In real life, I may be strung out on anxiety, or aching from bad news, or jubilant, or missing someone I love. However, I know that my job is not to directly transmit those emotions to the reader. My job is to live my life, feel my feelings, and then learn to translate what I’m feeling without making it about me.
A good writer puts herself second—puts her ego aside—and tells a story worth reading.
Does that seem unkind? Let me add to it. First-person, stream-of-consciousness accounts, especially of someone’s emotional patterns, are not terribly interesting. Having feelings is not a plot. The feelings that arise as a character takes action are a plot. Ruminating is, for the most part, not an action. “I had a feeling once” is an immature attitude to bring to the table as a writer. Emotionalism is barely tolerable in real life; in a novel or short story, it is incredibly dull to read. An example of this is the writing of Sylvia Plath.
Plath gets a bad rap for being “adolescent,” or writing too much about her characters’ emotions. However, looking at her prose, it’s tight and spare. Her poems, too, are deliberate. Each line shows intention, even when its content is unwieldy. “Ariel” is not an accident, any more than The Bell Jar is a diary entry. I know this because I have read Plath’s diaries, her letters and journals. Her private writing is intensely emotional, confessional, and sometimes nauseatingly personal. It’s just so much Sylvia. It’s also the kind of writing that would have zero interest for me if it wasn’t Plath. I read this stuff as research, because I wanted to know more about the person behind the poetry. The operative word here is “behind.”
The contrast between Sylvia’s journals and her creative writing is like fat and bones. If she was less disciplined, more selfish, her creative writing wouldn’t have the same moving qualities. It would be all about her. Good writing is porous; it may be infused with the writer’s experience, but still betray nothing about who they really are.
Some people say that a writer’s task is to give credence and form to the things we all feel. Plath, with her unending darkness, shows that this is only partially true. The words that move us exist on a sheet of paper enclosed between two covers that can be shut and put back on the shelf or thrown down on the bed beside you when you’ve had enough. Good writing allows a reader to sample from the spectrum of emotions safely; it transmits emotion subtly, as an electric current can cause a muscle fiber to twitch.
Reading “Poppies in July,” I feel a sickening detachment.
A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!
I don’t arrive at that feeling because Plath is spelling everything out for me. No. I feel it because she’s taken something raw and real, possibly but not necessarily drawn from her own experience, and used her craft to elicit something in me. She’s not saying, “One time I was in the hospital after a suicide attempt and I did it because I can’t get over how disappointed I am in my father since he loved himself more than he loved me, don’t you feel conflicted about your dad, too?” She’s crafted something that comes from her own experience but is separate from it. That’s where the power is—her distance, from herself, her feelings, and us.
A few years ago, I found a lovely essay by Alice Munro about her writing process. In this essay is a passage about looking through a window onto a courtyard, and down to where wet, flower petal flakes of snow are falling onto the broad, brown back of a horse. The horse is not the story, nor is the window, Munro says. None of this memory will make its way onto the page—but it’s in her mind as she writes. Every sentence carries an implicit sense of that image.
I do this when I write, as well.
For example, at this moment, I am thinking of a photograph I saw, of a girl who I have never met. In this picture, she is standing in her bedroom, wearing sandals, a sun hat, and a simple dress. She’s got her hands on her hips, and she’s smiling with the confidence of someone who still believes that nobody can break her heart except herself. Over her shoulder, a Japanese paper lamp hangs, catching the afternoon light through the open door. She is going out, in this photograph, and I love her cheekiness. It is a quality I wish I had more of, and as I’m writing, my mind dwells on this photo’s many textures, its simplicity, and I feel in my bones so many things that I could not possibly name them all.
Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her critically recognized short fiction has appeared in various respected journals and she has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently at work on a novel.
Image credit: Mia Domenico on Unsplash