Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Writing About Feelings

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Writing About Feelings

Rob Parnell

This week a new subscriber asked if I had any advice on writing about emotions. I thought hard about her question. 

Perhaps too hard, judging by this article!

I realized that whilst I mention this aspect of writing often in my courses and articles, specifically I lean towards the idea that the simple transference of 'feelings' on to the page is not always a very successful enterprise.

Mainly because emotions are so nebulous - and often mean different things to different people. A writer who intends to connect with a reader must do more than blandly state their feelings.

For instance, simply saying "She felt sad" or "I'm experiencing great sadness" has no real impact on readers. 

They might remember a time when they too felt sad but it was probably over something completely different in their lives - so the writer hasn't communicated anything substantial or meaningful by merely stating a generic emotional state.

The writer may feel better about recording their sadness in writing but without specifics the exercise is neither truly cathartic or especially useful to the writer - or the reader.

Much better is to show instead of tell.

"I cried all the time. I hit the wall in frustration. I shouted at the kids often. I wanted to scream but it seemed no-one would care." These are much more specific statements, especially within a particular setting, location or set of circumstances. 

The purpose of writing is to aid communication between us: to relate information and entertainment in a way that stimulates appropriate responses. 

I say appropriate because I don't believe that it is the purpose of art just to illicit any response - as some would argue.

No, I believe artists should aspire to create the exact response they were hoping for - "Wow, that's great" being fine with me!

But why should we want to communicate our feelings at all?

What's the purpose? 

The idea that simply sharing feelings makes us feel better has merit. But is this enough reason to write a book?

It depends.

Many of us use our strongest feelings as an inspiration for starting a writing project but it's unlikely those feelings will be intense for long enough to complete a whole book.

Because the brain is a fickle thing. It see-saws back and forth from one viewpoint to another, from one emotional state to another with sometimes unpredictable but persistent inevitability.

I think there's a case for having a clearer understanding of where emotions come from before we are taken in by their power.

How The Brain Works

The brain is an enormously complex machine. So complex in fact that there are separate scientific disciplines devoted to its study that rarely agree on terms of reference, let alone the brain's many functions.

Materialists tend to see the brain as a biological entity capable of giving us the illusion of consciousness through the 'somewhat mysterious' interaction of its cells, neurons and synapses.

Psychologists see the brain as a glorified behavior modifier that, it is hoped, will one day become predictable and, by implication, all mental 'illness' will become curable.

Parapsychologists lean towards the idea that perhaps consciousness and the brain are separate - and that the brain is a conduit for some  (as yet unidentified) energy that pervades the universe.

Quantum physicists are fascinated - and disturbed - by the idea that all matter, including the brain and any idea of consciousness, is really only a subjective reality that requires our participation to function.

Generally scientists are uncomfortable with more philosophical concepts like mind, will, intellect and even personality because they are hard to quantify within a meaningful scientific framework. 

But the fact is the brain is a thinking machine. 

And thought begets ideas and concepts. 

And albeit somewhat abstract concepts are really all we have to explain how our brains work - because the more we look at the brain, the more scientifically baffling it appears to be.

How can the above information help us?

Let's see.

For the purposes of creative expression, let's say the brain can be broken down into just five abstract concepts - or more likely five hierarchical functions - that control and monitor its daily use.

(This may seem a long way from writing - but bear with me!)

I believe that at the heart of everything is a survival imperative which, for the sake of clarity, we'll call Intention. We already know that, at the very smallest level of our existence, there are particles that want to live, to survive, to procreate and to multiply. 

We may argue over what it is that motivates these particles - God, a mathematical probability or an innate quality - but the fact that we're here at all and I'm writing an article and you're reading it is proof that such a thing as "an intention to exist" is inherent in matter - and is therefore in everything around us. 

This intention manifests itself in the brain as 'will' - for want of a better word. It was good enough for Nietzsche, so who am I to disagree.

It's unfashionable in modern scientific circles to adhere to the idea that 'will' is anything but an abstract concept with no real substance. 

I disagree with that position. 

I believe that it is 'will' and the DNA it probably in some way controls and manipulates that exists before the brain is fully formed. Not only that, I believe that it's this 'will' that dictates our brain's actions and reactions from beginning to end.  

The evidence for will and intention in all things is slim and perhaps circumstantial, I'll admit. However, so was Rene Descartes' flimsy proof of God which, it could be argued, has shaped Western thought for over 450 years!

It's just a change in mindset. A new paradigm - a leap of faith perhaps.

Anyway, I believe that will creates consciousness as part of its genetic function. There's much debate over why humans need consciousness at all. What is its purpose? Why does an animal need self awareness?

To me the answer is simple - to be able to communicate more effectively. Because effective communication helps us to better survive a hostile environment - an admittedly Darwinian view.

Once consciousness is in place - through whatever mechanism - I believe the brain then creates, through will, DNA and its everyday experience of growing up, three basic 'higher' functions: personality, intellect and again, another nebulous idea, conscience.

These three 'higher' functions are self evident - though enormously hard to quantify scientifically.

I won't even go there!

But the really quite remarkable thing about the human mind is that it is so incredibly similar in all of us. 

Yes, we're all different to a degree. 

But fundamentally we all have a sense of what's right and wrong (conscience); an inkling of what's fair and reasonable and what's cruel and unusual (intellect); and numerous ideas of what constitutes fun, love, joy, hurt, anger, lust and violence (personality).

To me it's not so amazing that we are slightly different as people, but that we're not bored and dismayed by our overall sameness.

The Point of All This

But this sameness is what makes good effective writing possible at all.

Because when we write about our feelings, we already have a frame of reference residing inside the head of our reader. It is therefore the writer's job to communicate in such a way as to create the same responses in the reader as the writer is trying to emulate on the page.

In these circumstances, showing is much better than merely telling because people's minds generally respond more viscerally to visual, aural and tactile phenomena. This is why people often respond more easily to music and movies than to books.

But the beauty of books is that they're much more intimate. 

A good writer can make you feel that you're actually inside his or her mind - 
which, as humans, we find comforting because, in a sense, our own mind is the loneliest place in the world to be.

It's also the most awe-inspiring.

This is probably one of the reasons why many of us cling to the idea of life after death, or of survival of our consciousness - because we simply cannot bear the idea that the vast reality we build inside our heads is merely temporary. 

But that's the wonder of the brain for you.

So. If you really want to write about your feelings, don't just accept them for what they appear to be: generic emotional reactions to stimuli.

In reality, feelings are a complex manifestation of the conflicting agendas dictated by will, personality, intellect, conscience and consciousness

And only by fully acknowledging these five elements in your descriptions of feelings can you come close to relating them effectively in your writing.

See emotions as a byproduct of how the mind works - and use your knowledge of brain psychology to really 'get under the skin' - literally inside the mind - of the reader.

Don't just tell people how you feel. Show it like it is. Be specific. Detail the conflict in your mind when emotions arise.
Have the courage to share what experiencing those feelings is really like - in concrete terms - with honesty and sincerity

In this way you're not just writing about emotion to make yourself feel better, you're really communicating with your fellow human beings.

Keep Writing!

 rob at home

"The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in."Harold Goddard
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