October 7, 2010

Commandments for Writers Series: #10, One-Zero, TEN-- LAAAAA

I almost forgot in the craziness that is my life that I had not presented Commandment Number Ten from Sol Stein's Ten Commandments for Writers, from his book, Stein on Writing. Whew! That would have been embarrassing.

10 Above all, thou shalt not vent thy emotions onto the reader, for thy duty is to evoke the reader's emotions, and in that lies the art of the writer.

 This is my favorite commandment of them all. I relate to this, I agree with it, I GET IT.
I don't think Sol is saying that you can't use your emotions to express feelings on a page. Many of us channel frustration, sorrow, joy into scenes we've thought about, that we know are coming, or scenes that have been inspired by the emotions when they hit. That can be amazing after editing and revisions hone down the emotional avalanche to bones that will move the story forward, deepen the character, create tension.
BUT, have you ever read something and found yourself not submersed in the story, but considering what happened to the author to make them write what is on the page, and why are they pushing this on you? It can be such a fine line, between venting emotions onto a reader, and evoking the reader's emotions.
Let's look at the definition of the word, evoke.

e·voke  (-vk)
tr.v. e·voked, e·vok·ing, e·vokes
1. To summon or call forth: actions that evoked our mistrust.
2. To call to mind or recollection by naming, citing, or suggesting: songs that evoke old memories.
3. To create anew, especially by means of the imagination: a novel that evokes the Depression in accurate detail.

The act of evoking is an outside act. The focus is on those outside ourselves, in this case, our reader. When we write emotion, we want to tap into our reader's mind, his memories, his experiences with similar emotions, and draw on those to evoke compassion, support, even comradery, with the characters we are writing. Can we use our own experiences? Of course. But we can't just tell our reader what to feel, can't just push it on him and say, "I feel this, so now you feel it." Nope.
We have to suggest. For example, frustration. Remember how it feels? How, when you're trying to fix something you're not sure how to fix, and you're already running late...

His fingers were too thick, too clumsy to grasp the wrench in that tiny space under the cupboard between the wall and the old copper pipes. Twenty minutes he'd been wedged under there, cursing himself for the half-dozen donuts he'd eaten in that week. Maple bars, chocolate cream-filled... glazed raised ... displayed in the office, every day. Donuts had always been his downfall, but he wasn't playing football anymore. Neither was he a plumber.
"Aaugh." He clenched his teeth against the curse word in his head as the wrench slipped against the bolt and clanked noisily to the bottom of the cupboard.
"You all right?" his wife asked as she hurried to lift steaming jars of processed peaches to a towel on the counter. "I'm so sorry. If it hadn't happened in the middle of canning--"
"Just get me that other wrench, the funky one with the bendable head." He stuck his bleeding knuckle in his mouth. "I'm just too big to reach these bolts." His fingers shook, always did after too much exertion. It's a good thing he hadn't pursued the surgeon thing. Of course, then he could afford to pay someone to be wedged under the sink, fixing the broken faucet.
"When are you supposed to leave?" 
"About twenty minutes ago."
His wife drew in her breath. "Do I need to call somebody?" She handed him the funky wrench and squeezed his arm, an attempt to soothe. "Do you need a band-aid?"
He huffed out a laugh but scowled. "No, I'm fine. I'm not leaving you for three days with a broken sink. They'll just wait on me. They can't go anywhere, I'm driving."
"All the way to Cheyenne?"
Distracted by the realization that the funky wrench was too bulky to fit in the cramped space, he didn't answer, but tossed the heavy thing out the cupboard opening. "Why don't we have any tools in this house?"
He ran a hand through his thinning hair as his wife paused in her work on the peaches.
"We do," she answered, "but they're all my tools, and I'm not a plumber. I'm sorry."
The truth stung and he grabbed her old wrench, jammed it up around the stuck bolt, and applied pressure enough that his fingers shook again. Holding his breath, he twisted, squeezing, cursing his teaching degree and swearing in his next life he would be "handy". The bolt gave with a jerk and his breath whooshed out of him.
"I got it."
"You got it?"

This is based on true events experienced recently by my husband and I. The frustration was there, but I didn't just tell you my husband was frustrated and I was frustrated and you should be frustrated, too. I got inside my husband's head, drew on those things that a reader might understand or connect with on some level, and then invited the reader to say, "Oh, man, I have been there!" Even if "there" was the inability to pitch a single strike at the game, or being stranded on the side of the road with the car hood up, or struggling to administer an IV after a long day. The self-doubt, the shoulda-woulda-coulda, the fatigue, all a part of feeling frustrated.
Does that make sense? Invite, draw, relate. Don't push or force. 
Unless you are trying to loosen a stuck bolt so your wife can finish her peaches.


Christauna Asay said...

I've been enjoying your 10 Commandments posts and so glad you didn't leave off #10.

Oh and I left an award for you on my blog. Iffin you want it, you can mosey on over there to retrieve it.

Krista said...

Thanks Christauna! I'm glad you've enjoyed them. *skipping off to retrieve award*

L.T. Elliot said...

What I'd like to know is how you know when you're pushing your reader. Betas? Crit friends?

Krista said...

Good question, LT. Readers are an excellent resource. Look for feedback where the reader was confused by the choices of the character, or felt drawn out of the story, or felt like they were being preached to. It really is a thin line.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Never thought about it that way. I don't think I've ever pushed anything on my readers.

Krista said...

Alex, I don't think the "pushing" or venting happens very often, at least in what I've read. I felt that way when I read Cashore's Graceling, which I really wanted to love, but the author's voice kept getting in the way, and almost seemed to drag her character to the points the author wanted to make.
I think, more often though, the evoking is forgotten or brushed over, and that's what I took from Sol's words.

Kate said...

Evoke. That's a very good description of what we want from a story. Thanks for the helpful post.

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