Creating Emotion in a Reader: Cunningham does it, why can’t I

How does a writer create emotion in a reader?   This was the question tonight on Pat Bertram’s Gather Group: No Whine Just Champagne.  With a Group title like that, who needs anything more, right?  The discussion was a good deal more and the hour spent reading and commenting with other writers well worth the time.  To visit Pat’s blog, click on the link, lower right, of my “blogroll” and find interesting weekly posts on the craft of writing.

In advance of the Live Chat on NWJC, I wrote the following, just so I would have something to offer, and now I offer it here, on my blog, so as not to . . . hmm . . . not to vaporize [I knew I could come up with a good sci-fi-cyberspace verb if I gave it a sec!] so as not to “vaporize” my thoughts on good writing and emotional development of characters, in readers, making us care about those we’d just as soon not care about . . . etcetera.  So, here goes: 

I’ve been rereading The Hours by Michael Cunningham.  The character played by Meryl Streep in the movie is, in the book, the protagonist of the story thread that Cunningham gives the most space/pages.  I think because she is a shallow character, at heart, Cunningham is required to spend considerable time so that we, as readers, can find in her those elements of ourselves that we always hope stay hidden – our envy of what we don’t have; our propensity to go on about “surfaces” of things and people, the artifice, the “pretty” of pretty lives, and find ourselves unhappy, on some level. 

Someone mentioned “deep” pov in pre-discussion, and I wondered if what Cunningham does with the “Mrs. Dalloway”/Clarissa character in The Hours isn’t exactly that . . . an attention to miniscule details and inner thoughts of a woman dissatisfied, yet pretending a vitality and happiness she doesn’t genuinely feel.

As a reader of the Pulitzer winning novel, and viewer of the movie, I can honestly say that in the movie I cared more about the Mrs. Brown (Julianne Moore) character and the Mrs Woolf (Nicole Kidman) character than I did about the modern woman, Clarissa a.k.a Mrs. Dalloway.  But, in the book, it is the Clarissa character that I find myself emotionally involved with, reacting to, caring about more so than the others.  She is not a sympathetic character and yet … I sympathize.

Good job, you, Mr. Cunningham, for taking me where I didn’t expect I might go with this read.


Reading, Writing, and Sparking Imagination

Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote “The Orange” and the editors of Flash Fiction Forward put it on page 135 when W. W. Norton Company were clever enough to publish the 80 stories Jim and Bob (Thomas and Shapard, respectively) had brought together.  And I, after reading a review by Charles Lennox on, and being less dim than on other days, I ordered a copy of Jim and Bob’s anthology from Amazon.  Wonderful short-shorts.  Wonderful small reads of big stories.  Sometimes larger than life.  As in the case of “The Orange.” 

Here’s the thing: right or wrong, I often imitate stories most enjoyed and/or respected.  In B. Rosenbaum’s short-short “The Orange,” the opening line reads: “An orange ruled the world.”   

My world is ruled by whim, not an orange, and the short-short I want to write will not be about oranges, regal or treeless, but about . . . about . . . birds.  Yes.  And a particular bird that . . . hmmm . . . doesn’t rule the world, doesn’t even rule his own roost, but, instead, is, is . . . is (hold on, hold on, I’m thinking here!) is THE bird with the longest beak in the world!   In fact, too long a beak to allow that this bird could or should thrive.  The sort of beak that once a morsel, for instance a seed, is tweezered between top and bottom, the energy required to bobble that seed the whole length of his beak to enter his mouth burns slightly more calories than the morsel provides.  A dim future, indeed.  To be always in decline, generation to generation, until the decline is such that even if there were male birds capable of fertilization, their female counterparts could no longer squeeze out an egg.  And it wasn’t just the one bird (well, at first perhaps, but not for long) or even confined to feathered types for more than half a season.  In the same way that particularly viral influenzas spread between species, this counter-evolutionary process spread.  Laterally, at first, until no eagle could maintain a wingspan as he soared; eagles of all varieties collapsing into fields, trees, granite mountain faces.  Hawks, of course, too.  Plain sparrows.  Yellow canaries.  Bees.  Gnats.  Mosquitoes and flies.  By the time people felt the effects, they cared next to none.  Science forgot how to make anti-depressants and those people that didn’t hang themselves (mostly because they were completely inept with nooses), ran over high cliffs like lemmings.  They could have been mammoth or buffalo herded to fall in just such a way by primitive tribes on Paleo continents.  They could’ve been, but in fact they were modern people gone retro beyond any brain capabilities at all!  The sorriest part, the very most sorriest part of all this Rise and Fall of species is that by the time the “fall” gets underway, we are all too dumb to put the skids on—and, by the time we RE-evolution ourselves into homes and gizmos again, we can’t remember we’ve wrecked it all at least once before or that a species of birds grew beaks too long to be useful just from drinking the water used to cool the gizmo factory uptown. 

The orange in B. Rosenbaum’s story got bought by the narrative voice on page 136 of Flash Forward Fiction.  The n.v. paid 39 cents and after three days ate the orange, the same orange that was, until his departure, ruler of the world.  How do I compare my rare bird of long beak? Never a ruler, certainly never eaten (not by this narrative voice!), is he, was he, in the end, the sum of all of our best intentions?  Or . . . shh . . . . I’m thinking.