lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

Evoking Deep Feeling in Narrative: A Lesson With Jennifer Wortman

Craft Talk: Ben Marcus, in his introduction to his anthology New American Stories, discusses the relationship between story and feeling. He writes:

I have been reading stories for forty-two years and I still find it astonishing that, by staring at skeletal marks on paper or a screen, we can invite such cyclones of feeling into our bodies. It is a kind of miracle. . . . A story is simply a sequence of language that produces a chemical reaction in our bodies. When it’s done well, it causes sorrow, elation, awe, fascination. It makes us believe in what’s not there, but it also pours color over what is, so that we can feel and see the world anew.

As Marcus observes, great narratives infuse us with feeling, rich and intense. But evoking deep feeling can be hard to pull off. In conventional narrative, all the major elements typically come into play: intriguing characters, compelling conflict, vivid setting, powerful prose, and the like. Experimental forms might approach these elements more subversively. In either case, how can we approach moments of major emotion so they “invite cyclones of feeling”? We could ponder this question through multiple lessons. For now, though, I’d like to explore one technique that contributes to heightening emotion: slowing down.

Writer and teacher Steve Almond notes, “Writers tend to hurry when they should be slowing down. As a result, they end up asserting big emotions, rather than allowing their characters to experience those emotions.” My experience as an editor and a teacher bears this out, but not nearly as much as my experience as a writer. Often I’m sure I’ve given a “big moment” its full due, only to later realize I’ve barely scratched the surface because I haven’t slowed down enough.

But what, exactly, does slowing down entail? According to Almond, slowing down might involve going forward, pushing the action and dialogue to a critical point. But just as—or more–important, he contends, slowing down also means going inward, capturing the characters’ inner reactions to outward events. It can also require going backward, bringing in relevant bits of backstory without hijacking the scene. Here’s one great example of what slowing down looks like, from Vu Tran’s novel Dragonfish [content warning for domestic violence]:

The night I hit her was a rainy night. I had come home from the scene of a shooting in Ghost Town in West Oakland, where a guy had tried robbing someone’s seventy-year-old grandmother and, when she fought back, shot her in the head. I was too spent to care about tracking mud across Suzy’s spotless kitchen floor, or to listen to her yell at me when she saw the mess. Couldn’t she understand that blood on a sidewalk is a world worse than mud on a tile floor? Shouldn’t she, coming from where she came, appreciate something like that? I told her to just fuck off. She glared at me, and then started with something she’d been doing the last few years whenever we argued: she spoke in Vietnamese. Not loudly or irrationally like she was venting her anger at me—but calmly and deliberately, as if I actually understood her, like she was daring me to understand her, flaunting all the nasty things she could be saying to me and knowing full well that it could have been gibberish for all I knew and that I could do nothing of the sort to her. I usually ignored her or walked away. But this time, after a minute of staring her down as she delivered whatever the hell she was saying, I slapped her across the face.

She yelped and clutched her cheek, her eyes aghast. But then her hand fell away and she was flinging indecipherable words at me again, more and more vicious the closer she got to my face, her voice rising each time I told her to shut up. So I slapped her a second time, harder, sent her bumping into the dining room behind her.

I felt queasy even as something inside me untangled itself. There’d been pushing in the past, me seizing her by the arms, the cheeks. But I’d never gone this far. The tips of my fingers stung.

The scene doesn’t end there:  the fight continues to escalate. But even in these few paragraphs, notice how—and how much–feeling comes through. A lesser writer might have rushed through this exchange: a guy tracks mud into his house after a hard day, his wife yells, he slaps her—the end. Imagine how quickly these events might have transpired in real time. But Tran slows down. He takes us backward—to the shooting, to Suzy’s habit of speaking Vietnamese during fights, to the narrator’s past aggression. He takes us inward–to the narrator’s frustration with what he thinks are Suzy’s petty concerns, to his interpretation of her behavior, to his feelings about what he’s done. And he takes us forward, beyond that initial slap, which is only the first of many. Tran compresses a lot of vital, vivid detail into this incident, and the density translates to deep feeling.

Optional reading: If you wish, take a look at Rebecca Lee’s “The Banks of the Vistula” and consider the following questions: When and how does the story slow down? When does it speed up? What other techniques does Lee use to stir emotions? Does this story successfully evoke deep feeling? Why? (You can build your writing toolbox by asking yourself these questions while reading any other narrative you find affecting–or unaffecting: negative examples help too!)

Writing Prompt 1: Draft a scene detailing a mundane occurrence: just describe the facts, with no attention to feeling. Then revise the scene, injecting memories, thoughts, and/or subsequent actions, to slow down the narrative and build in emotion.

Writing Prompt 2: This prompt is adapted from a Steve Almond exercise:

  1. Revise or draft a scene meant to convey intense emotion, taking it slow. (If you need inspiration, think of an experience in your own life that caused great joy or anger or desire or shame, etc.) Make a moment that might take just a few seconds in real time stretch out on the page, kind of like a slo-mo shot in film. Go forward, inward, and backward as needed, packing in vital, expressive detail. For this exercise, don’t worry about overdoing it: more is more. If necessary, you can trim the fat later.

  2. Put the scene aside. After a couple hours or a couple days—as much time as you can spare–return to it. Are there places that are missing something? Where can you still go forward, inward, and/or backward? Again, give yourself permission to load up on dramatic detail. The important thing is to get good material down on paper. You can always streamline in subsequent drafts.

Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. (Split/Lip Press, 2019), a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards and the Foreword INDIES. Her work appears in TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, Copper Nickel, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. An Ohio native, she lives with her family in Colorado, where she serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.

Artwork by: Johannes Plenio