When we write—whether it’s a poem, story, novel, memoir, or essay, we want our writing to be meaningful to the reader. We want them to discover something about themselves, about others, about the world we live in. We want them to be enriched, enlarged, changed. To do this we must deliver an experience, not just tell the reader about it. And to do that we need to write with genuine feeling: sentiment.
The novelist, E. L. Doctorow said, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” So this is our job description.
But although we want to evoke sensation and make it possible for the reader to feel, we don’t want to fall into sentimentality.
Mark Doty writes about sentimentality in a way that is fundamental to my understanding. His book, Dog Years, is a memoir about living with dogs and their deaths, a subject that could be rife with sentimentality, but isn’t. He says that sentimentality works by:
“…replacing particularity with a warm fog of acceptable feeling, the difficult exact stuff of individual character with the vagueness of convention. Sentimental assertions are always a form of detachment; they confront the acute, terrible awareness of individual pain, the sharp particularity of loss or the fierce individuality of passion with the dulling, “universal” certainty of platitude.”
So what does it take for us to achieve sentiment without sentimentality?
It takes courage to live in the realm of this passionate attachment to what will pass away—whether it’s attachment to a person, an animal, a tree or a river, a cup of coffee, the pile of clothes on your child’s floor or a bic lighter lying in the gutter. Even the particular stage of ruin that a bouquet of tulips is passing through.
And if you can’t bear it, you can’t write it.
Back In the 14th century the Kashmiri poet, Lal Ded, or Lalla, wrote:
I didn’t trust it for a moment
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.
It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.
We have to be willing to feel. Both the painful, intense, and complex, even devastating feelings. But also the sweetness. It takes courage to feel the exquisite sweetness of love, beauty, tenderness. Because every joy will pass.
But this is what we want to be willing to engage with, the feeling that the writer has risked something in writing the poem or the story or the memoir. That’s what makes us care as readers.
Vivian Gornick, in her book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, writes:
“Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”
When we discover something we didn’t know before we sat down to write, when we surprise ourselves, we surprise the reader and this sense of discovery is the opposite of sentimentality. Sentimentality is always a danger when we tell the story we know too well. The unexpected discovery is often its antidote.
Even if we have the courage, we also have to do the work to deliver an experience to the reader. Fortunately, many of the strategies for conveying authentic sentiment are also the strategies for avoiding sentimentality. And they’re also the exact strategies for strong writing.
Oscar Wilde, said, “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”
So how do we pay for it?
One of the fundamental ways is through detail. Specificity. Particularity.
Detail and specific description are the workhorses that carry emotion. Not our saying how we feel about something, but providing description and detail that convey that emotion. And to do that, the detail and description need to be both vivid and essential.
That’s where selectivity comes in.
Chekhov says the definition of of talent is “the ability to distinguish the essential from the inessential.”
In your early drafts you may not be able to distinguish essential from inessential detail. And that’s okay, but if you go for vivid and get enough of it, you can, as you revise, weed out the inessential, the detail that isn’t earning its keep.
So let’s look now at Anne Carson’s poem, “God’s Justice,” because it’s such a great example of how powerfully vivid detail can convince a reader.
In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.
On the day He was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly
and lost track of time.
It was about two inches long
with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.
God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows
as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.
The eye globes mounted on the case
rotated this way and that
as it polished every angle.
Inside the case
which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank.
God could see the machinery humming
and He watched the hum
travel all the way down turquoise dots to the end of the tail
and breathe off as light.
Its black wings vibrated in and out.
from Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995)
I admire this poem for its marvelous description of the dragonfly. For its detail and specificity. For its terrific metaphors.
If someone wrote a poem that began, “There is no justice” and then listed all the ways in the world that there is no justice, I would know that it was raining, but I wouldn’t have the feeling of being rained upon. But in Anne Carson’s poem, I not only know that there is no justice (which is not news to any observant person), but I feel the terrible poignancy.
Anne Carson trusts that we live in the same world she does. And so she doesn’t make the mistake of telling us there’s injustice, as though we didn’t know.
Jane Hirshfield said, “Most good poems [or stories or essays] hold some part of their thoughts in invisible ink…The unexpressed can at times affect the reader more strongly than what is explicit, precisely because it has not been narrowed by conscious accounting. Lyric poetry rests on a fulcrum of said and unsaid…”
“Show, don’t tell,” is something we hear all the time in advice about writing and it’s good advice. There are times we have to tell. But in most writing, too much telling leads to shutting the reader out.
John Gardner in The Art of Fiction writes, “In great fiction, we are moved by what happens, not by the whimpering or bawling of the writer’s presentations of what happens.”
The body is a great resource in writing poems and stories. By paying attention to the body and using physical detail, we can move our writing along the continuum from telling to showing, from abstract to concrete, from reporting to enacting. I don’t want someone who reads my poem to think, “Oh, Ellen feels really strongly about this.” I want the reader to have the experience of that strong feeling themselves.
The poet Nicole Sealy said, “As a reader, I want to feel. However, I don’t want to be told when and what to feel.”
4. Negative Capability
John Keats in a famous letter wrote that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” He called this “negative capability.” Beginning writers often try to resolve their poems and stories in unrealistic or overly simplified ways.
A last word: Very importantly, though we want to avoid sentimentality, we can’t achieve this by going so far that we avoid sentiment.
Patrick Donnelly in his essay “Sentimentality, Character, and the Health of Your Poem” from The Practicing Poet writes:
“There’s a saying that the sins of the hot-blooded will be judged on a different scale than those of the cold-hearted, and I personally prefer poetry that risks sentimentality to poetry that is relentlessly opaque, distant, mental, ironic, smart-assed, and cold. …
“One aspect that differentiates sentimental writing from writing that isn’t sentimental is how tensions are resolved. In sentimental writing, serious tension is either not allowed to arise at all or is resolved in ways that are not often mirrored in life. Poems [or stories or essays] that are not sentimental allow tensions both to arise and to continue unresolved beyond the ending of the poem, which in turn allows the poem itself to continue to resonate in the reader’s thoughts and feelings…it’s human nature to long for closure. But if one takes a good look at the world, lack of closure is perhaps its primary quality.”
So don’t be afraid to risk real emotion in your writing. That’s one of the primary reasons we turn to literature—to become more deeply rooted in our lives.