Tuesday, November 11, 2014

No Tears in the Writer...

by Susan

... no tears in the reader. Or so I've heard it said.

I often write in the time between I get dressed and when I have to leave for work. One drawback is that if I am writing a particularly emotional scene, I start crying. I keep writing. I keep crying.

There's nothing like showing up for work with red-rimmed eyes and a headache from crying -- 10 minutes late as well because I was trying to get the last few sentences down.

As writers, we try to plumb those depths. In fiction, we feel what our character feels so that we can put that experience on the page. In memoir, we remember those emotions. Lewis Nordan, author of the memoir, Boy With Loaded Gun said he wanted to make his readers laugh and cry in the same sentence. I want that, too, because that is how life is. But how?

At some point, I find I need to real it back in, lest I slip over the edge into maudlin. I need to step back and keep the details that convey the power of the scene without lapsing into self-pity. Self-pity is an easy thing to write and a dreary, annoying thing to read.

In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser writes:

"To write a poem that is not just a gush of sentiment but something that will engender in its readers deep, resonant feelings, you need to exercise restraint to avoid what is commonly termed sentimentality."

Or worse yet, gushiness. Yet if you take too much of the emotion out of the piece, it loses its heart and its human connection. It's a fine line to skate.

When working with beginning poets, Kooser said he will make them write without any overt statements of feelings. No outright statements of love or grief, but only the situation that would cause such things. Trust the reader to have the emotional reaction to it, he advises. You do not need to lead them by the nose.

His advice works for prose as well. I've often felt the most powerful stories are best told most simply, most concretely. Details tell the tale. I am more moved by a woman's hand shaking as she smooths her mother's hair in the coffin than I am when the writer tells me the character is grief-stricken.

As I scribble this zeroth draft, I am likely gushing. My job as a writer is to go back and reel it in, find the fine details. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll make you cry, too.

And in honor of Veterans Day
Chris Valentine, a long-time WyoPoets member, sent us a collection of war poetry that honors those who have served. We also invite you to read on our blog Art Elser's words about finding healing from his Vietnam War experiences through writing.

Today, our thanks go out to all who have served our country.


  1. Sometimes, for me, the tears do not come when I write, but they do when I read the piece aloud, to myself or in front of others. This is a great benefit of reading aloud: it helps me to notice if the words are connecting with my own heart; and if so, they are more likely to touch the hearts of others as well.

    Thanks for the good post and for including the words of Ted Kooser, a favorite poet of mine.

    1. It's funny how words come alive in a different way when we read them aloud. I have poems I can barely read in front of others because I start crying. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks to Chris Valentine for sharing the poems. I've got a family member serving in the Middle East right now, and know that many of my writer friends also have loved ones serving. May they all return home safely. And like Art, may they find healing in a writing practice if they need it.

  3. I don't cry when I write, no matter how sad the subject matter. It's weird, because I cry about everything else, up to and including sad commercials. (And usually your poetry, Susan!) Because I usually write about feelings, I think I spell them out too much. I think I'll try writing something as Ted suggests- no overt emotion.

    1. Maybe your words on the page are your tears? I hope the Kooser exercise is helpful. I may try it one of these mornings during journal time.

  4. Thanks so much for this particularly useful article. I too love Koosier and trust his knowledge. What great advice. I will keep it in mind just writing my articles.

    1. Glad you found it helpful! Ted Kooser IS an amazing man. Right now, I'm working my way through his "Poetry Home Repair Manual" and learning so much.


Writing Wyoming blog comments are moderated--yours will be posted shortly. Thanks for joining in the conversation!