The Soul’s Habitation: Emotion and Writing
By Richard Farrell
Contributor’s Note: This essay is based on my graduate lecture delivered at VCFA in January, 2011.
When I was eight-years-old, I started hanging out with the older boys in my neighborhood, many of them already teenagers. They nicknamed me ‘Head,’ because I had, or rather I have, a large head. At eight, I also had a tangled mass of blonde wavy hair, hair which made my already considerable melon twice as noticeable atop of my scrawny body. Today, my son is likewise afflicted. But getting a nickname in that world was also a sign of acceptance. I was the only boy under the age of ten so honored in my neighborhood.
One summer day ‘Bessie’, who was fifteen at the time, who lived next door to me, and who hung himself five years later, suggested that we go behind the Doherty’s house and throw crab apples at a nest off field mice. The mice had been recently discovered by my twelve year old neighbor, ‘Burger.’ A hunting party formed. Six or seven of us set out for the field, armed with fistfuls of crab apples and barbaric energy.
We found a piece of plywood lying flat in a field of summer grasses. We circled round it in a phalanx, armed and angry, our eyes brimming with the thrill of the hunt, our weaponized apples cocked and at the ready. Bessie reached down and lifted a board of rotting plywood from the matted rectangle of bleached yellow grass. A second later, half a dozen mice scattered in every direction. Apples flew like arrows. Someone whooped as the fruit ricocheted off the dirt. Boys jumped. The mice darted between our feet. Dozens of apples pummeled the ground, but the mice evaded them, scurrying into the grass and safety.
Somehow, I ended up holding the last apple. And somehow one tiny mouse kept running around in circles, spiraling around the center of the flattened yellow grass, dazed, while I took aim. It circled once more. I clenched the spotty apple in my hand, then I chucked it with everything I had.
My shot pelted the mouse square in the head and it flipped in the air. The boys screamed and laughed. The mouse flopped on its side, a streak of blood leaking from its mouth, which hung open in a grim smile. Its legs twitched, then went still. Bessie raised my hand in the air as the boys howled their approval, but I stood there, frozen, staring at that dying mouse.
Much of my desire to write seems to stem from that moment, if not directly, then at least indirectly, at least in the sense of my need to reconcile that act with all that has followed it. That mouse still haunts me, even after so much time. I’m neither a pacifist nor a vegan and I still love football. I know that many worse things have happened in the world than the death of a tiny mouse. But the emotional core of who I am has not strayed very far from that eight year old boy standing in a summer field. It’s not just that single incident, clearly, but all the things which have followed, all the joys I’ve felt, the sorrows, the loves, the passions, the rages, the tears. When I stop and analyze what I love about good writing and why I want to be a writer, it strikes me quite plainly that writing retains the ability to express profound emotions through language. I should broaden the scope a bit. Art does this, not just writing, though I can’t paint and I can’t make music, so I struggle to sing on the canvas of the page. And it’s not intellect, though clearly good writing does challenge my brain. The intellect is necessary to take something as abstract as an emotion and to convey it plainly. But my desire to write seems tied up with a deep need, with a desire to express that swirling, muddied mess of interior emotions.
Margot Livesey says that “one of the main ambitions of art is to depict and evoke emotion.” At its best, a work of art furiously explores, conjuring and capturing the full palate of human emotions with unflinching honesty. A well-written story guides us toward thought, compassion, and insight; it points the way toward wisdom. Good writing does not teach by brutalizing the intellect, or by subduing the spirit or proselytizing to the uninitiated, but by finding a way to make contact with another soul. Art teaches emotionally.
An object of art is a negotiation, the artist bartering with the observer, the transaction conducted between song and ear, between painting and eye, between story and reader, and the primary currency of these transactions is emotion. We write, because through the act of exploring our ideas conceived in words, we stumble toward meaning, toward a deeper, more complex understanding of ourselves and of others. Through writing, we radicalize the emotional core of life, which for me is the sacred center. Poet Pattiann Rogers echoes Bertrand Russell when she calls for us to build the ‘soul’s habitation’ in our work, a place we write from and towards, a place of exile and yearning. In the end we attempt to create an enduring object through writing because this remains one of the few affirming ways left to communicate our unadulterated selves: our fears and desires, our grief and hope, our love and our desperation. The artist speaks, first and foremost, from his soul’s habitation, which for me has a secular but no less powerful meaning. It can be touched only within the emotional transactions of art.
Jane Kenyon offers this:
Why do we want to write? What is behind this crazy impulse? The wish to connect with others, on a deep level, about inward things. The pressure of emotion, which many people prefer to ignore, but which, for you, is the very substance of your work, your clay. There’s the need to make sense of life behind the impulse to write.
But how? How do we transform these ideas, these feelings, into stories, essays and poems? This exploration, this journey in, must have techniques, right? There must be clues.
In fiction, at least, it begins with characters. The fiction writer must put characters into dramatic situations and figure out how those characters will feel things, how they will explore their world with action and thought, but with the emotional baggage always in tow. Only after this can the writer consider how that depiction will conjure a response in the reader. John Gardner says,
The first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel. However odd, however wildly unfamiliar the fictional world—odd as hog-farming to a fourth-generation Parisian designer, or Wall Street to an unemployed tuba player—we must be drawn into the characters’ world as if we were born to it.
The first step, then, is to build a world that characters can experience through their senses, actions, thoughts, and memories. A world we construct, word by word, image by image, on the page.
Before a writer can evoke any emotional response in the reader, she must give her characters their due. And characters demand to be heard; they insist on feeling things deeply—to laugh, cry and punch holes through the page. Only then can the reader be drawn in. Only then can the reader hope to feel something too.
This is an area where I struggle in my writing. I have a difficult time entering my characters’ space. I don’t dwell in their soul’s habitation. I’m not experiencing the emotions first-hand, but through the filtering lens of my intellect. And this holds my writing back. It prevents my stories from conveying emotion because the initial, primary depiction is off. I’m like an actor dutifully memorizing my lines, but unable to inhabit my characters, unable to make my characters believable.
Before emotion can be conveyed to a reader, it must be authentically, honestly depicted within the story.
Yet none of this should take on the appearance of dogma. This is not an argument for strict realism. The artist doesn’t gerrymander emotions. She doesn’t manipulate, she explores. The outcome is never certain, and the pathway often less so. And technique alone is never enough. Depicting emotion in a story a certain way can arouse strong feelings in one reader and none in a second. Every person brings his or her own emotional histories to their reading. And the emotions portrayed and evoked can often be unpleasant, disturbing, even downright brutal. Also, the feelings we experience as readers are often very different than those characters feel within the story.
Dostoevsky’s murderous student, Raskolnikov, evokes a powerful reaction in me, but I don’t share his emotions as he bashes in the skull of his pawn broker and her sister. So why do I identify with him? Douglas Glover once said in a workshop that we don’t identify with a character so much as we do with their desires. To wit: I feel the restrictions of Raskolnikov’s life; I feel his desire to break free; I have sympathy for his desire to make something out of his life. I might even understand his murderous impulses at times. I can feel these things in myself because Dostoevsky depicts Raskolnikov’s desires so vividly. But as the axe blades shatters the skulls of his victims, I feel very differently than the character does. What’s depicted and what’s conveyed are almost diametrically opposed, but it is effective because Dostoevsky paints such vivid interior details of his characters.
The day I slaughtered that mouse, I also slaughtered the first innocence of myself. I spent the next twenty years trying to prove that what I felt that day was not weakness. I spent most of my life bound to male rituals, to contact sports and the military and the systematic suppression of my emotions. I hoped, like many men and women, that the rituals would toughen the core of me, would harden the exterior and overcome what I perceived to be softness. Because I couldn’t celebrate with those other boys, because I couldn’t share their mutual joy at my kill, I spent twenty years distancing myself from the pain of watching that mouse die at my hands. I ran away from my soul’s habitation.
I’d like to think that I’ve stopped running, and I’ve spent the last ten years trying to figure out how to render the complexity of emotions that life can evoke. I’ve tried to express that through writing. In part, this is why I want to write. I want to time travel and tell that little eight year old boy that what he’s feeling is okay. And while I can’t do that, I can hope to reconstruct in my stories a place where my characters, my readers and my self can feel things without worrying that what we feel is wrong. I haven’t accomplished this yet, but it’s a long race back to that summer field. Sometimes, the only guides I have are other writers who’ve succeeded.
In the end, we are bound to structure and ritual in writing. But as Bob Vivian once eloquently stated, structure, technique, grammar, words, even genre, only provide only the vessel, the container which holds the water. And though we need the vessel, and we struggle so much to build it, what we desire is the water inside. We desire not the walls which make up the soul’s habitation, but the fire burning in the hearth inside those walls.
I don’t know if anything I write can ever heal that first wound. But maybe healing isn’t the goal. Maybe the goal is not inward, but outward. Maybe the goal is discovering ways to express the internal, to share it, and not hide it away. Maybe that’s what all good stories do.