Wordsmith Wednesday–Writing about Feelings


This week’s Monday Morning Writing Prompt encouraged participants to write a “feeling” poem or short fiction: not necessarily something that told a story, but rather a piece that evoked a feeling. Last night, I was browsing through a book about poetry before going to sleep. It happened to be “The Poetry Home Repair Manual” by Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the United States and one of my all time favorites, both as a writer and teacher of the art of poetry.

by Ted Kooser

The chapter that caught my eye was “Writing about Feelings” and I couldn’t resist sharing some of Kooser’s insights on this subject. The man is a genius.

Kooser starts the chapter with a discussion about sentimentality which is defined in dictionaries as an excess of sentiment or the affectation of sentiment. Read: gushiness.

Here’s a short quote from a poem by Edgar Guest (IMHO, the king of gushy effusion):

Words cannot tell what this old heart would say of her:
Mother, the sweetest and fairest of all!

But how can you express the sort of affection Guest is addressing in praise of his mother without dipping into the pool of effusiveness? Kooser’s suggestion is simple: avoid generalities and focus on specifics.

So this means, instead of using a slew of superlative adjectives or adverbs, you illustrate an example of a mother’s love. Show her caring for her feverish child during the night or describe how she sacrificed herself for you. This calls to mind the beauty of O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi”–a clear example of selfless love that is not mushy.

Kooser invites the writer to “skate along the edge (of the precipice)” of sentimentality, asking us to give the reader credit for coming up with the appropriate emotional response to a story on his or her own.

The use of metaphor or simile is an effective way to write feeling as well. For example, in a poem about his mother’s last years entitled “In a Nursing Home” he creates an effective emotional response by comparing her to a horse, grazing, that has stopped running, whose boundaries are shrinking.

In summary:

  • Be specific, use description.
  • Avoid generalizations and use of modifiers or superlatives.
  • Strive for balance between expression and restraint.
  • Look for similes and metaphors that will create the desired emotional response.
  • Trust your reader to figure it all out.

While Kooser hones in on poetry, I find this advice serves writers of prose as well.

For discussion, please consider writing a poem or short piece of prose that evokes emotion without sentimentality. Yes, I know, it’s almost the same as the MMWP. Maybe you will want to revisit what you wrote for that prompt and revise it…or not. The bottom line: it’s your work and the final decision is yours!

If you choose to participate in this discussion/exercise, please include your link or writing in the comment section of this post and take a moment to visit other participants. Above all, enjoy the process!

And I strongly recommend Kooser’s book…it’s a must-read!

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22 thoughts on “Wordsmith Wednesday–Writing about Feelings

  1. […] Wordsmith Wednesday – Writing about Feelings (liv2write2day.wordpress.com) […]

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  2. Thanks so much for the book recommendation and those insightful pieces of advice.

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  3. Sharmishtha says:

    thanks for the invaluable suggestions victoria. you truly are a wonderful soul.

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  4. Steve says:

    Thanks Victoria – I may have fallen into the gushiness and not been as specific as I might have been. Thanks for the advice I will definitely bear these ideas in mind when on that track in future. This link takes you to a page of a few audio clips of me reading poems from my book – When You Left is about the loss of my mum and may be a bit “gushy” http://bringingwordstolife.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/adrift-in-a-mind-audio-clips/

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    • Steve, this is the type of poem that is written from the heart and aptly so. It is an experience in healing. In working with hospice families, I liked to encourage writing and art as a positive approach and have used it myself in dealing with loss. Beautiful, Thank you for sharing this and sorry I’m late in commenting.

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  5. Victoria,

    Here we go … hope you like it. It’s short but sweet. ~~~ : – )

    Toodles, Isadora

    http://insidethemindofisadora.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/remember-love-and-a-lifetime/

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  6. Okay, here it is. I won’t name it so as not to give away the feeling:

    I’m standing on the shore of a welcoming lake,
    Shimmering, serene, reflecting eternal sky.

    Look! A strong, smooth stone rests on the shore,
    Impatient while the water teases, nips at its edges.

    I pick up the stone, palm and fingers stroking, caressing,
    Exploring its dimensions, gauging it’s potential for pure joy.

    I send the stone level and straight into the horizon,
    Hoping the stone dances on the mirror surface.

    The stone kisses the crystalline surface,
    Touching just long enough to create endless ripples of exciting motion.

    Lifting away, the stone is propelled by momentum and destiny,
    Reaching into the air, only to touch again, … again, … again …

    I know how this dance ends.
    Water swallows stone where sky meets surface and time stands still.

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  7. I’ll give it a whirl…

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  8. Hi Victoria,
    Deciding whether to write another ror repost my Monday Morning Prompt. If the time allows, I’d love to do another just for the challenge.
    Toodles, Izzy

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  9. Laurie Kolp says:

    Hey, Victoria… I’d love to start participating in this! We’re going on vacation tomorrow, and then it will be a mad rush to get the kids ready for school Aug. 22… after then for sure.

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  10. David King says:

    Love the prompts, might take up the challenge, but have a few already on the go. Impressive, though – it’s only a matter of time.

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  11. Myrna says:

    Thank you for these suggestions. I’ll be joining jgavianallan as a fan.

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  12. Jamie Dedes says:

    So, in short, he’s giving us the sage advice normally provided the fiction writer: show don’t tell. Wonderful and wonderful suggestion from you today … I’ll get to it eventually. Still catching up. I was going to buy this book and didn’t. Rethinking that now … Thanks!

    I love Kooser. He is folky without being corny, understated without being terse.

    Do you follow this?
    http://www.americanlifeinpoetry.org/

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  13. Choices, choices: I have four word docs already open at the bottom of my screen, all enticing prompts and I am sooo sleepy! Maybe tomorrow. I’m hopeless at metaphor, and need the practice.

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  14. jgavinallan says:

    Your prompts are so enticing…I am weakening…meanwhile…for the next 14 hour…I’ll be an avid fan
    Jaye

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