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.
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.
- 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!