On Human Emotion & Affectivity

A common weakness, in terms of the writing quality that appears in my slush pile, lies among writers who tell us about their character, world, and plot with its unfolding, inciting incidents–rather than show us. (One simple example: Jonathan recognized Mary’s sadness, and her sadness angered him, instead of, Mary’s eyelashes fluttered close, casting a net over her face, stripped thin of its light. Jonathan stood back, and grit his teeth as a flash of heat curled into his heart.)

Even those writers who aren’t writing an immediately commercial, cinematic novel–the writers most literary in commitment–have to build out scenes that, in their structure, organically grow out arcs of plot, tension, and character development; arcs that happen from within the story rather than happen to the story. A reader should not feel the author imposing upon the story that he or she is telling; should never be awakened to the structural dimensions of the novel by a feeling of breaking–that feeling of something natural and organic breaking because of an author’s structural choice.

One common dimension in which this happens is the emotional or affective one–the interior reactions and processes of the characters in any given story, and the affective content that colors their experience of reality, including all those events that happen to them. How many of the best scenes, the most important ones, rotate around profound experiences of anger, rage, grief, lust, sexual attraction, or love, among others? This interior drive or awakening to an object–to a goal, to another character, to an action–drives the human dimension in fiction and memoir; without this dimension, fiction and memoir could not do the work for which they are intended.

To study one’s own experience, and to observe the experiences of others, is one way by which the writer educates himself in the affect–what is it that happens, what is that we actually feel, when emotion awakens in us? How? From where? To what end? What is the difference between a healthy emotional life and one that is less healthy, disordered, traumatized? How do we sift through the differences in these experiences?

And how do we then use external triggers, events, and encounters–along with their parallel and corresponding interior reactions and processes–to develop our characters and shape the events that drive our plots? These are immense questions, and answers to them require formation on different levels: deeply abstract, structural tools, on one hand; the study of one’s own experience, and the search for correspondence (how do these tools, these categories, explain my own experience and emotional life?); and the study of others’ experiences, those experiences which are not ours in a causal sense–they did not happen to us–but which we can enter into by observation and, most importantly and epically, a deep empathy that can be learned, practiced, and tested.

One book that I would encourage all writers to pick up–it’s a little gem I discovered, once, via a friend, and which has revolutionized the way I edit and write–is J. Brennan Mullaney’s Authentic Love: Theory & Therapy. It’s a rare book of psychology, and unlike anything in the field that I’ve ever read (and, I guarantee you, I’ve read v. broadly). He provides a rare “structure” to the interior life of the human person, examining the emotional dimension by proposing a structure to the human heart–including those ways by which everything from objectively “neutral” external sense experience to deeply, subjectively “value-based” emotional experiences leave their imprints on different dimensions of our beings.

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My mom, Bożena, and me, in April 2011, a month before she passed away after years of ovarian cancer, liver failure, and internal bleeding.

This book answered questions about certain experiences of my own, including the depth of grief that overwhelmed my life following the death of my mom, in a way that I have never seen in another book–and, as a result, I encourage all writers to pick it up and to examine it, for a structural framework and conceptual language to aid their writing. As an agent, I–and I would hope this is a widespread commitment on behalf of readers, agents, and editors alike–look for fiction that expands my understanding of the world, challenges my assumptions as well as confirms them (fundamentally, challenges me to be open to all reality and all bodies of experience), and aids my understanding of my own person as well as others in my life.

You will be shocked by the book. Before applying it to your own writing, I encourage using it as a framework to process your own life. There is an obligation, to some extent, for novelists to be aware of and take responsibility for the degree to which their own experiences shape the first principles and worldview in their novels. Have we not all had the experience of being deeply broken by, formed by, healed by, shocked by a work of fiction–and an author’s capacity to forever mark us, in one way or another?

If you have a chance to read it, let me know–as I’d love to hear any and all thoughts.

Additionally (and these are books I will further explain in other posts, but writers eager to do their research shouldn’t hesitate), I would highly encourage Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly and, where romantic love, sexual love, relationships of that form, and marriage are concerned, Sue Johnson’s Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships and Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

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