Jeez Louise. Did you catch Sunday’s episode of Six Feet Under?
It was… shattering.
I was jarred back to every funeral I’d ever attended, and had emotions wrung out of me I’d long forgotten about.
Screw reality TV. The truly well-written fictional shows (most of them on HBO) can still rattle your cage like classic literature.
That episode was quality emotional-wringing.
Got me thinking, too. About empathy. And writing.
I’ve known people who seem to have shut down their empathy gears. I recall uncles who fell asleep during the pea-soup-spewing scenes in the Exorcist… friends who laughed all through Jaws… and even an acquaintance who wondered what the big deal was when a colleague freaked out over a cherished cat’s sudden demise.
I also first saw Saving Private Ryan with a friend who was still a little shaky over his years in Vietnam during the war. He’d asked me to see it with him for moral support… and he didn’t seem to have a tough time watching the movie. But I kept an eye on him anyway, not sure what sort of poison might be brewing back up.
Those three films — and my experience with pets and people dying and careers ending and relationships imploding — were all emotionally jarring on various levels. Executed by master craftsmen, using scripts written by writers who knew where the tender spots were in most audiences.
I always felt a little estranged from people who either were — or claimed to be — removed from emotional reactions.
In real life, we experience things from inside our heads. It’s a claustrophobic point-of-view even the best Hollywood-quality cameras can’t yet mimic. Everything happens just outside (or just within) our personal space, minute by minute, with no editing and no replay button.
When you personally feel emotional trauma, it’s a second-by-second trial by fire.
Watching a TV show or a movie is a removed experience — pure voyeurism. You’re not there. It’s not happening to you. It shouldn’t have the same power as real life.
And yet… sometimes all the emotion of the real experience IS there, bubbling up from deep inside.
All of the good writers I know are drenched with emotional self-knowledge and empathy for the emotional experiences of others. We aren’t walking around sobbing hysterically… but we are easily overcome with the feeling of a situation.
Sometimes too easily. Several times, while giving a talk at a seminar, I got off on a tangent about something I really cared about, and felt myself start to choke up. I had to back off, and gather my wits. I know other speakers — the good ones — have had similar experiences.
This extra dose of emotion is no accident. You cannot be a good writer without empathy — without understanding, viscerally, what it’s like to feel everything humans are capable of feeling.
At full strength, too. The industrial-quality stuff.
The intensity of your ability to feel infuses your writing with power, and a connection to the most complex tragedies, comedies and dramas of human interaction.
In short… feeling strong emotions is a good thing.
If your emotions are in lock-down… from a bad childhood, or from a misguided sense of what it takes to be a man… you will never be able to get into another person’s head. And you’ll never find that sweet spot of need and connection that makes great literature great… and great sales copy a license to print money.
You don’t have to become a Drama Queen.
But you do need to stop pretending that emotions are some foreign intrusion on your coolness. Embrace your ability to know joy, sadness and yes, even pain. These are the building blocks of a well-lived life.
No one gets out of here without a few tears.
Be a sap. It will help your writing.
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