My daughters have spring break the last week in March. A twelve and ten year old, they have big plans for me when I arrive. It is a 15 hour drive from Mordor where I live to Boise, Idaho where my daughters live. It is a trip I look forward to even though I leave after working my minion job and drive until I need to catch a couple hours sleep in the front seat of the Focus along the highway somewhere. On the drive I listen to podcasts, the radio and playlists as we all do. I’ve been trying to catch up on my back log of New Yorker Fiction and Selected Shorts podcasts. Didn’t realize I had a year’s supply to listen too. I listened to Dave Eggers read Roddy Doyle’s story, “Bullfighting,” which had appeared in The New Yorker. At the end they were chatting and Debra Treisman asked Eggers if the story contained too much sentiment. He responded, like in a bad way? She commented that she understood that sentiment was to be avoided. And there ensued a conversation about all stories should have elements of emotion or sentiment. I was chuckling to myself as I know what Treisman was getting at, but didn’t quite grasp. James Joyce, (ironic an Irish writer as they were talking about Doyle) said “Sentimentality is unearned emotion.”
Not that stories must be bereft of sentiment or emotion, but the writer has to earn it. A writer can’t rely on only the physical condition to elicit an emotional response from the reader. I offer by example Terry Tempest Williams Refuge as an example of getting it right. In creative writing classes I have read cancer narratives where students want the reader to be emotionally invested because someone has cancer. That invokes sympathy and may make the reader feel sorry for the stricken, but it does not create an honest emotional investment, so I recommend they read Williams and then we’ll talk. I might add one night watching The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, he quoted this same Joyce quote in relation to a national tragedy and his ability to talk about it. He was not going to rely upon the event to elicit an emotional reaction from his audience.
Richard Hugo wrote in The Triggering Town that all writers should be pushing the boundaries of sentimentality. To risk it and succeed is to make your writing emotionally vibrant. Not risking it might make your writing flat. To rely solely on sentimentality is lazy writing and takes your readers for granted.
I pulled over and slept in Oregon about 3 miles from the Idaho border. It got down to 12 degrees. Two hours made a lot of difference and the eastern horizon paled ahead of the sun as I started the car. I made it to Boise by 0900 and spent the day with my girls, who I hadn’t seen since New Years Day.