Those Pesky Emotions

Upon waking, I had thought to visit the library in search of more books by John Banville, a particular author who inspires me with his style of writing. I am currently halfway through one of his books and have periodically laid the volume aside to hack again at a long labor of mine, alternately caressed and despised, for nearly fifty years. This memoir relates a seven-year period of my life, if it ever sees print, both gut-wrenching and pathetic, a lament, self-aggrandizing, a confessional if you must.

Banville’s style is similar to my earlier writings, what came out of me in those days before I had published anything. My technical articles had seen print, and even essays on various personal topics—dreams, remembrances, all of it boiling with emotion. But after that first book, my writing wasn’t my own. I felt watched, self-conscious, fully inadequate to create anything of merit. What did I know, anyway?

Since then I have detoured into historical accounts of one thing or another, not anything to be ashamed of but nevertheless not of any emotional import. My slim efforts at fiction, where in theory emotion must reign supreme although within the harness so eloquently described by Frost, have failed to engage me—or readers. I have been terribly disappointed in that effort, as it seems I am unable—unwilling, in fact—to express or convey emotion because I steadfastly refuse to experience emotion. This failure is, as one of my characters says in a flash of fury, a response to the reality that emotion leads to pain.

Not just any pain, but a deep intractable burn that settles in the bones and leads like a labyrinth to all the many experiences of pain that I have swallowed down in the years of my life. Why should I willingly lay myself open to examine those hopeless dead-ends and hidden mortuaries? It’s not as if a re-examination will make anything change. I can’t excise the pain like a surgeon removing a misshapen, hidden tumor. Looking at and expressing it does nothing to ease its ability to wound. And re-wound.

But yet, as a writer, I must create stories that convey the experience of pain, of sadness, loneliness, despair, and all other human torments (alongside joy and pleasure, the light part of duality, the yin-yang) in order to give readers what they want. There’s some sickness in that formula, that readers seek new sources of pain in order to exhume and then exorcise their own long-hidden suffering. Is it that we don’t know we have pain? That we must cast our eyes along the pages to learn what we’ve hidden from ourselves? Is it that in living through fictional pain, distant as we are from any personal experience of it, that we can set aside the dragging fingernails of our own grief?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. I only know I that must write, and in so doing, I become caught up in the expectation that what I write will have some meritorious impact, and in that I will gain not only self-respect but also some small congratulation even if only from a few. And so I daily strive, like today, to expand my understanding of how and why people read. I endeavor to learn more closely the peculiar ways in which successful authors manage their craft. John Banville wields words like an expert swordsman and inspires me to take a fresh look at my memoir in the belief, perhaps delusional, that if I can only find the right words, a more musical phrasing, a more authoritative approach to my efforts, I might then be able to invoke the appreciation Banville has garnered.

However, the morning nearly gone and having attended—shall we say deviated from my original intent?—to various uninspiring tasks and only just now trying again to read for inspiration, I am distracted by my plan to visit the library. I am only halfway resting in my chair, so urgent is my sense of duty to get in my car and go.

Which makes no sense because I have a half book left to read and therefore no urgent need to visit the library. I have business at the bank and mail to drop, but that’s only side dressing to my actual underlying urgency to visit the library this very moment. It’s not that I wouldn’t like a couple more Banville books in order to compare his style from one work to the next. Of course I would. The real underlying truth is, I want to escape this duty and secure a stack of romance novels to get lost in, to vacate any responsibility to learning or writing, and simply disappear into a fictional world not of my own making.

This leads me to suspect that if I was able, theoretically, to set my emotions free from their harness to run rampant across the page, I would be confronted with feelings I might not want to hear or see and be forced to start cudgeling them back like the wild beasts they are. Or, as I once understood it, I might start screaming and not be able to stop, embarrassing me, my pets, and the neighbors.

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Waah!

ID-10090006I admit it. Displays of emotion bother me. I’m not talking about a quick hug or peck on the lips in greeting, or a quiet dab of handkerchief at the corner of the eye. And laughter of just about any level slips past my discomfort zone.

It’s the wailing and shrieking of grief that sets my teeth on edge, a face wadded up with tears streaming, shoulders hiccupping. Whoever is suffering to this extreme shouldn’t be watched. Grief on display is, to me, a bit of fakery, or at least exaggeration, an attempt to garner attention and sympathy.

Similarly, I don’t want to observe someone convulsing in pain. If it’s an emergency, I would be the first to summon medical care or do what I could to relieve the injury. But if there’s nothing to be done, if the person is recovering from surgery or an illness and the moans and groans tumble from his lips in a constant agony, unless it’s a loved one who can benefit from my bedside assurances, I don’t need to be there.

It’s not that I deny soul-stirring experiences. But to me, these moments of extremis should be kept private. This was how I was raised, likely a tradition hearkening back to my cultural origins in the British Isles where a stiff upper lip practically goes without saying. I suspect an evolved survival instinct at work here. Indisposed by injury or seized in grief, a person is unaware of a lurking threat who means to take advantage.

And it’s not that I myself don’t wail and sob in sorrow, or writhe with a crushing headache. But I do it alone, behind closed doors, where I’m assured that no one observes. Alone, I am safe to let down my defenses and lick my wounds in solitude.

I’m one of those people who don’t want a hospital stay to become the next big event. I’m very appreciative of new laws requiring the hospital to gain my explicit permission before allowing anyone to wander into my room. Once, years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed in considerable discomfort following surgery, I was set upon by do-gooders from my mother’s church who stood at the bedside and murmured various platitudes as if (a) I could actually comprehend what they were saying through the fog of pain meds, (b) their words somehow provided me important comfort, and (c) we could all pretend that their visit had little to do with anything but a kind of distorted voyeurism. I hardly knew them. I was outraged, but of course I couldn’t leap up and show them the door, which—I think—may have contributed to their pleasure in being there.

Like church do-gooders, many people evidently get off on watching other people expose themselves. This would explain the otherwise incomprehensible rise of various types of television shows where people intentionally throw their bodies through sadistic obstacle courses, or wade into a competition for a love partner, or allow cameras to track their every private moment. Who are these people? And I don’t mean just those crazy or desperate enough to submit to this kind of “challenge.” Who watches this stuff? Who wants to observe someone farting, or gasping for air, or sobbing in humiliation? Ye gods! Spare me.

Is it a good thing that people are recently more willing to exhibit their pathos for public consumption? Some argue ‘yes,’ that it is only when we acknowledge our feelings that we can breathe through the suffering and grow as a person. But please note—I’m not advocating for denial of feelings. I for one am confident I can acknowledge my feelings and ‘grow’ without subjecting those around me to the process. Please explain how exactly internal growth benefits from an audience? If anything, the audience factor dilutes the event’s vehemence and immediacy.

Is emotive denuding a new kind of drug? Are we reducing our most heart-felt moments to ridicule and (excuse me, it’s time for popcorn) commonality as another way to avoid really feeling what we’re feeling? Are we watching gladiators fight for their lives while laughing in the stands? At what point do we connect the dots between routine trivialization of sensibilities and killing without compunction?

But pardon me while I change hats. I am not only an extremely private person but also an author, striving to create stories that someone wants to read. And while I myself will not let my personal emotions slip past my mask, I have to keep in mind that my characters will gain no purchase among readers if they do not spill their guts all over the page. In order to breathe life into made-up people, I must make them laugh, cry, tremble in terror, and contort in agony. Whether the descriptions of these various feelings are torrid or restrained as befits the tone of the story, characters must reflect their intimate experience of love or battle in ways that reflect what the reader would expect of a real person. My bias against overt expressions of passion thus works against me in my writing.

Consolation in this conflict between what I do and what I write lies in the fact that my stories are a private experience between the reader and the page. Even more to the point, the way in which I develop and expose characters to events that wring their hearts and tear their flesh is in itself a private process contained within the scene and its circumstances. Beyond that point, if the day arrived that a story of mine appeared on television or the big screen where all those intense moments were exposed to the scrutiny of large audiences, I myself would not be able to watch.

Love

farm house door 0001Slowly and over years, he broke her down. Where there had been joy and affection and spontaneity, her emotions shrank until now she could not cry. Or sing.

His arms held her, his mouth took her, and with his body he brought her to the pinnacle of love. What she had never known, she knew with him. And she gave in return, every moment of their pleasure a stream of heart-joy flowing between them. There were flowers, jewels, children, brilliant afternoons bathed in sunlight.

But the mornings, only hours after being consumed in their most intimate moments, the mornings found him as another man. This man did not bring flowers or smile. He woke raging. No hugs, no warm exchange of touch or conversation. Any sound, any dish out of place, and his fury exploded in shouts, slams, curses.

The excuses she made for him could fill a book. It was a dry drunk, his need for alcohol stronger than his ability to live without it. Therapy added more excuses, that he’d repressed a traumatic childhood, that he had a blood sugar problem, that he couldn’t handle the vulnerability that came with strong emotion.

He never made excuses for himself. To him, every angry moment had legitimate reason. Any attempt to force realization or ownership produced more anger.

It took on its own cycle. The buildup with friendly conversation, daily routines, desire slowly building to consummation. The eruption—door ripped off hinges, dog kicked, screaming as veins protruded in his neck. The alienation–her withdrawal, sheltering in herself, with her children, with a routine that slowly became more of the norm that any courtship, than any love.

“One of these days,” she told him, “it will all be gone.”

And after twenty years of trying, believing, hoping, when it was all gone, she asked him to leave. And he left.

And when another twenty years had passed, she still loved him. Still didn’t understand the anger, still couldn’t sing.