Updates…, and On Writing With Sentimentality

In the last post “What If,” I described a crazy scam perpetrated by someone who sounded as if he’d previously worked in law enforcement.  I’m happy to say that, although he hasn’t been caught, the local sheriff’s department has made headway.  I’ve been given a weekly update and told it will be a lengthy investigation and that they’ve involved another agency.  Harnett County Sheriff’s office doesn’t take lightly the impersonation of law enforcement officers, much less using a judge’s name (there is a Judge Faircloth in Harnett County).  This crazy operation – which still makes no sense to anyone – will hopefully end up with an arrest.

In addition, and unbelievably, we’ve had a visitor here by the name of Type B influenza, which decided my husband looked like a good candidate for a nice long stay.  I thought flu season was over.  Evidently not.  On May 4th, what was a strange pesky cough quickly disintegrated overnight into a high fever, and it all went downhill from there.  At this point, he’s sick of being sick.

He’s on the mend, but he’s still not “right.”

Then there’s the whole thing about flu shots.  I’ve been told if you get the shot, and end up with the flu, it won’t be as severe.  Someone told me they got one, and they were laid up just as long as my husband.  I was told the serum for this year’s batch was only 2% effective against the strains out there.  I had Guillain-Barré syndrome back in 1993.  I’m not supposed to get them, although as one gets older I think you have to sort of mitigate one risk against the other.  Since GBS is triggered by a virus, it’s “advised” not to get flu shots, yet I’ve read arguments on both sides, and still I’m not sure what’s the answer.

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I subscribe to two writing magazines, Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers.  Interestingly, in an old issue of P&W, (old because I’m a year behind in reading these magazines) I ran across an article that was called “The Sentimentalist,” by Nate Pritts.  He writes that lately he’s seen an increasing number of instances in the literary community regarding the issue of sentimentality in creative work.  He questions this latest critiquing expression and wonders if it’s being used to, “excoriate a person or creative work,” and if so, how does one respond to it, if used against their own work?

The article moves on to explore how this view of being “sentimental,” came about.  How was it decided at some juncture this work or that work is sentimental, and therefore not worthy of publication?  A group of essays by Joy Katz, called “A Symposium on Sentiment” was presented in 2010 in a panel discussion at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs where she offered this explanation.  “Modernism…cooled the heart of poetry, confessionalism warmed it up; and poststructuralism threw a bucket of ice water on it.”

Pritts went on to say that sentimentality is seen as a weakness.  “A tired Oscar Wilde quote which calls the sentimentalist, ‘one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion, without having payed for it.’  Or Chekhov’s dictum, ‘If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly.’

Pritts continues on to say there is an underground movement however, in which poets and writers are resisting, or maybe the better word is insisting, that writing with sentimentality isn’t such a bad thing.  What’s wrong with being tagged as a writer “excessively prone to feeling,” as Webster’s defines the word?

More exploration by Pritts reveals a dissection of the differences between sentiment and sentimental.  Sentiment is based on experiences by individuals, those life events which create the feelings, as in nostalgia.  He explains critics use sentimentality to charge certain writing with “unwarranted sentiment, passages of unmoored or unjustified feeling.”

The article has so many interesting facets about the topic and about the fundamental job of a writer to not write as if overcome by emotion, “literally undone by feelings that seem baseless or without any clear origin that readers can trace and feel likewise moved by.”

From my own view, I don’t think a writer has done their work if a character falls apart without first showing that character for who they are, why they are the way they are, i.e., seeing their world through their eyes.  Otherwise, it’s like attending a funeral of someone you don’t know, or like the old movies where melodrama was usually on full display.

Damsel In Distress, courtesy Wingeye.

Damsel In Distress, courtesy Wingeye

How can you tell if you’ve fallen into the “sentimentality” trap?  I think one particular sentence Pritts wrote nailed it perfectly.

He said, “No matter how close we are to something, how invested we are in the subject matter, we have to find some way to retain distance.  The challenge we face as writers is to say something more like ‘Look at this thing that happened; let me show you why it’s terrible.  Or beautiful.  Or disappointing.  Or transcendent.'”

It seems to be back to that old adage, show, not tell, doesn’t it?


COMMENTS

  • Craig

    May 16, 2015

    Reply

    There is not a sentimental trap. It all depends upon you story and your interpretation of how to present it. That interpretation depends on your audience and you knowledge of and relationship with that audience. There are instances where you could base a story on it for a particular audience.

    The big problem is how little people understand about sentiment. Even those of us who read, write and research have been dumbed down by the current wave of technology. Ten years ago I knew fifty phone numbers. Now I know where those numbers are in my phone.

    The same thing happens with the more obscure emotions. With the kind of material I read sentiment is most often portrayed with something like “That sentimental old fool.”

    There is a lot more to sentiment and sentimentality than most can place. It is your job as a writer to either portray or define the emotions you wish to make us, your readers, see. Go too far and you can kill a scene. Don’t go far enough and it will not register as you wished it to.

    Maybe it is better to just bypass such things. It still is up to you as a writer to lead us to where you wish us to be, the emotional state we are in on arrival and where you wish us to climb back into reality from.

  • donnaeve

    May 17, 2015

    Reply

    I agree with everything you say EXCEPT, I’m going to respectfully disagree with your very first sentence.

    So, yes, and yes, and yes to all of your points about what writers must do with their story and it’s up to writers to execute all facets properly. It’s our responsibility to not go off the cliff too soon with a character’s emotional baggage, and rather draw it out over the course of the story, so that by the time the tragic, sad, or expected emotion is supposed to happen, the reader is fully bought in and by God yes! they would have felt the same way.

    Obviously, however, because this article was written, this isn’t happening with all writers. Personally, I think it’s because they haven’t discerned the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. That, or they are writing with a lot of “stuff” happening to their characters which in turn creates a boatload of histrionics, i.e. they are trying to push a reader towards an emotional goal too early. (back to my attending a funeral for someone you don’t know example. I feel respectful, but my emotions aren’t like the family at the graveside who are emotionally invested in the person about to be committed to the ground)

    I’ve never been told my writing is “sentimental,” but I never understood what the big deal was until after reading this article, and I thought it was interesting enough to share.

  • Averil Dean

    May 17, 2015

    Reply

    I think the problem with sentimentality is that it tends to oversimplify the past or the emotional present. It’s like looking through a photo album, all smiles and faded colors, none of the dark stuff. And yeah, to me it does seem like a flaw.

    • donnaeve

      May 17, 2015

      Reply

      You are en pointe.

      I love the photo album analogy too. And using that, I’ll go a step further. A photo is flat, not three dimensional. It captures only the instant of someone’s life. You don’t see how they came to be wearing that smile, or frown, or serious expression, or, in other words, what’s the story behind it?

  • Teri

    May 17, 2015

    Reply

    To your and Averil’s point above … today I listened to Sally Mann on NPR’s Fresh Air, talking about her photos and what photos mean for memory, etc… She completely (pretty much) discounts them in toto. I know I have a tendency to look at photos (especially with people long-dead) to try and jog my memory, but my “memories” start to feel stagnant.

    On the other note here, here’s to your household feeling healthy again. Flu in summer? Ick. Bless you all.

    • donnaeve

      May 18, 2015

      Reply

      That’s the thing, isn’t it? Depending, some I remember exactly what was going on like it was yesterday, while others, I stare at like someone else was living “that life.”

      I know, I was shocked to learn it was flu, but with a fever that high, I couldn’t imagine what else. We’ve been married going on 18 years and I’ve never seen him so sick. Thank you for your thoughts!

  • Good to know that scam is being investigated. That was a terrifying post! to read!

    Hope your husband is on the mend. I struggle with figuring out what medical advice to follow – it just seems so all over the place. Sigh.

    • donnaeve

      May 18, 2015

      Reply

      Thank you, he is! Still coughing, but much, much better.

      I struggle too. Take calcium, don’t take it. Use sunscreen, don’t use it. (lack of Vit D), and on and on. I figure if I just eat healthy, (not too much sugar, fat, etc) I’ll live… however long I Iive.

  • Caryn Caldwell

    May 24, 2015

    Reply

    Flu shots are so tough, aren’t they? Every year I debate whether or not to get one. By the time I’m done, I usually figure it’s too late anyway, although apparently not this year if people are still getting the flu in May! Hope it doesn’t spread to you!

    • donnaeve

      May 26, 2015

      Reply

      Thanks Caryn! I didn’t catch it! So weird when they talk about how contagious it is…

      My husband is STILL coughing and doesn’t feel 100% some days, otherwise he’s pretty much over it. I agree on whether or not people should get them but something tells me next year he will!

  • Diane

    May 25, 2015

    Reply

    Donna, I am horribly late to reach out, but I do hope the flu is flagging by now – or GONE.

    My blog gets very sentimental indeed at times, but I think I am effective in using that (and hope, for the most part, it all fits in with the rest of the work there), but my novels have all the tender feeling of a form rejection letter a year after a job application. This is not to say they don’t involve nor evoke feeling, but my *working* with them is dispassionate, and I have this idea that the narration is not very romantic. In the first novel, this fit with a male character capable of sinking an ax into someone’s brain as an act of propaganda; in the second, even the scene of childbirth and labor is not emotional beyond its bitter disappointments. Later on, there is the torture and death of a lover, which leaves scars, but cannot be mourned, and so the feeling is subsumed, buried.

    In that sense, I do think “telling coldly” is in its way more effective – and yet, the effect is that of feeling, of sentiment. So perhaps I am a sentimental author in the end.

    It occurs to me the idea of “sentimental” writing is one based in ideas about sex – that women writers writing feelings are prone to sentimentalism, and that men writing about feelings are “raw” or vulnerable/brave. Probably not to the point you were making, but I do feel often that women’s writing is not considered on the same terms, and the standards can be disparate.

    Okay – shutting up now.

    Be well, and I really am sorry I’ve been poor in my “attendance” hereabouts of late.

    • donnaeve

      May 26, 2015

      Reply

      Awww, it’s okay, Diane…, I know you’ve been busy with work, and trying to work on the new novel, and actually I’ve been a bit offline as well. (as you can tell by the date on this last post – eek)

      I think the way you describe your writing sounds like what I’m attempting to point out. I. e., writing with sentiment is good while writing with sentimentality is bad. And so, to the points about writing “coldly” with regard to pieces of a story which much be “dealt with,” (i.e. torture, etc.) you have to write coldly. Tell what’s happening, and get it done. This sort of scene needs that separation.

      Anyway, I’m glad you dropped by!

      • Diane

        May 26, 2015

        Reply

        You may get a giggle – several weeks ago, the Reiders were talking about sex scenes. Many were sort of “con” on the whole idea and/or process of them.

        What’d I do? Go right to the WIP and write the … well, not sex scene really. But definitely a unique and unexpected seduction. Two characters’ fingers touch when one hands the other a pear. And they are frozen. And doomed. I kind of love it, drafty as the whole megilla still is.

        Reiders inspire me! 🙂

        YOU make me so terribly grateful, though. Being such a good author yourself, your generosity and praise mean a great deal. That is true of a lot of Reiders, but you were one of my first friends there, so you are special.

        I LOVE YOU MAN.

        Sentimentally speaking.

      • donnaeve

        May 27, 2015

        Reply

        I love that you did that! There is nothing wrong with a sex scene IMO, and if they are well done (I’m looking at you Averil Dean) then they are worth every seductive dripping word laid on the page. Just saying.

        The Reiders inspire me too – one and all. But much like you, I have a soft spot for certain ones – and I remember the first time you and I interacted directly with one another. See? You’re special to me! It was over Gossamer’s paw. I was thinking his little paw looked like a Hemingway cat’s and you explained the pic. I too, am grateful for your unique way of expressing your thoughts – you truly have a strong voice amongst all the Reiders.

        I LOVE YOU BACK – yes, I mean that. <3

  • Diane

    May 27, 2015

    Reply

    Aww, Donna! I’m FLATTERED (like Janet’s last post!).

    (I kind of want to start a sidebar page on my blog sometimes, all the Gossamer the Editor Cat images Janet had to delete some months back.)

    • donnaeve

      May 28, 2015

      Reply

      You should! He has personality PLUS!


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