(This essay was originally published in The Writer magazine in October 2009)
One of my favorite things to do as a writer is to make people cry. Before you recoil in horror at my insensitivity, think of it this way. When you are reading a novel, short story, poem or essay what do you want most? Don’t you want to be taken out of your world and transported to another world? Don’t you want to be challenged, pierced with insight, made to laugh… and cry?
Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Good advice from someone who made a living, and a life, by plunging into the emotional depths of everyday experience and translating that experience into poetry.
The first time I made myself cry when I was writing an essay I chalked it up to a hormonal imbalance and lack of sleep. I asked my editor for his opinion when I submitted my essay to him. Had I made a fatal error and crossed that fine line that separates true emotional connection from the maudlin? No, he said, as his normally gruff voice cracked with emotion. I had nailed it.
I have published over three hundred essays during the past twenty years mostly in newspaper op/ed pages, the vast majority of them humorous in tone. My specialty is the witty (I hope) commentary on some real-life situation that just begs to be made fun of. Out of eighteen personal essays I have published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, twelve of them are humor pieces. I have poked fun at things like the vast array of cable channels devoted to seemingly obscure passions (think fishing channel), and also some of the odd quirks and traits that I have observed are unique to Philadelphians. In a weekly column I wrote for a local newspaper last year I never once ran out of topics that called for a humorous slant – the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition comes to mind; as well as the fashion trend of gigantic purses, “stay-cations,” and the gift that kept giving – the presidential campaign.
It is a wonderful thing to be able to make people laugh. And that ability will always translate for me as a writer into sales. It’s just my skewed way of observing the world. I can look at almost any situation and find humor in it, and then write 750 words about it.
But not everything in life lends itself to humor. Some things just aren’t funny, no matter how you look at them. In fact, every day the news is full of things that are almost unbearably sad. The essay that made my editor choke up, “The Boy in the Photograph,” was one I wrote about Ryan White, the young boy who died of complications from AIDS in 1990, and who set an example for the rest of us on how to live and die with grace and meaning. I didn’t set out to clobber the reader over the head with platitudes about the injustice of Ryan’s situation, rather I wrote about how his story hits you where it hurts the most. Ryan didn’t live his life as though he were in a nightmare. He simply lived his life as any boy would, dreaming of cars, sports and rock music. He came face-to-face with the ugliest of human emotions and the most beautiful, and dealt with both gracefully.
As writers we are ultra-sensitive to the world around us. Or we should be. It is our job to take life in, the funny and the sad, and filter it down to its essence in some meaningful way, using language as our tool.
I was recently the guest speaker at a luncheon for a Newcomers group in Lake Forest, Illinois, where I had lived for ten years before moving to the Philadelphia area. At the luncheon were about sixty women who were veterans of moving their families and lives around the United States, and even the world. The first essay I chose to read was one I had written about my dear friend Diane, whom I had met my first month in Lake Forest at a Newcomers coffee, and what it had been like for me when she had moved after five years. In the essay I described how we had met, and how different our personalities were. Where I was high-strung, and it may even be said ‘hyper,’ Diane was thoughtful and nearly sedate. She loved British comedies on PBS; I watched Melrose Place. She favored tweedy, classic clothing; I have been known to wear spandex. I have two children, she has cats. Much of the essay continues in this light tone, and the shared laughter in the room made me feel a connection with this group of women, most of whom I had never met.
Then I came to the part where I am driving past Diane’s house and seeing the For Sale sign in her yard for the first time. And when I paused in my reading to look out at the group (make eye contact when speaking!), I noticed that several women were dabbing at their eyes with tissues. One woman at a table near me had tears openly streaming down her face. When I saw this, something happened to me as well. My words weren’t just out there floating around, and taking up space on a page. They were entering people and changing their lives. They were making them think, and look at life in different ways. My words were making them laugh… and cry.
It was with some difficulty that I continued reading at this point. I literally had to pause and mentally compose myself. Of course, being the good corporate wife myself (bloom where you’re planted!), I dried my tears before I went into Diane’s house, where she was straightening up for the initial real estate showing. She was in the first stage of withdrawal from the house she loved so much. The stage where you can’t bear to think of strangers tromping through your house looking in cabinets and closets. I took her away for a long lunch.
Luckily I had interjected a light, humorous line in the last paragraph, and everyone laughed again, myself included. And the next essay I shared with them was one of my signature pieces, a humor essay that had been published in the New York Times called A Tale of Two Beaches, that compares the Jersey shore with the beaches in southern California.
One of the best letters I ever got from a reader about one of my essays read, “Your story made me laugh and cry at the same time.” I never set out on purpose to make that happen. In order to make it happen naturally, a writer needs to go deep. Deep into that place inside yourself where raw emotion resides. That’s not always an easy thing to do. To do that you might have to draw upon painful memories, you might have to share private thoughts in order to illustrate a larger concept, you might have to divulge family secrets.
The first step in this, as with most writing, is simply to be more aware of your surroundings. Instead of the protective thick skin that many of us develop over time to shield us from life’s blows, a writer is better served by developing a “thin skin,” a skin that absorbs the world’s beauty and pain. Then, as a writer, your job is to use language to make the leap to your reader. The key here is to avoid sentimentality in your writing. The reader does not want to feel manipulated into experiencing what you – the writer – felt. Rather, any emotion on the reader’s part must come organically from the narrative itself. The writer doesn’t sit down at her laptop and say to herself, “I’m really going to get to people with this story.” Rather, the writer already has a deep connection to the narrative, and she must be as simple and direct as possible – never consciously manipulative.
Last November I published an essay reacting to the two-year anniversary of the unsolved brutal murders of four prostitutes in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 2006. Their bodies were found in a drainage ditch.
It’s their smiles that haunt you. Smiles frozen in time, in photographs from better days. Days when what lay ahead was not yet known. Could not be known.
In order to make my essay resonate with the sadness and anger I felt when I read about these women, I had to go deep into my own family background and my feelings about women and abuse.
They look like the girl who lives in our neighborhood, like someone we could know. Somehow their lives intersected, and they ended up forever connected in this gruesome way. But on the day those photos were taken, they were smiling.
I had to tell their story so that even if you, the reader, didn’t see the photos of the four of them, smiling, in a better day, you would cry for them.
(The following was in a sidebar along with my essay.)
Some points to keep in mind…
…Avoid sentimentality – don’t manipulate the reader with emotion that rings false. An excellent discussion of this can be found in Douglas Bauer’s The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft
…Balance a sad story with some levity, if possible. For example, in my essay about Ryan White I pointed out that Ryan was not defined by his illness. He was the boy next door. The sweet-faced boy you see in the church choir. The boy at home plate with a bat in his hand and a determined look in his eye.
…Don’t be afraid of emotion. If something has affected you deeply, chances are very good that it will affect others.
…Your essay should tell a story. Using the same narrative skills you would use to tell any story will help keep you from lapsing into sentimentality.
…Use muscular, direct language. Your pacing and tone will be different when telling a serious story than in a humor piece. Build carefully to your last sentence, which should leave an indelible impression.
…Not all serious stories are sad stories. Your essay may be more reflective or meditative.