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Risking Sentimentality


“How I love you, she always wanted to say, and you can never know it. I would die for you without a thought. You have given to my life its sheerest, its profoundest pleasure. But she could never say that. Instead, she would say, “How was school?” “Was lunch all right?” “Did you have your math test?” (excerpt from Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels)


“So many things in the world have happened before. But it’s like they never did. Every new thing that happens to a person, it’s a first. To be a son of a father was like that. In that night I felt expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots and growing faster than the eye could see. I felt smallness, how the earth divided into bits and kept dividing. I felt the stars. I felt them roosting on my shoulders with his hands.” (excerpt from Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine)


How do Gordon and Erdrich create such big emotions on the page and not come across as sentimental?

A distinction needs to be made between sentiment and sentimentality. Sentiment is associated with complex emotions evoked by a precise rendering of a deeply explored moment. Sentimentality, says John Gardner in The Art of Fiction, “in all its forms, is the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause.” It’s an emotion or feeling that rings false usually because it’s achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration. I.A. Richards adds “A response is sentimental if it is too great for the occasion.”

Gardner goes on to list some of the ways a writer falls into sentimentality:

1.      A writer tries to make the reader “burst into tears” for some character we hardly know

2.      A writer appeals to stock responses—ie, the warm feelings we have for children and puppies.

3.      The writer resorts to super-dramatic sentences (Then she saw the gun).

He also notes that a writer suffering from “frigidity” might be guilty of sentimentalism. Frigidity, as he defines it, is whenever an author reveals “by some slip or self-regarding intrusion that he is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be.”

It seems to me the antidote for frigidity is staying close to your characters. And that happens by hanging out with them for hours until you can crawl under their skin.

But what is authentic emotion?  And how do you create it on the page?

I think Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and theater director, is onto something when advising his students on how to become better actors: “Search out both beauty and its opposite, and define them, learn to know and see them. Otherwise your conception of beauty will be incomplete, saccharine, prettified, sentimental.” (my italics)

Essentially what Stanislavski is noting is the need for beauty and ugliness. That is, how do you, as a person, know beauty unless you’ve experienced ugliness? How do you know happiness if you’ve never known its opposite? How do you know joy if you’ve never experienced sorrow? Each emotion contains, at least implicitly, the other. Further extrapolating from Stanislavski’s quote, there is tension inherent in happiness, love, joy, a tension that results from the emotion holding and suggesting its opposite.

Richards supports this conclusion by noting a scene becomes sentimental “by confining itself to one aspect only of the many that the situation can present… and often when we discuss sentimentality we are looking at the wrong side of the picture. If a man can only think of his childhood as a lost heaven it is probably because he is afraid to think of its other aspects.”

So back to the Mary Gordon example. Her character has the interior thought about how much she loves her children, how much she wanted to tell them that. Gordon creates tension by having her actions, in this case dialogue, not align with her interior wish. In fact, her dialogue is fairly mundane—“How was school?” “Was lunch all right?” “Did you have your math test?” We’ve come far from the high-flying emotion of love, of how she would die for them without a thought.

After Erdrich allows her narrator to feel a transcendental moment, in the next paragraph, the story comes back to the concrete world: “I didn’t turn the headlights on until I hit the highways. Near dawn, I came to the bridge over the boundary river.” Erdrich builds tension by putting side by side an expansive moment and the everyday action of driving a truck.

In both examples, the writers clearly present “the situation”—children returning from school; a father driving in his truck with his son. The reader can understand and access the situation and what organic response is invited.

So go ahead and risk sentimentality. Write right to the edge of it and give your character a big emotion, but ground it in a concrete situation and include its opposite so you have all aspects of that big loving moment.