One of my least favorite parts of myself is that my tin ear is so completely...er...tin. I am surprised that earrings don’t adhere to my skin with rust when I wear them. Although I like music and the emotion I get from it, I don’t actually hear the notes or feel the emotion of the performer. My husband was changing strings on his Alvarez guitar a few weeks ago and was aghast at hearing a dead spot—there were two or three notes that weren’t there. I hope I was properly sympathetic, but in truth, the notes that weren’t there sounded to me exactly like the ones that were.
This past weekend was the annual Cole Porter Festival where I live. Saturday night, we went to the cabaret of mostly Porter songs at the Depot where the local theatre performs. As always, I was completely awed by the talent all around me, but on one song, I noticed that Duane’s applause was even more enthusiastic than usual. He was spellbound.
Well, I could understand that—they all amazed me, but then he turned to me and said, “Did you see it? When the emotion got her and took over the song? Did you hear it? Wasn’t it great?”
It got me to thinking about emotion in writing, for the writer and for the reader. I love writing emotion, because I feel it as I write it. These are the scenes that write themselves, that have me laughing or crying aloud here by myself in the office. These are the ones that are my favorites. Always.
As a reader, the parts of books I go back and reread are the ones that make me feel. Pamela Morsi wrote a scene in Letting Go that I read 12 years ago and it hasn’t “let go” of me yet. Emotional scenes are the basis for my personal stack of comfort reads. My heart has been rewriting Beth March’s death in Little Women for over 50 years, but I read and love the way it is. Over and over and over.
As a reader, I probably have a tin ear to the sounds of other writers’ emotions when they write. I think their words were from their hearts, but maybe not—maybe they’re just that good at making the sounds my emotions want to hear.
And that’s so cool! The song last night, the one that Duane saw and felt explode with emotion, was just another beautiful song to me. But the one a little before that, when Duane and three others performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, had tears pushing at the back of my eyes and my nails cutting half-moons of joy into my palms. To him, “Hallelujah” is merely a good song; to me, it is an anthem.
As a writer, I want to write those scenes that stay with me forever and ever. If you’ve read One More Summer, you know what I’m talking about. However, not everyone will feel that—their ears will be deaf to my angst, sorrow, and joy.
On the other side of that much-flipped coin, I have had lovely emails from people about scenes that affected them deeply, made them laugh hard or sniffle or read a passage aloud to someone else. I am so pleased when that happens and more proud than I have a right to be. Because often those scenes are not the ones that exploded from me in an emotional spate; rather, they are the ones I chewed my thumb and stared into space while I dug for, word by slow word.
Duane restrung the Alvarez again the other day. “Listen!” he urged, and strummed a few times. “Hear it? The notes are back. The dead spot is gone.”
Hear it? No, I couldn’t. But I felt his happiness—he loves the Alvarez. When he plays songs like “Hallelujah,” even though he’s not emotionally invested in them, he still feels how powerfully listeners are touched. It makes him try harder, I think, to chew his mental thumb and stare into space until, note by slow note, he’s able to give listeners a gift he doesn’t have. When he is emotionally involved, there’s no chewing or staring necessary, but we with our tin ears don’t know one from the other—we just enjoy the music and the sensations it gives us.
I’ve read back over this post and I have to admit it’s kind of confusing. I think what I’m trying to do is remind us that when it comes to emotions, sometimes we are the givers and sometimes we are the receivers. Either way, the gift is absolute.