Monday, October 5, 2009

No Sweetness In Suffering

"Avoid sentimentality." It's the writing commandment we've all heard a million times, the rule that makes us nod our heads in nearly universally agreement. After all, few aspiring writers yearn to pound out simpering fluff or disposable weepies. Even those of us without grand literary ambitions want to craft coherent narratives that don't make our readers snicker and possess a modicum of thematic heft. And sentimentality, we intuitively understand, ain't the way to get it done.

It would help at this point, of course, to nail down the definition of the term before proceeding. Unfortunately, the pundits come to various and sundry conclusions about its meaning. Webster is little help, simply calling sentiment "an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by a feeling" and sentimentality "the quality or state of being sentimental especially to excess or in affectation." Oscar Wilde gets a little closer to the nub when he describes the sentimental person as "one who desires to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it." But the observation that strikes me as most true (and the one whose source I can't seem to lay hold of) is that sentimentality marries sweetness with suffering. A shotgun wedding if ever there were one, because you don't need to have personally received a positive biopsy or see your spouse's photo in the obituaries to sense the sickness in that combination, its utter incongruity.

That isn't to say all our stories need to be glum and dour in order to be realistic. Human experience prisms into laughter and tears, despair and delight, and we as writers should address all of those shades and hues. Only we don't honor one of them by calling it another, by making beauty and truth work at cross purposes. Also, positing that life's most crushing occurrences should prompt teary smiles is a superb way to shatter suspension of disbelief. If the young woman learns to love again after her fiancé perishes in the great war, she does so in spite of that horror, and it cuts her to the core. In the end, it ought to hurt as much on the page as it does in the world.

(Picture: CC 2009 by

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