Thursday, September 28, 2006

An overview of emotion

This blog has now been running for over two years, and if you were to go back and read it through from the beginning you would find that there is one topic which is mentioned over and over again. That topic is emotion.

Somewhere around 1958, I met a man on a train who was a schoolmaster by profession but who was also a published writer. We got to talking about writing. I mentioned that I had ambitions in that line myself (I was very young and foolish), and he advised me to read a book called Narrative Technique, by Thomas H. Uzzell. (The book was first published in 1923 and is long since out of print, but it's still worth buying if you can find an old copy.)

In due course I did read Uzzell's book, and Uzzell revealed to me that the whole point of fiction is that it generates emotion in the reader: that is why readers value it. My major conclusion at that point in my development was therefore that, if I wished to succeed as a 'creative writer', I had better (a) learn as much as I could about emotion, and (b) learn as much as I could about how to create emotion in readers or drama audiences.

The result is that, for nearly fifty years, I have been reading anything I could lay my hands on which dealt with human emotion and writing techniques. And gradually, my reading and learning have begun to organise themselves into several different areas:

1. The scientific study of emotion itself.

2. The problems of fictional narrative technique: i.e. how to make the reader feel an emotion.

3. The impact of emotion on writers: notably, the negative effects of rejection; and

4. The role of emotion in general physical and mental health.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will have noticed that, whenever possible, I review books which cover these topics; and, as indicated at the head of this post, I have already dealt with the four topics at some length, in several stand-alone essays. The purpose of today's post is therefore to point you towards some of the material related to emotion which already exists on this blog, and to give you information about other sources of information which you might wish to pursue.

A central plank in the edifice which we are to construct today is Chapter 5 of my non-fiction book The Truth about Writing. And if you want a fairly quick and simple guide to everything that I've learnt about emotion and writing in the last fifty years, then you should read that chapter.

For months, if not years, I have been muttering about making available a free PDF copy of The Truth about Writing, and now, at last, I've done it. Click here for details. Chapter 5 begins on page 133.

In the meantime, here is a 5-minute guide to relevant posts on this blog and to outside sources of useful information.

1. The scientific study of emotion

Fortunately (or unfortunately), it has not proved too difficult or demanding for me to keep up with scientific research in the area of human emotion, because, for all practical purposes, there isn't any.

See my discussion of such data as are available beginning on page 143 of Truth. There I discuss Dylan Evans's book, Emotion: the Science of Sentiment. This is quite a short book, and it summarises what scientists have discovered about emotion in the last hundred years or so. (Precious little, it turns out.)

You will find that I also mention Candace Pert's book, The Molecules of Emotion, in which a genuine practitioner of 'hard' science (measuring things) tells us what she has discovered.

Another relevant book is Dylan Evans's Placebo, discussed here on 13 July 2004, in the course of a general discussion of the need for writers to produce emotion in an audience.

Why this paucity of scientific research, you may wonder. The answer is that emotion is hard to put under the microscope, hard to measure, and hard, even, to define. Since scientists build their reputations by doing experiments which produce hard data, which can then be replicated by other scientists, they soon realise that there is no professional future in the study of emotions, and they back off. The volume of research in this area, compared with almost anything else you care to mention, is tiny.

2. Fictional narrative technique

There is no better source of information on how to create emotion in the reader than Uzzell's Narrative Technique (mentioned above), if you can find it. Also good is his 1959 book, The Technique of the Novel. But you will find a handy summary of Uzzell's theories, plus my own take on how to put them into effect, in Chapter 5 of my book Truth, beginning on page 156.

There are, of course, numerous other books on writing techniques and I must have read at least a couple of hundred of them myself. But very few remain on my bookshelves. One that does is Albert Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel; it's a much more subtle and thoughtful book than it sounds.

3. The impact of emotion on writers

My third area of interest is the impact of emotions on writers.

As the years passed, I gradually came round to the view that writing is a pretty dangerous business. And The Truth about Writing was mainly written to warn writers -- particularly young and naive writers -- about what they are letting themselves in for.

The first paragraph of the book reads as follows: 'Writing is an activity which can seriously damage your health. It can consume huge amounts of time and energy, and it can lead to frustration, rage, and bitterness. The overall purpose of this book is therefore to protect and preserve the sanity of anyone who is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with the ambition to write.'

And I was not kidding. If you want to understand how dangerous to your health writing can be, read my review of Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. And for a couple of cases where the pressures of the writing world proved fatal, read Ross and Tom 1, and the follow-up, Ross and Tom 2.

4. The role of emotion in general physical and mental health

Finally, the impact of emotion on physical and mental health in the population at large.

To get a feeling for that, you will need to dip into some of the books already mentioned: Dylan Evans on Emotion and Placebo; Candace Pert on The Molecules of Emotion; and Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

But the best account (in my view) of how powerful emotions impact upon the mental and physical health of all individuals is, of course, Dr Sarno's book The Divided Mind, which I reviewed on 5 September.

Later note: If you are interested in learning more about Dr Sarno, there is now a wiki-type site which contains a great deal of useful information. In particular, it contains many first-hand reports by former pain sufferers who explain how Dr Sarno's ideas, and his practical suggestions for treatment, have helped them to feel better. I warmly recommend it. The web address is


Theresa said...

I read avidly and for some time in my younger egocentric years thought I wanted to be a writer but basically all I did was talk about it. I didn't have the grit or really the talent to succeed so I stuck to reading.
The power of some novels has over the years had an enormous emotional impact on me and the books have stayed with me long after I've closed the last page. Kaled Hosseini's book The Kite Runner, A Jarful of Angels by Babs Horton and Arundati Roys God of small things were three such books that I've read recently. They were able to reach the child in me and the result was so powerful; I wept like a fool at times, laughed like a seven year old at others. Yet I have read 'real life' stories about kids in distress and been left cold. Do you think that writers like Hosseini etc are aware of their impact and do they consciously use 'Devices' to get a reaction. Or is it just good writing written from the heart? Getting in touch with your own emotions through reading feels therapeutic to me and I always feel better mentally. I hope writing the books gives authors the same lift.

Andrew O'Hara said...

Thank you for the PDF, which I now have safely on my computer. Interestingly, your Chapter 5 successfully evoked considerable emotion--I assuredly look forward to re-reading it more carefully.

I recently referred a writer to your "Slush Pile" essay, and received the interesting response, "I'm too busy writing to read something by someone I don't know."

Now there's a thought--and a bit frightening. I wish I were so lucky. Thank you again for making this available to us as well.

clare said...

I am sometimes told that, as a writer, I need to develop a thick skin (in relation to harsh criticism, rejection, manuscripts that have to be abandoned and all the other things you have mentioned as being the writer's lot). But as a writer I also have to be thin-skinned too - overly sensitive as I see it - in order to successfully convey emotion.

Is this the divided mind, I wonder - perhaps the more divided the better.

Maxine said...

Very insightful.
Are you going to write a round-up on "randomness" soon? I'd love to read that.

Art Durkee said...

There's a book several years ago that is all about research into emotion. It's fairly rigorous, but remains somewhat controversial.

Dr. Manfred Clynes, "Sentics: The touch of the emotions."

I first encountered this work when it was referenced in George Leonard's book "The Silent Pulse," which remains one of the best books on states of mind I've ever read.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of comments on emotion.

First, is there such a thing as a 'mind' and if there is where is it? I think the answer is: it's many in parts of the brain, hence part of the body. The mind/body split might have been useful before we began to understand the chemical and electrical processes of the brain but I think neuro-psychology is chipping away at it.

Next, your example of the Holmes joke is a good one and illustrates the different levels of emotion. As far as I know all animals feel fear through our reptillian brain; some feel happiness (dogs clearly can be happy or sad), but only humans experience 'intellectual' emotions like humour or pathos and then not equally.

Thanks for the book.

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