Emotion and Experience: The Two Es of Art

A week or so ago, I read two books from completely different authors. One was The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, a sprawling familial narrative that took place in the United States and the Dominican Republic and utilized elements of magical realism and a distinct voice. The other was Black Dogs by Ian Mcewan, a story that traces a British couple’s lives throughout Europe after World War II through the lens of two conversations that the main character had with his in-laws. The thing that most struck me about these novels was the authenticity and literary excellence that was being achieved. It made me think about how I could imitate this same literary excellence. These books were both very different with some stylistic similarities. Both were fictional stories set in real world places. Both are first-person narratives. But Junot Diaz writes in a playful and conversational tone where as Mcewan’s writing style is much more formal and serious. Mcewan writes his novel with a linear progression of time, and yet he leaves out large chunks of time. Memories from the past are just that: memories, offered up by a character in the story about his or her past. Diaz, on the other hand, bounces around a timeline that spans almost a century, throughout the Dominican Republic to the United States, and he eventually provides a complete and elaborate tapestry of family history and life. His timeline follows no rules, and his characters often experience supernatural occurrences in both DR and the US. These creative decisions: tone, structure and plot among others, are what make authors distinct and wonderful to read. But a few things, writing’s ‘nougat’ if you will, are present in many pieces of great writing. A couple of these aspects are the author’s experience and the emotion that he writes with. These two things often go hand in hand and help to create great pieces of art, especially writing. They are present in almost any great piece of literature, film, or dramatic performance.

Experience was the first thing that struck me about these two novels. The descriptions of city squares, smells, sights, and what the people existing in these two books felt were too genuine, too accurate regionally for an outsider to have written them. Mcewan himself spent almost twelve years in Germany while his father, a General in the English army, was stationed there during the occupation after WWII. His entire adult life has been spent in England and enriched by trips throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Black Dogs follows the main character’s family from his home in England throughout France to Berlin, right as the wall is falling. The novel is chock full of vivid imagery of France’s mountains, the harsh and tense nature of Berlin in that time, and a very euro-centric lens of the world and the goings-on in it. Conversely, Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American citizen who immigrated to New Jersey when he was six years old. He received his degree from Rutgers University and has lived in New York since the late nineties. His novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao follows a family throughout the Dominican Republic, New Jersey and New York, with the main characters all attending Rutgers because of its convenience (to them? or Diaz? Both?). The narration of Oscar Wao is very Dominican, referencing fuku and Trujillo over and over again and refusing to shy away from the blatant colorism present in Dominican culture. This all adds up to two great authors writing about places and voices with which they are very familiar. This familiarity, this experience, is key to great writing. Without it, a story loses both credibility with locals and the sense of realness that can only be imparted by an author who knows the place he is writing about. Without experience, art is often flat and one-sided. This is the reason why people should be able to tell their own stories. White images of black pain, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are often offensive and shallow. The same can be said about gay characters written by heterosexual authors, rural characters written by people in cities and women written by men (though none are usually as offensive as the first). The point is, the best realistic fiction writing first comes from one’s experiences. You have to know what it feels like to not only exist but truly live in the place that you’re writing about and from. Be able to describe the taste in the air, the streets, what the houses look like, how you feel as you walk home and out into the city, how you would talk, and what *could* happen here in this fantasy universe that you’re creating.

Emotion is the other key aspect that writers must be able to communicate to readers. When I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I was struck by the depth and realness of the emotions Diaz was writing about. Rather than ignore the rebellion and anger that his characters felt throughout the novel or water it down, he accentuated it and indulged the reader in descriptions of feelings anyone with a mother, brother, sister, or lover could identify with. And with that anger came the inevitable yang, the love his characters felt for each other. The wide range of human emotions that Diaz captured in the novel was truly amazing to me, and I do not doubt that he has experienced all of these emotions himself. The writing was too real, too truthful for me to doubt that. It was almost like the first time I saw Manchester by the Sea. I could not stop myself from crying, overwhelmed by the depth and truth of the actors and actresses’ pain on screen. Like The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that film’s authenticity of human emotions, raw and out in the open for the reader/viewer to see, was powerful. Likewise, authors like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn deftly use emotions like fear and suspense. Because of this, novels like IT and Gone Girl are exponentially better. No one wants to read about a killer clown that doesn’t scare the reader, or a missing wife that doesn’t put the reader on the edge of his/her seat. This is the reason why emotion is so important. You could write the most flawless narrative ever, with authentic spatial details, realistic events, and a well-developed plot. But if the reader can’t feel the emotion behind the words, if they don’t feel what the characters do, then the magic of great art is lost.

It is for this reason that I want to live in as many places as I can, work as many jobs as I can, and experience as many emotions as I possibly can in this life. It’s all in the pursuit of having a happier and more full existence and bettering myself as a writer and storyteller. If I can live in twenty different countries before I die, work blue and white collar jobs, feel joy, fear, pain, love, boredom, disinterest, anguish, and jubilation, I can maybe sniff the coattails of these great authors. This is why I want to watch my first child come out of the womb, why I hardly ever pass up an opportunity to climb a mountain, and why I have not once denied my body the love that I felt inside. To say “that’s too gross” “that’s too hard” “that’s too much” to any experience in life is something I’m going to try to avoid for the rest of my existence. Nothing is “too much” life for me; I want it all.

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The roses bloomed elegantly in the makeshift vase on the desk. The petals curled outwards toward the sunlight like welcoming hands as their gentle cayenne-orange color filled the area around the bouquet with a brightness only nature can add. The energetic tones of Miles Davis’ trumpet played over the cool, relaxed beat laid down by the saxophone, horns and drums, all drifting out from the bathroom. The blankets on the bed droop lazily as if they are tired from a long night of work. A male bird bellows a mating song in the ancient trees growing up next to the apartment windows as the female birds chirp their approval. The whole spectacle almost sounds as if nature is showing love to Miles, a man so smooth even birds groove to his songs. A gentle wind comes through the window, rustling the blinds against the many different objects that the lovers have placed on the windowsill. The cans of air freshener and deodorant harmoniously add to the beautiful noise in the room when they are struck by the blinds. The sweet, pungent smell of shrimp, crackling in hot butter and olive oil in the kitchen wafts in through the door, mixing with the comfortable smell of blunt smoke. The sun goes behind the clouds, dimming the room ever so slightly and throwing soft shadows on the walls. A candle burns, crackling over and over again as if it is trying its best to be a fireplace. It reminds the man of Simba’s feeble attempts at roars in the beginning of the Lion King.  On the desk is a jug full of water, a representation of good intentions and bad execution. It sits next to a small lamp that is both insignificant and modern. The man gets up, crossing the cold hardwood floor gingerly as he finds his slippers, brushes off his feet, and slides them on. He then pads over to the lamp, yanking the cord and flooding the corner with light. A spotlight falls on the top of the dresser and the back of the chair at the desk, both overflowing with clothes. They are clear indicators of the transient nature of this apartment and these people, and their lack of space. The man then shifts his attention to the roses. Drawing his face down to one, he inhales deeply and is given a breath of sweetness. He picks up his notebook and thumbs through the pages. Each note brings him back to the place he was at when he wrote it. First he is in the courtyard, surrounded by trees and shrubs and feeling a deep sense of calm after the days meditation. Then he is on the metro, sitting in the back corner of the train as it hurtles toward the center of the city, writing over the noise of the wheels on the tracks and the tunnels whooshing by. Then, a park, the smell of the city and nature mixing to form a weird blend the both calms and unnerves him at the same time, then a plane traveling back to his home, and finally right back in the chair he is sitting in. He closes the notebook, looking at the cover for a moment as he does. “Huh.” He places it gently back on the desk and turns his attention to the full jug of water. Picking it up, he uncaps it and tips it upside down over his lips. He drinks in giant gulps, one every two or three seconds. After about a half a minute, he rights the jug and places the cap back on it, now almost empty. As he sets it down, he jumps as if he has been startled by something. Turning around, he climbs onto the bed and opens the essential oil diffuser. Taking the second lid off, he pours the remaining water into the tank of the diffuser, being careful not to spill on the blankets. Capping the empty jug, the man puts it down and grabs the case of essential oils. He picks up the lavender and eucalyptus bottles, dropping ten drops methodically into the water from each bottle. The surface of the water becomes oily and fragrant, and the sweet smell of the oils float up to his nose as he put the cap and lid back on the diffuser and pressed the start button. Within a minute, the entire room was filled with the sweet aroma that only the man had been privy to just seconds earlier. He took a deep breath in. As he let it go he saw a bright light outside of his window. Thinking the sun was coming back out, he walked over to the window and opened the blinds. The sight he saw made sheer terror and anguish course through his veins. His skin crawled like a fear factor contestant on hard drugs as he gawked at the ever expanding mushroom cloud that was coming from the city. He began to scream for his love, who had gone into work not but four hours before. But he didn’t realize how fast the light was moving towards him. He had seen a mushroom cloud just a second ago, and now all he saw was a sinisterly dark white light, rushing towards him. He felt his breath catch in his throat as his window smashed to pieces and the light enveloped him. The roses in the vases disintegrated into dust behind him as the carnage rolled on.