This is going to be a hard blog to write, largely because it’s about how important it is for the writer to capture the uncapturable…and to be honest, I’m not sure I know how to capture that concept clearly.

I’ll just begin and see what happens.

The other day I had an experience of intense joy. We probably all have those from time to time. I don’t even remember what I was doing, but all of a sudden a sense of sheer happiness came over me. And, being a writer, the first thought that occurred to me was: how on earth do I write in such a way as to move people so emotionally that they’re overcome with this kind of joy? Or with any other emotion for that matter, including profound sadness.

And yet shouldn’t the goal of the writer—especially the Christian writer—be to move people emotionally? Of course, there are the many books written simply for entertainment value and they certainly have their place. But surely there’s room in the marketplace for books that push us a bit deeper emotionally…or spiritually. Usually, these are the books that last for longer than one or two bookselling seasons. Sometimes they earn the right to be called “Literature.” Yes, with a capital L.

But how to do that? How do we write so as to move people? How do we write Literature?

As always, I turn to quotes from the masters of the pen for advice. Here are a few relevant observations:

“Literature is recognizable through its capacity to evoke more than it says”….Anthony Burgess

“Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”…George Orwell.

“I feel a need to have a certain experience, to see certain feelings displayed, to see certain ideas pursued, and at one point or another I make the audacious choice of appointing myself as the person who can conceivably do that”…..Scott Spencer

“The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say”…Anais Nin

There it is. The writer’s job description is to say what we are unable to say.

I like that. But again, how?

I’ll offer a few short ideas. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. After all, I’m just thinking out loud here. I don’t really know the answer. I only know that when I feel a strong emotion, I want to translate that feeling into the language of words and I usually fail miserably.

1. The writer who wishes to evoke great emotion must also be a man or woman who experiences great emotion.

2. The writer must be an observer and lover of people. He or she must especially be compassionate.

3. The writer must have the sense of awe of a ten-year-old. It must be hard to be a jaded person and write in such a way as to stir joyous emotions in readers.

4. The writer will likely have suffered some sense of hurt. I’ve always liked this A.W. Tozer quote and I think it applies to Christian writers: “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.”

5. Finally, a writer who wishes to evoke emotion must understand the “less is more” principle. This is along the lines of “show, don’t tell,” but even more subtle. One of my artist friends tells me the mark of a great artist is not what he includes on the canvas, but what he leaves out.

What do you think about all this? How do you capture the uncapturable? Can you suggest some writers or books that have succeeded in evoking such strong emotion?

4 replies
  1. BJ Hoff
    BJ Hoff says:

    In nonfiction, I believe honesty and vulnerability are key. (You managed this in *Magnificent Prayer.*) In fiction, care about your own characters so much (even the less savory ones) that readers can’t NOT care about them. Allow them to be a little larger than life by leading ordinary people into extraordinary situations.

    Evocative entry, Nick. You like to make us think, don’t you?

  2. Richard Mabry
    Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, I certainly agree with the Tozer quote, which our Men’s Bible Study teacher, Dr. Steve Farrar, gives us frequently. Like many others before me, I’ve been hurt deeply–and it turned into the event that brought me to this second career.
    Thanks for an excellent post, and Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    This isn’t the same thing but reading your post reminded me of it…in the most recent issue of Image there was an interview with Marilynne Robinson and she said the following: “As religious people, I think we ought to be sensitive to the fact that the universe is beautiful at every scale. I became sensitive to that question in the first place when I asked my students to intentionally write something beautiful – just a paragraph – and they were flabbergasted by the suggestion. As if beautiful means hyperbolic or sentimental. At the same time, if you show them a passage from Chekhov, they say, ‘That’s beautiful.’ Why should it be an invidious term in any context? And then it seems to me that the churches in general have rid themselves of the heritage of beauty as industriously as they have rid themselves of the heritage of intellectualism, and this simply impoverishes them. There is no more to be said: it creates poverty where there should be wealth.” Not that communicating a strong emotion always results in beautiful writing but as a reader I can certainly be moved by beautiful writing, so maybe there is a connection.

  4. Judith Robl
    Judith Robl says:

    “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.”

    This is true because it is doubtful whether one can be used of God (which is our ultimate blessing) until we’ve had only him to rely upon. It is so sad but true that most people turn completely to God only in extremis.

    My “writing career” is a direct result of losing the grandchildren. I’d not have had the moxie to attempt as little as I’ve done had I not learned how strong the arms of God are to lean upon.


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