Clear Thinking About Mixed Feelings

Clear Thinking About Mixed Feelings

The poet Auden said, "Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings." I think this is a pretty brilliant way to sum up what we are looking for in great writing, and what the difference is between a memorable and a forgettable story. Today I want to talk about how I teach this funny little saying in class, and how you can use it in your own writing.

1. Clear Thinking

Let's start with the clear thinking part. For language to be delightful, to vividly capture an experience, it must be precise and capture the world clearly. If you're writing a fight scene, for example, and the reader can't tell who's on top of whom or whether the sword has fallen, then she's unable to follow the action; she can't be in the moment with the characters. It's crucial to capture action and movement as clearly as you can. Sometimes this means taking notes beforehand about exactly where everyone is in a room and where everyone ends up.

This clarity is crucial in a more metaphorical sense as well. This is the principle way that beginner poetry falls flat; our images or analogies are muddled, unclear. My soul is a burning flame, but you touch my heart like a feather -- does that mean the feather gets burnt to a crisp? Why are we talking about feathers and flame together? Does that mean the person is a feather or that his touch is light as a feather? Why is your soul a flame anyway? We've got a mixed metaphor here, and the message is as clear as mud.

2. Mixed Feelings

But we can't forget that clarity by itself is precisely nothing. Or, it's precisely dead. Who wants a really clear, precise, careful description of a glass bowl? Why do we care about the glass bowl? Why do we care that it is pretty, or that we can now picture it, thanks to the expert description? The other crucial element of art is the notion of conflict, or of tension between opposing forces. For many artists, the tension is the one between what one teacher of mine called "matter and spirit." Are we fleshy human bodies, or spiritual, mental, intellectual beings? Will something of us live on after we die? Another classic tension is one between desire and fear. Do we dare feel love for another person? Or is it too scary to make ourselves vulnerable? Do we dare leap into another's arms? Or maybe you want to write about the ever-present tension between the sexes, or about the tension between the present and the past. Are we still the people we were yesterday, or have we become someone else?

Without capturing conflict and tension, or capturing an idea that we have mixed feelings about, our story will feel lifeless and dull. So when you start writing, choose a topic that makes you uncomfortable. It has to be something that confuses you, that you're not sure how you feel about. You have to set up an argument with your characters in which each side has a good point, and it should be an argument that you're also having with yourself. But that argument must be captured with clarity, or else we won't be able to follow along and understand the nature of the conflict.