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Emotion, Itself

Lesson 2 from: How to Get Emotion Onto The Page

Lisa Cron

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Lesson Info

2. Emotion, Itself

Next Lesson: What IS a story?

Lesson Info

Emotion, Itself

Let's bust that myth about real life. That myth about emotions. Talk about emotion itself. And what story does to be very clear is story takes big ideas, abstract concepts, dry facts. In other words the entire chaotic world at large. And translates them into something very very specific. Stories in the specific. A specific narrative that affects a specific person making it accessible to the one biological system by which we make every decision we ever make. And that is our emotion. Which I know flies in the face of what most of us have been told. It flies in the face of what I was told. I was told if you want to make a decision. Big decision, but you know really any decision. Here's what you do. You martial all the facts, all the figures, all the data. So you can analyze it dispassionately in the cold light of objective reason. And while you're doing that, there's one thing they tell you. It's a caveat and you have to be very very careful about it. Hypervigilant in fact. Is that you mu...

st keep emotion at bay. Because emotion is an irascible scamp and it's going to tip toe in and cloud your judgment and you'll make a bad decision that you are sure to regret in the morning. And that's a great model isn't it? It makes us feel so safe. It makes us feel so secure. How many times have you been told that it is your ability to think rationally that made you the master of your own ship? It's a great model. Just turns out not to be true. We don't make decisions based on our rational analysis of the situation. We make decisions based on how that rational analysis makes us feel. Now a couple of caveats. First, when I say emotion. I do not mean emotional. Emotional is a pejorative term, a negative term used but should be as a very narrow band or pitch of emotion that is in fact over the top and it'll run away from you. And you will wake up in the morning ruing the thing you did the night before. We are not talking about emotional. We're talking about emotion and actually the truth is I think the notion of emotional has bled into our notion of emotion itself. I love saying that. Notion of emotion. Sort of like it is a rhyme as a matter of fact. Our notion of emotion in that we are afraid of a lot of emotions. We're particularly afraid of overt displays of emotion. Anyone who's displaying emotion of any kind in any situation. Even if something horrible has happened to them. If they're crying, it's like oh, they're being emotional. Because emotion is seen as a weakness. If we show emotion it's somehow weak. So we're a little bit scared of emotions. Which is why we tend to be very general about them and try to box them in. So to be very clear I am also not just talking about generic big box emotions. Happy, sad, anger, jealousy. In other words put it in a story. Character is going to spike and feel really happy or totally down in the dumps. We're not talking about big box general emotions that allow us to keep emotion at bay and locked in a box. What we're talking about is emotion. The emotion that we feel every minute of every day. You feel emotion every minute of every day because emotion comes from feeling. And you might think wait a minute, emotion, feeling, aren't those two things synonymous? No. Feeling is physical. It is a physical sensation. A chemical reaction. And there is nothing in your life that you either do or read about, or think about, or fantasize about. That does not bring with it a chorus of emotion. A chemical reaction that your brilliant brain and nervous system then immediately translates into emotion, that lets you know what it means to you and what you might do. That does not however mean that you're going to do the first thing that you feel like doing. For instance, I might feel like eating an entire chocolate cake at midnight. Am I going to do that? Hope not. So I'm going to think about it. And I'm going to think you know, I've really been trying to eat more healthily and no matter websites I go to, even the sketchiest, I've yet to find one that says eating an entire chocolate cake at midnight will put you on the road to good health. And besides I baked that cake for my daughter's birthday tomorrow. And if she wakes up and there's an empty plate in the sink it's not gonna go over well. Why? That's why I'm not going to eat it. I'm not going to eat that chocolate cake. Why? Because if I ate it, it would make me feel bad. It all comes back to how you feel in fact, if you couldn't feel emotion, you couldn't make a single rational decision. Let me give you an example. There's a neuroscientist, his name is Antonio Damasio. And he frequently writes about a patient he had. A man by the name of Elliot. And Elliot was one of those really successful guys. He had a great job, he had a great family. You know the kind of guy you'd call a pillar of his community. Unfortunately he also had a brain tumor. Now it was benign and they were in fact able to remove all of it. But in order to do that they had to take some of his pre-frontal cortex along with it. And after that his life began to fall apart. He was in the process of losing his family and losing his job when he found Damasio and said you know can you help me? I'm not me anymore. How do I get back to the Elliot I was before the operation? So Damasio ran a battery of tests. And what he discovered was that Elliot had lost the ability to feel and process emotion. Now keep in mind that he still tested in the 97th percentile in intelligence. He could enumerate every possible solution to any problem you could pitch at him. He just couldn't pick one. He'd go into his office in the morning and go should I do that thing my boss seems to really want me to do? Or maybe, maybe it would be a better idea to re-alphabetize my file folders again today and if I go with that file folder thing, would it be better to use the blue pen? Or the black pen? How do you know? At lunch he'd go from restaurant to restaurant looking at menus. But he never went in. 'Cause he didn't know what he felt like eating. Can you imagine what that would be like? If everything was six of one? Half a dozen of the other? I mean imagine the person who you care about the most in your life, picture that person's face. Imagine now the person who you like the least. Picture that person's face. Imagine if when you saw it you felt nothing. You could reverse those two. And you'd still feel nothing. It's really horrifying to think of that. It's funny I used to say I think in our culture but I actually think it's everywhere. Our penultimate fear in life is emotion. We're terrified of emotion because it makes us feel vulnerable. If we show somebody what we really feel. What really matters to us. They might not like us. They might laugh at us. They might use it against us. So we're really afraid of any show of emotion of allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable. But what we're most afraid of is being emotionless. That's terrifying. It's emotion that makes us human. Being emotionless, imagine if your beloved walked by and they might as well be whoever is walking by right now. Like you feel absolutely nothing. It's really terrifying. And that notion of being emotionless? It terrifies us. I'm sure you've seen like those scenes in movies and in books where someone is like, they're walking down a dark alley late at night. And there's a man coming toward them. And his face is expressionless. And he has dead eyes. It's terrifying. I think it's why and what made Harvard Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert say in his brilliant book Stumbling on Happiness. He said indeed feelings don't just matter. Feelings are what mattering means. And the take away is, emotion isn't the monkey wrench in the system. Emotion is the system. If we can't feel emotion we can't make a single rational decision. And in a story as we said, if your reader isn't feeling they're not reading. And what they're feeling is what the protagonist is feeling in the moment on the page as she struggles with that tough story problem. Which brings us to okay, if all story is emotion based, and what pulls us in is the emotion, then what is a story? What are we actually talking about?

Ratings and Reviews


Love this class - Lisa shares a lot of great examples that really explain how to convey depth of emotion without clangy descriptions or hitting the reader over the head. Super helpful!

Gabrielle Reynolds

Lisa Cron is articulate, clear and graphic in talking about things that have been misunderstood in creative writing classes to the detriment of teacher and student - and professional writers. Bringing the reader along on the protagonist's emotional journey is transformative and powerful. Breaking down writing myths and offering in their place techniques that give meaning in story-specific context enables the reader to be included and expanded, rather than feeling left out of the story. Bravo! I learned a great deal. As with her other courses, this one is tops.

Annie Ashdown

Brilliant, just brilliant

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