Should we be dispassionate about writing – like Spock?

The other week I argued that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara was a poorly written Tolkien rip-off that put me off the rest of the novels. Responses fell into two camps – people who agreed and thought the whole Shannara series was dismal; and those who were offended.

Wright_Typewriter2Fair point. People don’t have to agree – indeed, differing opinions are great, because they push discussion. And maybe something nobody thought of will come out of it. That’s what counts. Good stuff.

But what intrigued me about the discussion was the level of emotion it provoked in one or two places. A couple of of the responses were – well, a bit personal. Surely it’s possible to chat about the abstract value or otherwise of books? And then I got thinking. In some ways it isn’t, because the purpose of both reading and writing is emotional.

Authors write because they get an emotional satisfaction from doing so. Readers read because of the emotional journey it produces. By describing the opinion I and apparently others have of Brooks, I’d affirmed one sort of opinion. But I’d also trodden on the toes of others, who got a positive charge from reading his material.

The question, then, is whether writers and readers should step back from the emotion? In some ways I don’t think it’s possible for reading, because the very purpose of reading is to have an emotional experience. People read to become entangled in the emotional journey – be it to learn something, to feel validated, to find place, or simply to be distracted. However, I think it’s essential for writers to step back.

Yes, authors write because they get their own emotional satisfaction from doing so – from producing material that meets a need of their own and which will take others on an emotional journey. But at the same time, the clarity of thought that this process requires demands abstraction. How often have you written something in the heat of a moment and then, later, read through it and realised it’s foolish?

Authors have to be able to not only include the intended emotion, but also to step back from their own entanglements from time to time – to look at what they are producing from a more abstract perspective. Only then can the content and intent become properly clear – and the emotional journey on which they are going to take the reader emerge in balance. Really, we all have to approach writing like Spock would.

Seething with emotion underneath – sure – but not letting that get in the way of careful thought and analysis. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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16 thoughts on “Should we be dispassionate about writing – like Spock?

  1. I merely stated I disagreed with you then; but now I would like to expand. Your article did not condemn his writing or his style. You concluded the story was a simple rip-off of Lord of the Rings.
    One of Terry Brooks first stories was a three or four book collection beginning with “Kingdom for Sale.” I found it a very inventive and unique plot. Since then he has written many books. I find it hard to believe that in all the books he has written he needed to rip off a plot idea to get by. I have always found a read of his book to be simple, straight forward and refreshing. My guess is he writes that way with a young audience in mind, or at a minimum, someone who wants a quick escape.

    I find/found Jordan and Goodkind when I need something with a lot of more meat.

    I would give Mr. Brooks the benefit of the doubt as to where he got his plot idea.
    As to you and the others you refer to who do not find him a good read, my guess is his fan club will not miss you. But you do have a right to you opinion on the value of his work. I would use caution in attacking his integrity.

  2. Could we perhaps rephrase Hemingway’s “Write drunk, edit sober” to “Write emotionally, plan and edit dispassionately”? Because the thing is, I write more easily when I’m emotionally involved. The words just flow better. For that reason I use music to put me in an emotional state before I write. But when the rewriting starts one should perhaps step back. (Also crucial when one reaches the point where others critique the work.)

    1. Sounds good to me – and you’re right! Stepping back is vital. In that sense, it’s amazing how much music can influence mood when writing – and, as you say, maybe not listening to it when editing is as crucial a part of the process.

  3. Oh, I like that… write emotionally, edit dispassionately! As for reading (and reviewing) it is one of the most subjective experiences. What immerses some readers in “engaging and quirky” characters leaves others feeling that those same characters are “shallow and unlikeable.”(Quoting from reviews of my own books here; I’ve learned not to take it personally.) To each their own.

    1. Yes – Herman’s nailed the point in his comment. It’s absolutely true. And you’re right, too, that reading is subjective – but that authors shouldn’t worry! I guess as authors we have our own subjectivity when reading, too – there are plenty of books that others have liked a good deal but which didn’t float my boat.

  4. My assumption is that readers want to see the emotions of the characters, not the author and that old bogeyman ‘author intrusion’ happens when a writer doesn’t use enough restraint.

    As for the Brooks discussion: I haven’t read his books, so can’t comment on the quality. But as a listener of a lot of questionable music, ie rubbish, I wouldn’t make myself look like an idiot trying to defend something I know to be rubbish*, but still enjoy on a personal level. Maybe some people shouldn’t be ashamed to admit they like things that are rubbish. There’s no harm in it.


  5. Yes, when I refer to an ’emotional journey’ I’m referring to the response that the content of a piece of writing generates in a reader. In fiction, that’s definitely going to be the story and the emotions of the characters. Inevitably, authors infuse something of themselves into it – or their intended message, or whatever; but it shouldn’t be obviously intrusive.

    The Brooks references I made were specifically and solely about his ‘Sword of Shannara’, a book published in 1978, following my own observations of it and referencing independent public commentaries which said much the same thing. I suspect some of his fans have taken it as something more general. It’s all a matter of personal taste, of course.

  6. I think it’s true that writer and reader take an emotional journey at both ends of the literary spectrum. I think it’s also critical to remember that both writer and reader are also analytical. The writer must carefully balance emotion with Spock-esque calculation. Not only should the author take the reader on an emotional journey, but the writer must, quite analytically, take the reader on the right emotional journey. If this journey makes sense, the reader’s emotions are released and he/she feels satisfied. Get the “emotional equations” all wrong and the reader will just be annoyed.

    I recently watched a scifi tv-show episode where in the climax, they could merely send this truck, driverless, and the world-destroying energy field would be stopped. Zip-zap. Easy-peasy. But no, a main character insists, “I have to drive the truck. You know it.” Well, no, he didn’t. It was stupid. The script writer was trying to take me on an emotional journey and shed a tear for the heroic sacrifice. But it wasn’t needed, so I didn’t go on that journey. I was just annoyed.

    There’s emotion/analytic thinking happening for both writer and reader. Mostly, it’s up to the writer to keep his head in the game to insure that emotional journey is a satisfying one.

    1. My thoughts precisely!

      I should add – on matters ‘analytic’ and ’emotional’, I’ve ended up doing more math relative to that story we’ve been discussing. Not to drive plot or character but as part of the background. A certain satisfaction in it for me, in personal terms, and one that I hope will pay dividends for readers in subtle ways by giving the setting a cross-checkable ring of authenticity. So there’s an emotional payoff for me, before I’ve even written much of the actual story on which readers, hopefully, will go on a journey…

      1. In the case of scifi, I’ve noted, readers need a journey of science and technology and knowledge as much as the emotional one. Getting that balance right (technological journey vs emotional journey) is tricky because different readers need more or less of the technical stuff. For me, I’m no scientist and most of the math behind orbital mechanics, would go over my head. Still, I have a very clear idea of what the “practical effect” of it is. In a story, I’d like to know how that changes the protagonist’s plans and how he compensates for it. The logic of how all this works must make sense. When it does, it’s awesome for me. There’s a technological solution for nearly everything and how we get there is as important as the emotional journey. So if you’re having fun doing the math, and can explain it in layman’s terms, then us techie fans will enjoy it too.

        1. Thanks! I stand in the shadow of those who did it before me; Clarke and Heinlein especially. Writers whose skill I can only dream of having. If you haven’t already, check out Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. Absolute hard science with a wonderful story wrapped around it.

          1. Loved it. Read it at the age of 16. I started early with hard scifi and never looked back. We all stand in their shadow. They are the giants whose shoulders we stand upon.

  7. Wow! Emotion in writing and reading never fails to stir. Nor should it, I think. To me, it signals the audience is paying attention and writers are doing their best to attract that attention. Yet, I agree the writer must be able to step back if he/she is going to deliver on the emotion. As has been discussed in some of your other articles on writing, distance from and time away from a work does help the writer become more thoughtful and less subjective about a piece of writing. Then, let the games begin as readers agree and disagree. At this point, if the writer has some objectivity, then he/she might actually enjoy the exchange. Wonderful posts, both of these.


    1. Thank you! I think the emotion intrudes in many forms abd at all levels. From the personal – fuelling the motives of a writer – to the more abstract in terms of the emotions they wish to evoke in the reader. Then, if it’s fiction, there are the emotions written into the characters. All of which, to me, adds to the depth and richness of writing as an activity.

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