I’ve been teaching the personal essay this quarter in my workshop. We’ve talked about the difference between telling a story and writing a story. In telling, the narrative benefits from gestures and facial expressions: that’s a big part of how we convey emotion. In writing we only can use what we put down on paper to get our emotion across into the mind of our reader. So we’ve discussed finding ways to convey emotion in writing that don’t simply say, “I’m sad.” Which frankly doesn’t do much, except to make the reader sad that the writer couldn’t find some better way to convey her sorrow.
We talked about the good old objective correlative; this is from T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Hamlet and his Problems”:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
In the book I’m finishing now, on Haiti, I try to find an objective correlative for the pain Haitians were feeling about the terrible loss, capricious and arbitrary, that the earthquake inflicted on the country. When I say “I try to find” the objective correlative, that’s inexact, because what really happens is that such images come to me, visually, intact from memory, and I put them on the page, and they become a way to evoke an emotion, in this case, loss, I hope. Here’s a quote from one of the first chapters:
Now, ridges and crests of cement-block rise and fall underfoot, as well as garbage, refuse, junk, and sucking mud. Nothing is recognizable. Landmark buildings, so important for orienting oneself in this crowded and complicated city, have come down, leaving all of us lost and disoriented. In one neighborhood, I came across the remains of a little Haitian bank. They are really numbers places, lottery shacks, called borlettes, in Creole. This one, with its yellow and blue sign, was called Solution Borlette. It was lying in the dust, flattened in such a way that it seemed as if — were you to pull it up from the side — it would stand right up again, like a child’s paper construction. The name seemed resonant.
So that the beaten defeated bank with its cheerful name and colors becomes a little signpost of pain, I hope, for my readers.