Tuesday, August 17, 2010

So You Think You Can Write

I’m a huge fan of the TV reality show, So You Think You Can Dance, and the latest season that just ended was truly one of my favorites. The talent among the contestants seemed to far surpass those who appeared in seasons past and so much of the choreography was stunningly creative, moving, and just plain fun. Throughout the season I had two favorites among the contestants, Lauren and Kent, who coincidentally ended up as the final two. By the time the finale arrived, my heart was firmly in Kent’s camp, so much so that I actually voted for the first time since I started watching the show several years ago. The interesting thing about my choice is that I had to admit Kent was slightly less proficient at his art when it came to technical skill and overall performance. Lauren didn’t make a wrong step the entire season. Her performances were all technically perfect with nary a misstep. When it came down to a question of pure skill, she was undoubtedly a better dancer than Kent. Apparently America agreed because she won, and rightfully so. Still, I was disappointed because despite the technical differences, for me Kent was a better dancer.

Why? Because of his passion: his goofy faces, his aw-shucks-down-home honesty, the raw emotion he put into his performances and interviews, and his very obvious, very passionate love for his craft. He is a talented and skillful dancer who demonstrated incredible grace and versatility with every performance. His performances made me smile, they made me cry, they made me rewind and watch them over and over again (I can’t bring myself to delete the show where he and Neil performed the Travis Wall routine about the two friends and I’ve watched it dozens of times). Kent might not have been as technically perfect as Lauren—due to his small stature, lifts were sometimes awkward for him and communicated far ahead of time—but they were always heartfelt, soulful, and stirring. In contrast, Lauren’s performances were fun for me to watch—she’s adorably cute, has some smoldering sex appeal, and her moves were almost always technically perfect. But that was the problem—it all felt technical. It felt sterile and unemotional. She didn’t make me laugh, or cry. Nor did I feel compelled to rewind and watch again. So while I will admit she is a slightly better technical dancer than Kent at this point in their lives, I’d prefer to watch Kent perform—gaffes and all—any day of the week.

Why does all this matter and what does it have to do with writing? Well, I’ve discovered I am more than willing to forgo technical perfection in exchange for a little more meaning, emotion, and soul in my art. Any book I read that taps into my emotional side will likely be more enjoyable for me, even if the craft isn’t executed with technical perfection. In fact, I likely won’t notice some of the gaffes because I’m so enthralled with the story, and if I do notice them, I typically shrug them off. I’m much more likely to ignore the occasional clunky sentence, or misused word, or grammar goof if the story grabs my emotional lapels and pulls me up close. I think this emotional element is why certain books (The DaVinci Code, Twilight, Harry Potter) take off and achieve phenomenal success despite less than stellar prose.

It’s a lesson to keep in mind with my writing. I strive to find ways to deliver that emotion and passion, to my readers. I want to stir them, move them, make them think, laugh, and cry. I want to grab them by the lapels and get in their faces, but also leave them feeling satisfied and fulfilled when I finally let them go. I want them to feel that their artful souls have been nourished. I want them to be entertained. Yet “entertained” is considered a dirty word by some in the literary world.

So for me, the challenge is in figuring out how to tap into my readers’ emotions. I know I’m not a great literary writer. I know I often use the wrong form of the verb lay. I know I occasionally think a word means something it doesn’t. I know I have an unexplainable love affair with em dashes that drives my copyeditor crazy. The key is in learning to strengthen and overcome these weaknesses, but also to keep my readers enthralled, involved, and yes...entertained so they’ll overlook my gaffes and come away from their reading experience feeling content and fulfilled.

So my question to the rest of you writers out there is: do you think this emotional element is key? And if so, what do you do to achieve it?