Books on lifestory writing uniformly suggest including personal reactions to events in your stories. (Please understand that that I make this blanket statement based on my own memory, without rechecking the dozen plus volumes on my shelf.) I was recently involved in a lively and enlightening discussion of this matter with a group of students.
One student encouraged another to include at least a brief explanation of personal feelings and responses in stories covering content that would normally evoke an intense emotional reaction. “When you don’t tell us your reaction, you seem sort of detached or dispassionate. I can’t believe these situations didn’t affect you somehow. I’m looking for that information.”
Another student took a different view, pointing out that many people don’t typically express these views when they talk of the experience, so it would be out of character to include them in written accounts. “People will come to their own conclusions about how they feel about these situations.”
Both of these astute observations are valid. Reporting feelings is a personal decision, and one that can only be made by the writer. If you don’t report your own feelings and reactions, readers are likely to attribute their reaction to you. This may not accurately reflect your experience. Perhaps the best guideline is to consider the result you want to achieve. If it matters to you that people understand how you felt, you must tell them. If it doesn’t matter, then follow your natural inclination.
Also, when you talk about your experiences, facial expression and body language indicate how you felt, so people sense your reaction even though you don’t specifically tell it. If they wonder, they can ask when you’re talking in person.
It needn’t take more than a few words to include reactions. For example, many years ago my husband and I climbed Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire. On the way back down, ascending hikers began warning us that there was a dead man down the trail. About twenty minutes later we finally rounded a bend and found a sturdy hiker collapsed on the ground beside the trail. His skin was gray, but otherwise he looked as if he were merely asleep. Several hikers were keeping watch over the body, waiting for the family and park officials to arrive.
I could leave the description at that, and let you experience your own reaction. Or, I could write about my intense anxiety upon seeing this youthful and apparently healthy looking man lying dead beside the trail, or tell you how excited I was to see an actual dead body, or report the awe I felt at seeing an aura hovering above the body, or how I had to step to the side of the trail and hope nobody saw me lose my lunch…I could, but each of those reactions was fabricated for effect. In truth, the memory remains sobering nearly twenty years later, and it served as a wake-up call to the fragility of life.
You can see that it didn’t take many words to convey each of those sample reactions, and you see that many reactions are possible. If it mattered to me that you know how I personally felt, I’d have to tell you myself, rather than relying on the accuracy of your assumptions.
Are you naturally inclined to include your feelings and reactions? Try looking at stories you’ve written about intense events and consider whether adding more feelings would give readers a better sense of your nature. On the other end, are you including so much emotional content that other details of the story get lost? Balance is something to strive for.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal