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Tears on the Page—On Writing and Crying

Yesterday morning I cried over a book’s ending. I’m talking wet cheeks, sobs that were more like gasps for breath, and needing to blow my nose. Crying ugly, as it’s aptly called.

While that sinks in, let me assert that I consider myself fairly open online, particularly in this forum. Here among my fellow WU writers, I’m fairly confident that most of you are unsurprised by my admission. And I consider myself pretty comfortable with my masculinity. And yet…

Boys Don’t Cry

I almost chickened out on this post. I started it yesterday, and then set it aside. But as such things often go for me, once the idea bored its way into my brain, it could only be purged by writing. As I explored my discomfort, it started to seem silly. I mean, we talk about crying all of the time. Heck, you can hardly find an online thread about This Is Us without someone mentioning all of the tissues that show is selling. And yet talking about my own tears over a story is unsettling. Why is that?

I guess it’s partly the whole macho thing. I saw one study that concluded that women cry a bit over twice as often as men (around 4 occurrences per month for females versus 1.5/month for males). And there seems to be some debate about how much the disparity can be attributed to nature versus nurture. Is it physiological (since the mere presence of female tears has been shown [1] to correlate with a measured reduction in male aggression and sexual arousal)? Or is it our upbringing (I clearly recall a junior high gym teacher who routinely told any male who shed a tear to, “Suck it up, Sally”)?

I suspect it’s a combination, but if there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that the older I get, the more often I cry. I’m also certain that when I first met my wife, we would’ve compared fairly well with the stats I cite above (her being moved to tears about twice as often as I was). I actually used to tease her that a good commercial could make her cry.

These days I give her a real run for the money.

Maybe it’s simply that I spend less time in the company of men. Maybe I just don’t give a damn if anyone calls me Sally anymore (after all, I’ve come to know as many or more admirable women as men). But I think there’s something else at work, as well.

Since I started writing, I actually seek out the kinds of experiences that move me to tears.

The Tears of Writerly Success

It’s a not-so-hidden secret that many (if not most) of us count hearing that a reader was moved to tears as a success. I know I do. Although it’s not something we go around high-fiving over or bragging about, my recent experience made me wonder. Do I really seek to make people cry?

It’s sort of a weird question to have to ask oneself, isn’t it? I mean, why would anyone set out to evoke tears? And yet, comedians openly seek to evoke laughter. No one thinks that’s weird. Isn’t laughter a similar human response to stimulus, if perhaps at the other end of the spectrum? But maybe that’s the problem. Laughter is usually associated not just with amusement, but with happiness, joy, celebration. Though there are tears of joy, crying is obviously more closely associated with heartache, sadness, and even grief. Hardly the sort of emotions to high-five each other for evoking, right?

Are you curious which book I’m referring to at the top of the page? Answer: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. If you haven’t read it, move it to the top of your TBR pile, stat. If you have, you almost certainly understand where I’m coming from. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s about French sisters during the Nazi occupation in WW2.

The book delves some almost unspeakable horror. There is resentment and suffering, shame and regret, loss and grief. But there’s also heroism—both of the type some people reflexively jump into, and the more quite type, from people who are pushed to find their courage. Most importantly, it’s about the power of hope and love.

And yes, I suppose some of the tears I shed were due to the loss and grief. But mostly they were shed during the overwhelmingly uplifting final twenty or so pages. They were more for the triumph than the loss.

For me, it was the sort of book that I didn’t want to say goodbye to. It was midmorning when I finished it, and I’m not sure how long I sat there in my armchair—sorting my feelings, finding my own personal associations, thinking about the story’s relevance to my life and to today’s world. Only my wife’s arrival for lunch forced me to move on with my day.

Heavy stuff. And I’m grateful for it. Though I doubt I’ll high-five Hannah if we ever meet. Well, maybe… (This story is really masterfully told.)

No Tears in the Writer…

Having admitted to my increasing tendency to shed tears, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I also often make myself cry while writing. So after I finished Nightingale, and was pondering the topic, I was interested in Hannah’s take on tears. When this interviewer from Book Circle [2] asked her if she cried while writing, she said, “You know, it’s interesting, I get asked that a lot. And I’ve written a lot of books that have sad elements in them, and generally I don’t. But this particular book, no matter how many times I read it, the last fifty or seventy-five pages were really difficult. Even after I’d reread it a dozen times, it always really affected me. And that’s how I knew that readers were going to respond to it.”

So just to be clear: The Nightingale was the first one that affected her in that way, and it also happened to become a #1 New York Times bestseller, a Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year, and it’s soon to be a major motion picture.

Though I haven’t had Hannah’s level of success, and likely never will, I suppose I hope I can continue to move myself to tears while I write.

Reaction/Release/Relief

catharsis /kəˈTHärsəs/ noun 1. the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.

As I said, I did a lot of thinking as I sat in my arm chair after finishing the book, and then during my first attempt at this post. I thought about why I seek out such experiences, and perhaps more interestingly, why I would want to seek to provide them for others. The word catharsis came to mind. When I am moved by a story, it leaves me not just thinking but feeling. And I would definitely include the word relief in describing those feelings.

Research suggests that crying does indeed make us feel better afterwards (though it can take time, up to 90 minutes from the onset according to one study). But what I’m talking about seems bigger than that. Even the phrase, “it moved me,” is telling. When such emotions are evoked, we are moved—to a new perspective, a new level of empathy, perhaps even to a new, and deeper, understanding.

I also like the word process in the definition above. It feels like a process, doesn’t it? A cathartic cry can feel like processing the very essence of the human experience. And we humans tend to share experiences, don’t we? Indeed, the impulse to share is part of what makes us human. Even a funeral is a sort of shared catharsis. Sharing tears is one of the most profound ways we humans have to say, “I understand; I am with you; I share your deepest emotions.”

And think about this: humans are the only animal known to shed tears in response to emotion. Tear-shedding is one of the things that defines us as human.

So, getting back to my question, do I actually seek to evoke tears? My answer is no—not technically. But I do seek to explore deep emotions, and to move readers to a new perspective, and to leave them thinking and feeling, and applying my work to their own circumstance. I do seek to evoke a reaction. And if I’m able to evoke a reaction that requires a release, I hope that the result provides relief.

Tears are just a byproduct. But they are the most human sort of evidence that I’ve connected.

What about you? Major Weeper here wants to know. Do you meet the national average for crying? Do you make yourself cry while you work? Do you seek to make your readers cry? Let’s share a catharsis in the comments.

[Image is: Don’t Cry, My Love, by Axel Naud @ Flickr [3]]

About Vaughn Roycroft [4]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.