As the next residency period for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program draws nearer, I’ve been reading the required materials like a good student. In my packet of readables this time, there are an awful lot of opinions regarding the idea of “sentimentality” in writing, especially poetry.
I’ve grown up as a writer around mentors who use the word “maudlin” disparagingly, and who utter “saccharine” for truly reprehensible sweetness violations in literature. These authors that I am reading, however, issue a valid and worth-repeating maxim to poets and writers alike who fear being too emotional or too feeling-oriented in their writing.
Essentially, all their opinions boil down to this: Use sentimental discernment. That is, if you know that the writing is corny, hokey, cliche, or sugary to the point of nausea, it needs to be edited or omitted totally. However, fearing openness and exposure through one’s literature is equally a handicap to be overcome. Some of these authors state blatantly that modern writers have become so emotionally distant from their work, that it lacks the “heart” that made literature great in the first place. Instead, witty wordplay and smart-aleck irony have become the standard. Poets are deemed cool if they seem to be the writing equivalent of Dirty Harry Callahan.
It’s time to put our emotions back into our work, but it’s time we did so without resorting to the hackneyed devices of yesteryear. Risking sentimentality increases the humanity of our writing, and allows us to reach those who have had similar experiences as well as those who haven’t. Poets don’t need to shoot for greeting card verse, but we also don’t need to shield ourselves by writing solely disinterested observations on life. There’s enough pseudo-philosophy out there right now through memes, tropes, and bumper stickers. Let’s put the heart back into our writing, and history will remember us fondly for doing so.