Saturday, August 27, 2016

Zachary Tyler Vickers on Keeping the Reader Engaged

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Zachary Tyler Vickers, author of Congratulations on Your Martyrdom! (Break Away Books), discusses the importance of emotional inflection.

The Literary Twinkie and The Light Switch 

There’s an exercise in John Berger and Jean Mohr’s book, Another Way of Telling, in which participants interpret a photograph of a little girl hugging a doll. The interpretations range: she’s laughing, she’s maternal, she’s spoiled, she’s German. But most (is it her squint?, the wrench of her mouth?) determine she’s crying. Subtleties create the fine lines between our expressions and, therefore, emotions. If we had the audio, maybe we could better discern the little girl’s situation. Maybe not. Because sound, too, can be expressively ambiguous.

The little girl was hungry, by the way. She was trying to eat the doll.

The last story in my collection, Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!, deals with the nuances of audible emotion—the negligible vocal intonations that differentiate the many motivations of crying. Since the primordial ooze-bath, we’ve communicated through inflection. If I cry (say, if I stub my toe, or if the deli runs out of olive loaf even after I’ve called ahead and specifically asked them not to run out of olive loaf) all it would take was an alteration in my pitch or tempo, or even my breathing pattern, to make it sound like laughter.

Allan Gurganus told me that readers should laugh and cry on every page. This is important and daunting. Because stories must escalate. But amplifying emotion can lead to monotonous apathy (and a lack of resonance), or (as Gurganus puts it) “nougat-icky” sentiment.

Sentimentality is a paraphrasing of the heart. It’s the hydrogenated Twinkie of literature—sure it tastes goods, but it’s empty calories. It’s not uniquely human. If you intensify one emotion too much, then you’ve made a longwinded greeting card. E.g. if a sad sack becomes an even sadder sack who, through a series of sad-sacky conflicts, culminates in the saddest sack moment—well, it’s just not very sad. By the time I get to the –est sack moment, I’ve become desensitized and unempathetic. I’ve got one foot out the door.

I want idiosyncratic feeling from my fiction experience. So to create this, for me, I try to disrupt my emotional escalations with a contradictory one.

Think of a light switch—the age-old battle between light and dark. Stand in a pitch-black room too long and your eyes adjust, you get used to the darkness, you get comfortable, you begin to see the shape of the room. The same goes for brightness—you may squint, avert your eyes, but stay long enough and you acclimate, the room becomes less intense. Meaning, if I’m too tear-jerky—or, conversely, too playful—I risk disengaging you because you’ve become accustomed to the room I’ve put you in. But, if I keep flipping the light switch—your eyes never adjust. You remain in the lightest light and the darkest dark because I’m constantly competing emotions. The best joke can come amid a dark circumstance and break tension. A devastating line or admission will vibrate with affecting sobriety among the light.

Why? Because emotions are the frictions of dichotomy. We giggle at funerals, bawl at weddings, laugh when the Grape Stomp Lady Falls or Scarlett Takes a Tumble, and engage in dimorphous expressions—the kind of cute aggression that triggers mothers to bite their babies’ toes and coo, “I love you so much, I could just eat you up!” Contradictions make poignant moments stick to readers’ ribs, or ache from light relief. In this way, the writer works with the nuances of the heart—these subtle tonal intonations—to keep stories fresh, deeply felt, honest, and personal.

In this way, I try to keep the trauma, tragedy, and heartache of the final story in my collection from becoming sentimental, or feeling emotionally stale—and to keep it resonating—by adding competing moments like, “…he dropped trou and bared bony thighs and tight briefs, asking what her protocol was on placing a shampoo bottle up someone else’s butt?”