“Ecstatic Moments and How to Destroy Them” by Donna Glee Williams

Donna Glee headshotOdyssey graduate and Odyssey Online instructor Donna Glee Williams was born in Mexico, the daughter of a Kentucky farm-girl and a Texas Aggie large-animal veterinarian. She’s been a lot of places; now she makes her home in the mountains of western North Carolina, but the place she lived the longest and still calls home is New Orleans. These days, she earns her daily bread by writing and helping other writers bring their creative visions to light, but in the past she’s done the dance as turnabout crew (aka, “maid”) on a schooner, as a librarian, as an environmental activist, as a registered nurse, as a teacher and seminar leader, and for a long stint as a professional student. The craft societies in her novels The Braided Path (Edge, 2014) and Dreamers (Edge, 2016) owe a lot to the time she’s spent hanging out in villages in Mexico, Spain, Iceland, Norway, Croatia, Italy, Israel, Turkey, India, and Pakistan. As a finalist in the 2015 Roswell Short Science Fiction Awards, her short story “Saving Seeds” was performed onstage in Hollywood by Jasika Nicole. Her speculative fiction has been recognized by Honorable Mentions from both the Writers of the Future competition and Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction collection. She earned an MFA and PhD from Louisiana State University, knows how to brain-tan a deer hide, drives a stick-shift, and has eaten roadkill more than once.

**IRONY ALERT: In the tradition of satirical essays like “A Modest Proposal,” Donna Glee offers the exact opposite of the advice you should take to create strong emotional moments in your work.**

An ecstatic moment in writing is a scene in which the emotion or action is so intense that it invites readers to step out of normal reality and into an altered state of consciousness. Ecstatic moments heighten our senses, intensify our experience, fiddle with the flow of time, and connect us to a big, fat Something larger than ourselves. They blow the roof off normality and leave its ruins smoking in the dust.

Writers approaching ecstatic moments in their stories can be scared by their power and mystery. To prevent an appalling sensation of authorial loss of control, you’ll want to undercut these moments of peak passion wherever possible. Otherwise, you may wind up feeling like you’re kayaking whitewater without a paddle. As an editor, I’ve discovered many techniques for chipping away at ecstatic moments, so that you can get past them as if nothing important is happening in your story at all.

1. Use words or images that carry connotations running counter to the emotion you are creating. Use a soft, squishy image in the middle of a hard, sharp-edged scene. Use brisk, business-like words in the midst of tenderness. This particular strategy requires you to stay aware of connotations, the baggage that a word or image drags around with it from its history. The ways a word has been used in the past cling to it like a sort of persistent semantic body-odor. Keep your antennae alert to these verbal pheromones and you will be able neutralize any emotional impact that may rise up in your work.

2. Use equivocating language whenever possible. “Almost” and “nearly” are my personal favorites to de-fang what might otherwise turn out to be a strong statement. “Usually” is good, too. Be evasive. Hedge. Shilly-shally. Hem and haw, because, hey, you don’t want to be caught in any statement that might be a hair’s breadth off of 100% accurate. Sit on the fence. Pussyfoot around any direct assertion. Simple, straightforward declaratives are your enemy here. Never, ever commit.

3. Use language that invites intellectual rather than emotional engagement. Big ole complex sentences, long ones with dependent clauses that would look like nuclear power plants if you diagrammed them—that’s what you’re going for here. Also, lots of overweight polysyllables with Latin or Greek etymologies—you want to steer clear of short, punchy words with Anglo-Saxon roots that might drop people down into their root chakras before they know what hit ’em. The point is to aim high—keep people up in their heads and out of their bellies and you can pretty much kiss your ecstatic moment goodbye. Fend off anything that smacks of poetry.

4. Use observing words, like “I thought” and “I sensed,” to keep experience at arm’s length. This is really no different than what your meditation teacher said about simply watching your emotions float by without getting involved in them. The brain areas involved in observing your feelings are up in your cool, calm prefrontal neocortex; the ones involved in actually experiencing those feelings are in the older, “lizard-brain” structures, the ones we want to keep clear of when we are attenuating an ecstatic moment. “Aim high” is the goal here, too—keep people thinking, way up in the neocortex, not rooting around down in the limbic system.

5. And finally, if an ecstatic moment does creep into your writing, you can always emasculate it by going on as if it never happened. Ride right past it. Just let your characters ignore it. Let it sink under the pages that follow it and be lost, leaving no ripples on waters of your story. If it has no consequences, it didn’t really matter after all. Ignore it and it will go away.

So. I hope this short overview leaves you with some useful tools for diluting the emotional impact of your ecstatic moments. If that’s what you want to do.

(I want to thank Patricia Lee Gauch, one of the planet’s great editors and teachers, for adding the concept of the ecstatic moment to my vocabulary.)


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