Stroking It

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Jeff Daniels and listen to his presentation aimed at eager young Theater Majors at Central Michigan University.  He was friendly, gracious, and humble – an all-around nice guy.  Career-wise, he was somewhere between “Terms of Endearment” and “Speed”.

I was somewhere between youthful idealism and life’s first really hard bitchslap, but that’s not really relevant here.

The thing I remember most about his lecture that day was his use of the term emotional masturbation.  I don’t know if he coined the phrase or if he was quoting someone else, but he was referring to “method” acting.  He described the technique of reaching deep down into one’s psyche to pull out old hurts, past painful moments, hellish experiences.  Actors who do this don’t just feel the emotions of the scene; they re-live their agonies for the sake of giving a believable performance.

Emotional Masturbation.  Stroking one’s emotions for the sake of producing a satisfying result.

Believe it or not, I’ve used that phrase many times to describe different people in my life:  the co-workers who tell and re-tell a bad-boss-wronged-me tale, complete with tears; the clients who sit in my chair and work themselves into a breathless, red-faced tirade recalling the hairdresser who once cut off too much or permed too tightly or fried their ends;  the kids who sing a song of woe about the teacher who is supposedly out to get them.

All of them practicing the art of emotional masturbation.

Not to be confused with an Eddie Van Halen masturbatory guitar solo.  Not really relevant here, either, but I’ve waited years for a chance to use the phrase “Eddie VanHalen masturbatory guitar solo”.

I am writing a short story right now in which my main characters are trapped in a dark and terrifying maze.  It’s my attempt at writing mystery and adventure, two genres that are somewhat foreign to me.     In order to get the intense, heart-pounding feeling of being trapped, I’ve been digging down pretty deeply into my own psyche, exploring my claustrophobia.

It’s been exhausting..

I keep finding myself sitting here at the computer with my hands trembling while beads of sweat gather on my upper lip.  My heart pounds and I can’t catch my breath.   My words on the page are striking just the right mood, getting the perfect intensity I was reaching for

It’s good.

It’s emotional masturbation.  Stroking my emotions for the sake of producing a satisfying result.

Some of the best things I have ever written have been those things that came about because of a heck of a lot of that kind of stroking.   Stories for which I relived my mother’s death or my car accident, all for the sake of getting the feelings right on paper.

But . . . is it necessary?

Jeff Daniels dismissed emotional masturbation as unnecessary for producing a believable performance.  He made fun of actors who torture themselves in that manner when the audience really can’t tell the difference.  He described the happy audience leaving the theater to return home, while the poor emotionally-drained actor is left backstage in a puddle of his own self-inflicted misery.

As I devote more of my time to writing, I have to question whether or not I have what it takes to keep tearing into my soul in order to manipulate my readers’ feelings.  Where is the line between drawing from life’s experiences and immersing myself too deeply into those experiences?  I want to write believable, heart-wrenching fiction, but I don’t want to hurt myself to do so.

It’s the whole “write what you know” principle.   The heroine in my romance novel is recovering from a broken neck, and she falls in love with the hero while learning to believe that she is still a worthwhile person despite her new handicap.   She is, of course, far younger and prettier than I am, and the love of her life has a lot more hair than my husband has, but she is “what I know”.  My struggle with this character is to write about her doubts and fears and pain without going through all of it over and over again every time I sit down to write.

I’ve made her injuries less severe and her recovery more complete.  I skipped over the PTSD and depression and made the physical therapy much more sensuous but much less painful.  In the end, I think she’ll be a sympathetic character without being pathetic.  At least, that’s what I’m striving for.

Without emotional masturbation.

Author: A.J. Goode

I am a romance novelist, single mother of three, and a high school lunchlady. To be completely honest, I have no idea which of those jobs is the most rewarding and which is the biggest challenge. I love them all. I write romance novels about the kind of people who might pass me on the street every day. My characters are often hurting in some way, and need to learn to trust others in order to heal themselves. I also blog about trying to focus on writing, and about my day-to-day experiences in small-town America. I write about life. The good, the bad, and the just plain odd.

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