My Emotional Education: On Reading Romance and Naming Feelings

Lately, my son has been practicing performing feelings. “Show me happy,” we’ll say to him. “Show me surprised.” Angry. Sad. Tired. Because he’s so excited to get the answers right, we play this game a lot. We’ve been choosing books that help him identify what he, or perhaps someone else, is feeling. The Feelings Book and Happy Hippo, Angry Duck have been popular choices in our house. While it’s fun to see him engaging with this, I can’t help but draw correlations with my own reading life, with my own emotional education. And when I get down to it, it’s reading romance that has helped me see the place in literature for naming feelings.

I was brought up in the literary fiction tradition. It was the focus in my MFA program, and for a long time, I bore the mantle of literary fiction as superior to all others. But as time has passed and I’ve come to know myself better as both a reader and a writer, I find myself craving joy, hope, love, and fun. I have to go where my passions (ha) take me—and that’s right on over to Romancelandia.

Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman in Love, Actually

feelings

You remember when Emma Thompson’s character in Love, Actually credits Joni Mitchel with teaching her, Alan Rickman’s “cold English wife,” how to feel? Joni Mitchell was Emma Thompson’s romance novel, fictionally speaking. A romance novel is the love story between two characters who must battle against challenges in order to develop their lasting and lovely relationship. And while external conflicts, of course, abound, the inner life is paramount in the development of a love story because FEELINGS.

Furthermore, it’s not only a story based on feelings—it’s a story that names feelings, which still feels revolutionary to me. In my MFA program, I had an instructor who would write FAT in the margins of my stories. FAT stood for feelings, actions, thought (as in, you need to include those here). But feelings are hard to write about. Feelings are gushy, warm, blobby things that make us act in ways that may or may not be rational, or sensible. Feelings are so…feely. You know why Mr. Darcy is all freaked out that he’s falling for Elizabeth Bennett? Because those are FEELINGS and he can’t vanquish them. Insensible things that they are, FEELINGS win the day. Even still, when I see a character engage with their feelings on the page, it feels more shocking to me than any sex scene I could read.

But to write them? To have a character feel those feelings, articulate them, interact with them, and then ultimately answer to them? Oh man. Even worse. Because it’s easy to get it wrong. It’s easy to take “make an angry face” and be unconvincing, or too ragey. Feelings are messy. But let’s face it: they’re also essential.

show me a feeling’s face

And then I see my sweet baby reading his feeling books. I stretch my arms over my head and yawn and say how tired I am, and he comes to me, fakes a yawn, and “makes a tired face.” I’m teaching him about feelings—happy hippo, angry duck—and I’m realizing I need that too. I need to read examples of people naming their feelings, of people being self-aware and critical and hopeful and brave. Because that’s what it ultimately comes down to: the courage to face your feelings. The courage to take characters there and let them feel. The courage to feel it too. As readers, we’re all asking, “show me a [happy, sad, hopeful, angry, disappointed, whatever] face.” And thank goodness, romance authors are all too willing to supply them.

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