A Farewell to the Lowly Exclamation Point
July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dana Shavin
A few years ago, I went to a writing conference in Arkansas. It was a thrilling week that put me in the same room as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, and authors Pico Iyer, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Heidi Julavits, and Wells Tower, to name just a few. My days were structured around 7 a.m. Pilates on a bluff, an hour of culinary demonstrations, two hours of panel discussions with authors and editors, and four hours of writing classes. In those four daily hours we discussed our manuscripts-in-progress: everything from the mechanics to the art of writing.
I went to the conference with a heavy heart: lacking only two chapters to finish my book, I had decided, with the clarity of mind specific to writers in the throes of major depression, that it was a failed enterprise. Ten minutes into our first class, our teacher referenced the “crying fetal position” that writers assume at alternating intervals throughout the writing of their books. We all laughed. And apropos of the kind of comfort you can only get from fellow desolate souls, I felt better.
One of the more mundane discussions we had was about grammar and word choice. “Never use exclamation points in your writing,” our teacher said. We were to use muscular words instead. “And never, ever liken clouds to cotton candy, even if they have a paper cone sticking out of them.”
I am happy to say I do not use exclamation points in my writing, nor was mine the manuscript with the deadly candy reference. I had, however, misused the word “sentinel.” Also, someone helpfully pointed out that, as a memoirist, I might not want to pepper my manuscript with so many allusions to my terrible memory. All excellent suggestions. However it was the “no exclamation points” rule that got me thinking. And not just about writing, but about the aforementioned heaviness of heart.
Our teacher wasn’t advising against excitement, passion, delight, or sorrow; he was making the case for their eloquent expression. Unfortunately, when I look back over the course of my life, including my writing life, what I see is a vast landscape of exclamation points, punctuating—with no eloquence whatsoever—a vast landscape of misery. I have not lived poorly or for want of anything, and yet there is almost nothing but exclamations to the contrary in the fifty-odd journals lining my bookcase that tell the story of my life from age twelve to yesterday. Along with my teacher’s apt visual of the crying fetal position, a line from Joan Didions’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem stayed with me from the conference: “…I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor…”. My sentiments exactly. Misery might love company, but it’s also enthralled with itself.
I am happy to report that, thanks to the generous feedback of students and teacher alike, I left the conference invigorated, and with my book’s heart beating strongly again in my chest. I read back over the pages I’d been struggling with before I left home, and discovered not weak words thrown together by an unstudied mind—what I called them in the departing hours before the conference—but the carefully spun threads of a real story. How grateful I was for that.
And yet I was aware that I had come to no truly altered place. That there is a false and temporary high that is the result of being in the company of others who understand what you’re going through, whether it’s childbirth or book birth. So although I felt better in that moment, I knew I’d merely exited one roller-coaster and leapt aboard another just starting to gather speed.
In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion said someone suggested to her that, as an antidote to crying, she put her head in a paper bag. The bag regulates oxygen intake, Didion explained, which alone exerts a calming influence. But as she also pointed out, it’s difficult to maintain “any kind of swoon” when you are wearing a bag.
Which is exactly the lesson of the exclamation point, I think. Strong emotions aren’t the enemy: injudiciousness of expression is. This is where I would like to grab myself by the shoulders and shake vigorously, and tell myself in no uncertain terms to get a grip. That no life—and especially no writing life—is dismal, no joy compromised, no sorrow unrelieved, except inasmuch as we sound the wail of misery’s monotone siren, and fail to see the nuances of things.
Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, Psychology Today, The Sun, Bark, The Writer, Fourth Genre, Parade.com, and others. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and her memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career, was published in 2014. A complete list of publications is at Danashavin.com.