The Taming of the Prose

by Allyson Armistead August 29, 2012

When to Rein in Emotion, When to Let it All Hang Out

Early on in my writing pursuits, I was told by an esteemed professor: “don’t wear your heart on your sleeve; you’ll kill your writing.” And, as anyone would do, I piped up and asked “well why not? I want my readers to know this emotion,” to which my professor replied, “because too much of anything renders nothing at all.”

It was a profound thing to say, particularly from a petite British woman with tiny hands and feet and an overly manicured wardrobe. However, she had a point: overly wrought fiction—raw, unfiltered, untamed—deters readers from the intent of our writing. It seems a simple enough premise—to render a scene with full power, you must provide the opposite qualities of restraint, minimalism, and control. To do otherwise breaks the spell of authenticity, which, in fiction, breaks it all together.

This never rang more true for me than when I listened to a colleague read a short story about a girl (thinly disguised as herself) who endured the traumatic tri-fecta of a break up, a robbery, and a subsequent unwanted pregnancy—all at the hands of the same charming, Italian motorcyclist. The story was raw, fast-paced—I don’t remember my colleague inhaling once during her reading—and bordered on the absurd. What seemed to be a serious story—as evidenced by the earnestness on my colleague’s face—was circus like, unreal, intangible. The story seemed to require my empathy, and yet I felt none. It wasn’t the subject material or the character arc of a girl struggling to overcome a series of unfortunate events; rather, it was the raw, unprocessed manner of its writing. The story was a subconscious outpouring of events that were too close to the writer; listening to the piece was like watching someone undress through a large window, or reading a diary entry of a soul suffering. The prose was raw and still bleeding, and the lack of restraint, however genuine, rendered an experience that was too fresh to earn emotion. That’s not to say that I did not feel great compassion for the writer of the initial outpouring, but that I did not feel that the story—as a story—earned my empathy.

This brings us all—as readers and writers—to an important crossroads: what is the purpose of fiction? What is the benefit of a raw outpouring of emotion versus a restrained, polished story? Do they each have a place in the greater scheme of art and humanity? Can one consider one “art” and the other “personal expression?”

In a strange way, I can’t help but think of cats and children in this situation. Go with me here. I’ve always noticed that children and cats are most drawn to people who are calm, composed, almost coldly objective; it’s almost as though the collected disposition of these individuals—as opposed to, say, their more effervescent, emotional counterparts—is more mysterious, attractive, authentic. It’s an odd comparison, but I wonder if the same can be said of the calm, dispassionate story, one whose restraint in writing about, say, war—the way Chang-rae Lee does in the The Surrendered—renders an experience that is more powerful, intriguing, and memorable because it holds its reigns in tight, takes a stiff upper lip, and relays a painful story through layers of detached, beautiful objectivity. Then again, we are not cats or children—we are readers—but the comparison is an interesting one.

Regardless, I do find that I cannot arrive at a polished narrative without first pouring out a jumbled, childish mess of character and image and a hint of a story. The personal outpouring is part of my writing process—and is always necessary. It is what I call the “dream state,” where I think up fanciful things, let them scream and dance and tear out their hair, and then—after a good while—I put them all on the so-called psychiatrist’s chair and figure them out, ask them questions, mold and shape their beastly little beings into collected specimens whose tamed fire and emotions are always just under the surface, but never the surface itself. In this way, the initial outpouring—untamed, wild—is without question essential to my storytelling. 

Allyson Armistead
Allyson Armistead


Allyson Armistead is a graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and has contributed writing to Narrative Magazine, Bellingham Review, Ruminate, Coal City Review, and A River and Sound Review, among others. Her short story “Oasis” was awarded the 2011 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. She writes and lives in the Washington, DC metro area with her husband and young daughter. You can visit her website at and on Twitter @AllyArmistead1.

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