Writing Emotion: The Craft of H IS FOR HAWK, by Helen Macdonald

Today in my craft post, I’m going to talk about a straightforward skill… while referencing a book that’s wonderfully un-straightforward.

H Is for Hawk is a memoir by Helen Macdonald that weaves together several threads, the three biggest of which are: her experience of training a northern goshawk; her analysis of T. H. White’s memoir about training a northern goshawk; and her grief following the death of her father. In terms of balance and weaving, it’s beautifully done. In terms of psychological insight, it feels searingly true. And in terms of the expression of emotion, it’s stunning.

It’s also an uncomfortable book at times, in ways that recommend it. And it’s a fascinating memoir for a fiction writer to read while thinking about how to write character. H Is for Hawk left me with a lot of questions, for the book and for myself.

If you just want the straightforward writing lesson, which is on the topic of writing emotion, jump ahead to the *** below. If you’re interested in a fiction writer’s thoughts about memoir, read on.

I sat down to read H is for Hawk because a friend had described its structure and I was intrigued. I’m not a memoir writer; it’s far too personal a style of writing for me. But I like to read books that differ greatly from my own writing, and I especially like to learn to write from them. After all, the more a book diverges from your own writing, the more it can stretch you into a broader perspective of what’s possible. I was curious about what a memoir that weaves separate but related threads could teach me about writing a work of fiction that weaves separate but related threads; but I was also curious about what it could teach me that I didn’t know about yet.

Here are some of the unexpected questions that arose for me while reading this book:

In terms of writing character (if one can use that word with a memoir, and I believe one can; more on that later), what are the differences between memoir and fiction?

For example, what advantages does the memoir writer have? Does a reader come to a memoir with a greater willingness to believe in a character than they bring to the reading of fiction? A fiction writer often has to go through a lot of contortions to keep a character believable while also fulfilling the necessities of the plot. Push the character’s behavior too far outside the characterization you’ve so carefully established, and the behavior becomes unbelievable. The reader is left thinking, “I don’t believe they would actually do that.”

In contrast, in a memoir, a character is an actual person. They did what they did. The memoir writer reports what they did and we believe it, because it’s a memoir. Any “unbelievable” behavior consequently brings power with it: amusement, surprise, shock value. (This is not to minimize the work it requires to make any character in any kind of book engaging. I don’t mean to suggest that a memoir writer has an easy job creating character, only that they may have a believability advantage.)

Okay then, what advantages does the fiction writer have when writing character? Well, the fiction writer can make shit up; that’s a pretty huge advantage. The fiction writer also generally doesn’t have to worry about getting sued for defamation of character :o).

Another huge advantage: Though it’s true that as a fiction writer I sometimes encounter readers who mistakenly assume I’m like my characters, for the most part, fiction readers remember that fiction is made up. This means that the fiction writer is unlikely to be accused of having done the things their characters did, or judged for that behavior. In contrast, a memoir writer writing about her own actions is opening herself to all kinds of very personal judgment. All writing requires courage and involves exposure… But this takes things to a whole other level! Fiction writers have some built-in emotional protections that I tend to take for granted, until I read a memoir and remember.

This leads me to another question that arose while reading this book: What is the place of the memoir reader when it comes to judging the people inside the memoir? For example, Helen Macdonald writes a compassionate but blistering exposé of T. H. White in this book. It’s an exposé that T. H. White wrote first; anyone can learn from White’s own memoir that he was heartbreakingly, sometimes sadistically abusive to the goshawk he trained. But Macdonald presents it anew, and she presents it with an analysis of White’s psychology that shows us more about White than he ever meant us to know. She shows us the abuse, familial and societal, that brought White to this place. She shows us his heartbreak, failures, and shame. White feels like an integrated, complete person in this book.

But also, she shows us what she wants to show us — she shows us the parts of White that fit into her own book, about her own experiences. She’s the writer, and this is her memoir. To be clear, I don’t mean this as a condemnation — I’m not accusing her of leaving things out or misrepresenting White! This is a part of all book-writing. You include what matters to the rest of your book. Everything else ends up on the cutting room floor. As far as I know, Macdonald did a respectful and responsible job of incorporating T. H. White into her book, and I expect she worked very hard to do so. I believe in the T. H. White she showed us. But I think it’s important to remember this part of the process when reading any memoir. Even when a writer is writing about themselves, their book has plot and themes, it has content requirements. There’ll always be something specific the writer is trying to convey, about themselves or anyone else, and there’ll always be stuff they leave out. No book can contain a whole person.

Personally, when I read memoir (and biography and autobiography), I consciously consider the people inside it to function as characters. It’s hard to read H Is for Hawk and not come away with some pretty strong opinions about T. H. White. But I keep a permanent asterisk next to my opinions, because White was a real, living person, but I only know him as a character in this book. No matter how many books I read about him (or by him), I’ll always be conscious of not knowing the whole person.

As a fiction writer, I find all of this fascinating. I think it’s because I see connections between how hard it is to present a compelling character study of a real person and how hard it is to create a believable character in fiction. What are the differences between a memoir writer who’s figuring out which part of the truth matters, and a fiction writer who’s creating a fiction that’s supposed to invoke truth? Also, I’m fascinated by how much all of this lines up with how hard it is to understand anyone in real life. How well can we ever know anyone? How much can we ever separate our own baggage from our judgments of other people? There’s a third person getting in the way of my perfect understanding of T. H. White: me.

Next question: How does a writer (of memoir or fiction) make a character ring true to the reader? How does the writer make the character compelling and real?

A writer as skilled as Macdonald knows how to bring her characters, human or hawk, alive for the reader. One way she does this is by keeping her characterizations always in motion. White is many, many things — kind and cruel, sensitive and sadistic, abused and despotic. Macdonald’s hawk, Mabel, is also constantly growing and changing. Mabel is a point of personal connection for Macdonald, but she’s also always just out of reach. And of course, Macdonald herself is a character in the book. Macdonald lays bare her own successes, failures, oddities, cruelties, kindnesses, insights, ambivalences, and delights, and lets us decide. Personally, as I read, I felt that I was meeting a human of sensitivity and compassion; an anxious person whose need for both solitude and connection was starkly familiar to me; someone consciously composed of contradictions; a person of deep feeling who cares about what matters; a grieving daughter; a person I can relate to. Or should I say, a character I can relate to? Having read this book, I don’t presume I know Helen Macdonald.

Here’s something I do know about Helen Macdonald though: She’s a damn good writer. In particular, as I read, I kept noticing one specific thing she does so well that it needs to be called out and shown to other writers.


All page references are to the 2014 paperback published by Grove Press.

Okay, writers. When it comes to writing a character’s emotion, there’s a certain skill at which Helen Macdonald excels. Namely, she conveys emotion via action.

Put differently: rather than describing an emotion in words, Macdonald shows us a behavior, one so meaningful that we readers feel the associated emotion immediately.

Here’s an example. For context, Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly one March, throwing her into a deep and unexpected grief. Listen to this description of one of the things that happened next:

“In June I fell in love, predictably and devastatingly, with a man who ran a mile when he worked out how broken I was. His disappearance rendered me practically insensible. Though I can’t even bring his face to mind now, and though I know not only why he ran, but know that in principle he could have been anyone, I still have a red dress that I will never wear again. That’s how it goes.” (17)

While there is some effective emotional description here — like when she’s rendered practically insensible — the real punch in this passage is the red dress. Macdonald tells us that there’s a red dress she’ll never wear again, and immediately I get it. I get that the identity of the man is irrelevant; what’s relevant is the passion she had for another person and how it connected to her grief, and I feel that passion and grief because there’s a red dress she’ll never wear again. I can see the dress, hidden away in the back of her closet. I don’t have a dress like that, but I could. I get it.

Here’s another moment. This one takes place at a much later point, when Macdonald has been grieving for a long time and is finally noticing that she’s capable of happiness again:

“But watching television from the sofa later that evening I noticed tears running from my eyes and dropping into my mug of tea. Odd, I think. I put it down to tiredness. Perhaps I am getting a cold. Perhaps I am allergic to something. I wipe the tears away and go to make more tea in the kitchen” (125).

It’s hard to write about tears in a way that doesn’t feel like a cliché shorthand for sadness, grief, catharsis, whatever you’re trying to get across in that moment. Macdonald succeeds here. This dispassionate report of tears conveys what Macdonald needs to convey: that grief is layered; that a person can have many feelings at once; that sometimes your body knows what’s going on before the rest of you does; that when you’re grieving, sometimes happiness brings with it a tidal wave of sadness. But imagine if Macdonald had listed all those things I just listed, instead of telling us about her tears dropping into her tea. Her way is so much better, and it conveys the same information!

Let me be clear, it’s not bad to describe emotion. In fact, it’s necessary in places. You need to give your reader an emotional baseline so that they’ll know how to contextualize how plot points feel for the character. But if you can find a balance between emotional description and the thing Macdonald is doing here — using action to convey emotion — it will gives the emotion in your writing a freshness, an impact, a punch that you can’t get from description alone. It will also give the reader more opportunities to engage their own feelings — to feel things all by themselves, rather than merely understanding what’s being felt by the character.

It’s hard to write emotion. It’s especially hard to figure out non-cliché ways to explain how a character feels. Sometimes it’s fine to use a known shorthand or a cliché. Sometimes it’s fine to use emotional description. You want a mix of things. But Macdonald’s book reminds me that whenever I can, I want to look for ways to use plot to convey feeling. Show what my character does in response to a stimulus. Let the reader glean the emotions from behavior. Your character is happy? Show us what they do with their body. How do they stand, how do they walk? Does it make them generous? Does it make them self-centered and oblivious? Remember that an “action” doesn’t have to be something physically, boisterously active. If you’re writing a non-demonstrative character, it’s not going to ring true if they start flinging their arms around or singing while they walk down the street. But maybe instead of “feeling ecstatic,” they sit still for a moment, reveling in what just happened. Maybe instead of “feeling jubilant,” they listen to a song playing inside their own head. Internally or externally, show us what they do.

Here’s Macdonald describing her childhood obsession with birds:

“When I was six I tried to sleep every night with my arms folded behind my back like wings. This didn’t last long, because it is very hard to sleep with your arms folded behind your back like wings.” (27)

I can feel the devotion to birds. She doesn’t just love birds; she wants to be a bird.

Macdonald goes on to report that as a child, she learned everything she possibly could about falconry, then shared every word of it, no matter how boring, with anyone who would listen. Macdonald’s mother was a writer for the local paper. Here’s a description of her mother during the delivery of one of Macdonald’s lectures:

“Lining up another yellow piece of copy paper, fiddling with the carbons so they didn’t slip, she’d nod and agree, drag on her cigarette, and tell me how interesting it all was in tones that avoided dismissiveness with extraordinary facility.” (29)

What an endearing depiction of a mother’s love for her tedious child :o).

And here’s a scene that takes place at a country fair, where Macdonald has agreed to display her goshawk, Mabel, to the public. Macdonald is sitting on a chair under a marquee roof. Mabel is positioned on a perch ten feet behind her. There are so many people at the fair, too many people for the likes of both Macdonald and Mabel:

“After twenty minutes Mabel raises one foot. It looks ridiculous. She is not relaxed enough to fluff out her feathers; she still resembles a wet and particoloured seal. But she makes this small concession to calmness, and she stands there like a man driving with one hand resting on the gear stick.” (206)

Oh, Mabel. I get the sense that when it comes to the writer’s need to convey emotion, Mabel is a challenging character. Macdonald does such a wonderful job creating a sense of the gulf between a human’s reality and a hawk’s reality, the differences in perception and priority. But she also gives us moments of connection with Mabel. Since Mabel is a bird, these moments of connection are almost always described through Mabel’s behavior.

I wonder if Macdonald’s intense connection with the non-human world, and with hawks in particular, is partly what makes her so good at noticing behaviors and gleaning their emotional significance? And then sharing it with us, the lucky readers.

That’s it. That’s my lesson: When you’re trying to convey feelings, find places where an action or behavior will do the job.

And read H Is for Hawk if you want an admirable example of writing emotion! Also, Helen Macdonald has a new book, just released: Vesper Flights. I’m in.

Reading like a writer.