A long time ago, I read Old Yeller. I was very young, so I don’t remember much. What I do remember is that it involves a dog, that the author takes great pains to make us like said dog, that the author dwells a great deal on the main human character’s friendship with said dog, and that (spoiler alert!) the dog dies violently at the end.
I vividly recall my reaction to this last bit. I couldn’t handle it. I cried.
The next day, I told my seventh grade teacher that I didn’t like the book. When asked why, I said that it had made me cry. She smiled, then said something that has stuck with me since then: “That means it was a good book.”
I don’t think of Old Yeller as a literary classic, but as children’s books go, it’s fairly well-read. I expect that it has a similar effect on most young readers who put some effort into reading it as it had on me. If it didn’t, we probably wouldn’t still read it.
Although I have forgotten that teacher’s name, her words remain. Perhaps thanks to her, my attitude has flipped. I want to experience art that makes me cry.
I still appreciate fiction that makes me cry. Patrick Rothfuss’s fantasy debut The Name of the Wind is one such work. Despite some structural problems, The Name of the Wind has some of the tightest prose I’ve ever read in a novel. The penultimate chapter explodes the relationship between the two main characters in a deliciously tragic way, and the last chapter is a gorgeous prose poem. Not a single word is wasted in either. When I finished the book, I cried.
This effect is not limited to fiction. The most recent work of art to make me cry was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Probably the best book I’ve read in the past two years, it is a manifesto that addresses the inner demons that plague anyone who creates. He has fought them for years, understands them, and wants you to defeat them. His expression is succinct, poetic, and inspiring. If you make things on a regular basis, read this book. It will help you create. It may also make you cry.
Several films have made me cry. Kurosawa is particularly good at this; the closing scenes of both Seven Samurai and Kagemusha got me, as did the fifteen minute battle scene at the center of Ran. I also sometimes cry when I watch the OK Go music video for “End Love”.
Most people have been stirred to tears at some point or another by movies and books. What about other forms of art?
Years ago, I was a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. I’ve ridden hundreds of roller coasters, but only two have made me cry. The more remarkable one of the two is Busch Gardens Tampa’s Montu. Like all Bolliger and Mabillard-designed coasters, it is smooth and has interesting elements from start to finish. Montu is a unique creature, though. Many coasters feel constrained, as though they were built to be maximally space efficient on some oddly shaped plot of land. Montu was given an enormous footprint, and that gives it a leisurely feel that few coasters give me. Each element feels like it was placed exactly where it would have the most effect, even if that required more track. As a rider, I feel that few concessions were made to space in the layout. It seems likely to me that concessions were made in the other direction. More than any other coaster I’ve ridden, it felt like a pure expression of the designers’ vision. I cried the first time I rode it in the front seat.
Products can also be art. I can think of several that qualify, but my favorite example is the MacBook Pro that I am typing this on. Unlike every Windows laptop I’ve ever owned, the object itself is beautiful. However, the real beauty of this machine is that it works exactly how I expect, all the time, every time. My windows laptops did bizarre things on a regular basis, but in about a year of use, this computer has unpleasantly surprised me exactly once. The people who made it love it, and they want me to love it just as much as they do. When I realized that the first time, I cried.
There are two common threads between all of these things. The first is an emotional connection-I have to care about the same thing that the creator does. The second is skilled craftsmanship-the creator has to love the work as much as I do, and a creator can only love something he or she is proud of.
You don’t make my cry by phoning it in. You don’t make me cry by giving me what I expect. You make me cry by getting a good idea, then buckling down, working hard, and making the most remarkable thing you know how to make.
Today, I read the book Little Bets by Peter Sims. A compact business book, it talks about the power of being willing to fail on a small scale in order to discover ideas that can succeed on a grand scale. The author gives several examples of success stories that came about through making little bets: Starbucks, Chris Rock, Pixar. All of the examples were household names. I’m mildly glad I read it. It had some reasonable ideas. It never made me sit up and take notice. It did not make me cry.
I wanted to cry.
I am typing this on an Apple Macbook Pro. I am listening to OK Go. Earlier on this flight, I read a book on my Kindle, an e-book reader clearly designed by people who love reading books and want me to love it too. All of these things, at one point or another, have made me cry with appreciation.
Make me cry. If you don’t, I’m not buying.