Moods like Clouds

Speaking in an installment of the English Reading Series, Mary Cappello demonstrated how the essay provides a window into mood and shared an excerpt from her upcoming book.

Mary Cappello 2PROVO, Utah (March 13, 2015)—What determines your mood? Do you feel differently in your bedroom than you do in a classroom? How about the weather: why are some people excited during rainstorms while others are depressed?

For Mary Cappello, award-winning author and professor at the University of Rhode Island, the complexity of moods makes the perfect writing prompt.

Cappello visited Brigham Young University, speaking to creative writing students in a Q&A session and giving a presentation in an installment of the English Reading Series. Cappello’s reading came from an essay set to appear in her upcoming book, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanac, set to be released in fall of 2016.

“I like to write about things that are fundamental to our being but beyond our comprehension,” Cappello said, introducing her essay. Mood, she explained, is one of these things. While experts in psychology, philosophy and other fields agree that mood is a key (if not the key) determinant in how we perceive the world around us, there is no consensus as to how to define it.

Because mood eludes definition, it is a perfect subject of examination for the essay, which lends itself to self-reflection and speculation of the abstract. “Mood wants the essay,” Cappello said, “and the essay inclines toward mood.” She is not the first essayist to realize this; mood has been explored thoroughly and often by some of the most recognized essayists in history, and Cappello has learned much from their work. “Montaigne’s essays were born of a mournful mood . . . but yielded playful inventions. We know that Nietzsche read Montaigne to alter his own mood. Emerson . . . is understood to be a philosopher. Of what? Of moods.”

Cappello pointed to the works of Hans Gumbrecht, professor in literature at Stanford University, as further proof of the natural relationship between mood and the essay. In his book Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On a Hidden Potential of Literature, Gumbrecht argues that the essay is vital to understanding mood. Cappello summarized his approach, saying, “If we want to write or read for mood, we need to yield to it. We need to gesture toward it in a form most suited to its obliqueness and immediacy.”

For her own part, Cappello examines mood by first creating what she calls “mood hints,” or jumping points. Her book is divided into four sections, each one a different channel for exploring mood: rooms, voices, modes and elements. Her reading came from the last of these sections and focused specifically on clouds.

“What’s more difficult?” she asked as she began her reading. “Finding a language for our moods or for the forms that clouds take. Impossible, perhaps, to make a literary form approximating clouds – easier to rustle up atmospheres and call those moods. . . . A world made of clouds isn’t formless – there are ridges and peaks, incommensurate inter-twinings, appositions, and breakings through. Even if there is not density, there is form: a mood is like this: it’s a form without density.”

For more information on upcoming speakers, see the English Reading Series schedule.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)