Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"The horror... The horror..."

Today's Tool of the Trade is emotion.  If you’ve ever read something that felt “flat” it’s because the emotional content (if present at all) wasn’t written from the heart.

This morning I’m pondering why Dylan Thomas’s poem came to mind yesterday as I sat to write.  I have been reflecting on the events in DC yesterday but I know there’s nothing I can write that will change anything and everyone has their own opinions and feelings on the matter.

The writer in me explores that event, reflecting on those who were lost but also thinking about those who were not lost, but were out of touch while loved ones worried.  What does that feel like?  What about being there?  Being alright yet unable to let anyone know.  Or not being alright - being terrified that at any moment the barely secured office door could be kicked in and you must face an enemy without compassion.  Fear?  Terror?  Hopelessness?  Resolve?  Impatience?

Sunday morning I saw a squirrel get hit by a car.  There was a mad dash of indecision, he went for it, and the wheels went right over him.  Then he scurried off the road, dragging his back half with his two front feet, tail uncharacteristically flat on the road.  It's the first time I've ever felt bad for a squirrel.  (Don't worry, I'm over it.)  I've hunted squirrel - so what was different in my response?  I spent longer than usual trying to figure out both the feeling and the reason because, obviously, there was a nuance.

To write believably, your characters have to feel authentic.  To write distinctively, you have to tap into nuance and bring your readers fully into the experience of your character.

After what happened yesterday in Washington, after watching the spontaneous reactions of the responders, the survivors, the family, and comparing that to the prepared speeches by government officials (which offered nothing in the way of emotion) I think I figured it out.  With the squirrel I saw tragedy happening. I know what was coming.  I also knew that the squirrel knew.  He didn't just dart out and get hit.  He started out, paused, continued, went back, and then went for it.  He knew the danger and it scared him.  I knew the danger too but was powerless to prevent it even though it was right in front of me.

I hate being powerless and seeing terrible things happen that I can't stop is awful.  When I was 13 my mother drove her electric scooter off the edge of a ramp and crashed into the parking lot.  It was far enough down to damage the machine, send her belonging flying, and knock her out for a few minutes.  I was four feet away and knew exactly what was going to happen but there was nothing I could do to prevent it.  She was sprawled out on her back, several feet from the scooter, not moving at all.  All I could do was call for help and pick up her glasses from even further away.  Useless.

Don't be powerless in your writing.  Draw on emotion, explore everything that you start to feel and remember what causes it.  Your stories will come to life.  Unless they're about Zombies.

Is there something you’ve witnessed or experienced that has provided a strong emotional muse to your work?  I’d love to hear about it.

1 comment:

  1. I received this via email and the author has allowed me to share it with you. The description brought me right into his memory - did you experience the same thing?


    A moment of anguish? There have been several, but the one your piece brought to mind was the day I was frustrated trying to expel a piece of candy lodged in the throat of a small boy Sean's size. He was turning purple and I said, "Please, God! Don't let him die in my arms!" We were hoping we could force out the piece of candy if we could only squeeze hard enough. The nurse arrived and started squeezing with fresh arms. Sam, the biggest person in the building, happened to be walking by and the nurse conscripted him. Sam said, "If I squeeze him any harder I'll break his ribs. The nurse said, "Go ahead, that will make it easier to get the candy out and he'll be alive." I knew if I heard a crunch I would vomit. Sam said, "I can't!" I took another turn, then realized it wasn't working and just held the kid to me in a hug. At that point, the paramedics arrived, put an oxygen mask on his face and took him to the ER. As they arrived at the hospital, the piece of candy moved enough to allow some air into his lungs. He was in school the next day. The nurse had to fill out a report and interviewed the boy. She said, "You must have thought all of us were crazy with all the things we did to you, turning you upside down and squeezing almost to death." He said, "Oh, no! Mr. Shark had told us what to do if someone is choking and I knew what you were doing was to help me." He was very matter-of-fact about it. Thirty years later I can still cry at the memory. I can picture the purple color of his face and arms and the red drool dripping from his mouth. I can remember the sounds - groans and gurgles. I wanted to hear a gasp, but there wasn't one. The feel of his skin, denim jeans, and cotton shirt on my arms, his curly hair on my cheek.
    I am blessed that I never had a student die the year s/he was in my class, although two died the next year. Over forty never lived to be 20 years old, some didn't make it to 10.