Sunday, June 14, 2009

Emotional Motions

Not too long ago, I was having a difficult conversation with a coworker who feared losing her job. She started crying--serious tears. I felt so bad for her. My heart was breaking and I wanted to hug her and help her, but I didn't get teary. I was dry-eyed the whole time, despite the fact that I wanted desperately to cry with her, to show her my support. I don't understand why I wasn't moved to tears. It seemed the appropriate occasion to cry.

But yesterday, I was crying at my daughter's dance recital. And I know you're probably thinking, Of course she cried there, watching her daughter perform. What mother wouldn't? Yes, I did get teary to see my little one on stage, basking in the spotlight with glee. She was beautiful. But I was in tears well before that--I started tearing up at a number where the girls were dancing hip-hop in their tennis shoes. It was great. They were intermediate schoolers, having a blast with the music, with the dance, and with each other.

I can't figure out what it was about the dance that plucked at my heart-strings. I can't figure out what was lacking in that previous conversation that left me dry. So, I searched my psyche for what sorts of things make me cry. I came up with:
  • Parents losing children
  • Children losing parents
  • Babies being babies
  • Kids adoring people--the happy laughter of children makes me well up just thinking about it!
  • Ghost stories, psychic phenomena, and the spirit of my grandmother
  • Old people reflecting on their lives
  • My children performing on stage (closing night requires a box of tissues)
  • The mere thought of living without my husband or any of my kids
Some of those things are obvious, because I am a mom and a wife. But other things? Why do happy kids make me cry? I don't know, but they do, time and time again. My heart swells with joy and on go the waterworks.

This kind of reflection is essential in writing. If you want to evoke that kind of emotion, you have to know what will evoke that emotion in yourself first. I don't know that I could find that kind of emotion in a scene involving a man begging not to be fired or a woman discussing how devastated she was when her company went bankrupt. Those sort of things just don't move me--probably because I try to control emotions in the work environment. I let myself be happy, sad, mad, and glad, but tears are not part of my working gear. Maybe I feel too vulnerable at work. More likely, I would be crying all the time if I stopped to look at the realities of my work in the field of child protection.

I recently wrote a novel, though, and I was able to write a few moving scenes which brought me to tears as I wrote. I still cry sometimes as I read it, simply because I can remember how I felt when I wrote it. I remember my own memories that evoked those feelings that I put into that scene. It's not an easy thing to do.

I've had a few people read the novel and comment that they were moved to tears. Success! I was able to reach back into my own past, find situations that caused the same sort of heartache, and transfer that heartache to my character. Her situations aren't made of my memories, but the emotions within my memories.

I've wondered how else I can harvest emotions without actually having to dredge up all the ghosts of my childhood. Let's face it: that's really hard to do, especially if you didn't have a particularly emotional childhood. (I did--nothing tragic or horrific, just emotional. I have always been emotional.) The best way to do this: cheat! Use other people's emotions.

How the heck do you use someone else's emotions in your writing? Don't you have to feel something to be able to write it? Well, yeah, but you don't have to experience it firsthand. Look around. Observe the emotions around you. I saw a mom who startled when her child almost tripped. There was a momentary panic on her face, and she reached out toward her child as the child was heading downward toward the hard tile floor. The child lunged her foot forward and caught herself, quickly righted herself, and ran along her merry way as soon as she had her balance again. But the mom? She didn't recover quite as quickly. She pulled her hand in and patted her chest. She let out a deep breath, and then strained to see where her daughter had gone. She had been speaking with another mother before this, and she didn't go back to the conversation afterward because she was distracted by the incident. The other mother wanted to keep the conversation going--this mother had no interest anymore. Her child almost got hurt and her protective instincts were turned up to high. This mother's actions spoke volumes about her emotions.

Try watching people having a conversation, particularly where one person is only interested in telling their tale and is not listening at all. The second person might indulge them for a little while, but after not being able to get a solid word into the conversation, they usually stop listening. Or, they will talk over the non-listening party. Their boredom/frustration/disinterest shows in their demeanor, their body language, their gestures. They might swirl their drink around and around, staring at it, then throwing it back before they walk away. They might shift their weight, look at their watch, or pick their nails. All of these gestures stem from their emotions. Their facial expressions are sometimes as interesting to read as a good book. Eyebrows raising and eyes opening wide before they roll to the left, accompanied by a smirk: disbelief. Downward gaze, staring at the little vortex that their ice cubes are forming in their glass, lips closed: boredom.

I could go on and on, but hey! I might need to use some of these examples in my stories. Find your own examples of emotion. And use them!

It's what writers do.


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