“I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.” ~ Henri Matisse
“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” ~ James A. Michener
“The best and most beautiful thing in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” ~ Helen Keller
I love books that move me to tears, or laughter, or foreboding. That’s how I want to write, but often, like this morning, I wake up with the certain knowledge that I’ve failed on a certain scene and must go back to rework it.
When I’m trying to write the physicality of emotions, how my body would feel if I were in the character’s situation, I find myself in a quandary. As an actor/director I know about body language and facial expressions. They convey our inner states of being, but an actor doesn’t necessarily need to experience the bodily reactions when they are supposed to be demonstrating strong emotion.
I’ll tell one short story to illustrate what I mean. The first play I directed as a public school drama teacher was Our Town. The actor playing George Gibbs could not cry in the crucial scene near the end of the play. So, I told him to lay over his wife’s grave on his forearms, head down, and move his shoulders as if he were weeping with the appropriate crying sounds to go with the action. It worked! We cried during rehearsals and the audience did during performances.
But you can’t fake emotions in a novel and describing them is something I struggle with as I’m sure many authors do. I’m going to include a portion of the scene here that I was thinking about this morning. I made a few changes but it will undoubtedly need more work. You can tell me what you think.
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Once Jenna had read those words something was pulling her into a vortex of swirling energy. Panic overtook her but no matter how hard she struggled, she could not free herself. Her mind was paralyzed with fear. Though her present life was a mess, it was familiar.
As her vision cleared, the calming voice of the woman came to her, All is well. “Fine for you to say!” She was not prepared for this experience but she was trapped. The one thing that came to her paralyzed mind was something her father used to say, “The only way out iss through.” She would have to trust. That was difficult for her. However it was her only option. She took a deep figurative breath, and allowed the mists to engulf her.
When they cleared, She was standing in an old style kitchen. There were three women working there wearing Civil War era dresses like her apparition’s. Somehow Jenna knew this was Morgan’s home and who these women were. It was the day of Morgan’s father’s funeral. Jenna’s writer’s curiosity supplanted the panic of only moments before. Looking up from her task, Morgan’s best friend Emma said, eyes dancing, “We’re here if you need us.”
Jenna had only a moment to comprehend that her consciousness had merged with Morgan’s as she said, “Thanks.” Emma’s motto was, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can do this minute.” Morgan knew she was right. She couldn’t put off the confrontation any longer. She walked to the door of the small sitting room where her aunt sat fuming.
Looking at Veronica’s stoney face at the funeral, she was glad her father had decided to keep his illness from her. They’d sent the telegram informing Veronica of Thomas’ death the day before the funeral. When she arrived just in time for the service, storm clouds filled her eyes and each word she spoke was covered in ice crystals.
Morgan paused outside the sitting room to gather her thoughts with sweaty palms and a roiling stomach, before facing the ogre. Veronica was nothing like Morgan’s mother Julia who had been loving, open minded, fair and generous. Morgan always thought of her mother as the perfect representation of pink, lavender and green, caring and restful.
Veronica was made of different colors. She was gold, silver and shimmering diamond. Lovely to look at, but cold and hard-hearted. She wanted riches, power and position. That’s what she got when she married into Boston’s highest echelons.
Morgan took a deep breath hoping to regain her ability to think as she opened the sliding doors of the sitting room.
“So, you and your father decided to deceive me,” Veronica said with malice. “How do you think this will look when my friends back in Boston hear that you did not tell me of Thomas illness? Don’t you think I had a right to know? After all, I am family.”
Morgan felt a shiver run down her spine. Jenna understood very well how she felt. It had been the same for her when interacting with Fletcher and Mr. Dayton, but they weren’t family, and she didn’t have to associate with them any longer.
Morgan squared her shoulders. “Father wanted us to be left in peace, to spend what time we had together uninterrupted by fussing nurses, which you no doubt would have insisted upon.”
Veronica sniffed. “Your father never knew what was best for you. I’m sure he did this to spite me because I wanted to take you away and give you every advantage he couldn’t.”
Morgan crossed the room and stood in front of her aunt. “Aunt Veronica, father was a good and kind man who loved me very deeply. He knew that I’d be just another bobble for you to polish and have admired.”
At this statement Veronica bristled and lost control of herself. “Morgan, you are too independent by half. I see now that your father has taught you too much and not had a thought for your future. If he’d cared about you, he never would have raised you to think like a man nor would he have involved you in this underground railroad nonsense.”
Morgan gasped. How had her aunt found out about that?
A malicious smile spread across Veronica’s face. “Ah, you’re surprised I knew about that. Your father exposed you to filthy, shiftless slaves who ran away shirking their duty to their masters. Any number of terrible things could have happened to you because of your father’s thoughtlessness. I intend to change your foolish notions by taking you back to Boston with me and see that you’re properly looked after by marrying the right sort of man. I will brook no refusals. You’re not getting any younger, you know. Go upstairs this instant and pack your things. We’re leaving on the evening train.”
Deep calm swept over Morgan. Ignoring the bait her aunt wanted to distract her with, she spoke softly. “No, Aunt Veronica. I am not going with you.”
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Thanks for reading and sharing with friends. Feel free to leave a comment from a reader’s point of view.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2016
3 thoughts on “Writing Emotions”
You did it when describing hat student: head, arms, shoulders heaving. The words are here. The trick is finding the best ones.
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Reading the piece you wrote, Lucinda, I felt about half of the emotions being conveyed. The last paragraph was golden: Morgan taking her power back from Veronica. Where I had trouble feeling the emotions: 1. When Veronica lost control. How did she lose control? What was her body feeling/doing? 2. Panic in Jenna at the beginning. Paralysis of the mind was mentioned and certainly that begins the moving away, but there’s always a body feeling reaction accompanying. The body feeling tells me what type of panic is going on inside. I could tease out the emotion in the rest of the piece and see it when I closed my eyes. That’s how I read.
Linda, Thank you. The problem I have with Jenna is that she’s sharing Morgan’s consciousness. But since it’s the mind that causes the physical reactions, Jenna could still feel them. About Veronica, a writer friend advised me to be careful about point of view. This is Jenna and Morgan’s story so we feel their emotions. Everyone else’s are observed by them. However, I will look at her again. I may be able to describe her body language and facial expressions better. I appreciate your comments.