A Session with Marcia Gloster
We all experience emotions, and they’re usually pretty easy to explain to others. So why is it difficult to translate them to the written page? In talking about an emotional moment, we use visual and verbal expression – we modulate our voice, use facial expressions, hand movements, and body language. All of these allow the person we’re talking with to empathize with us. Writing emotions, as opposed to writing about emotions, is another matter altogether.
In an interview with Scientific American,* noted neurologist Dr. Antonio R. Damasio said, “Emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli. For example, when we are afraid of something our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after we become aware of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of [in this instance] fear.”
To parse what Damasio is saying, emotions are an instant physical and mental reaction to stimuli whereas feelings about that stimulus occur later, after the emotion is experienced. Feelings are easier to write because we’ve spent our lives communicating them verbally to others. On the other hand, emotions are usually unexpected – and therefore surprising – creating, for the most part, nonverbal reactions that affect not only our bodies, but often our very souls. For those very reasons they require more detailed description.
In writing, one can explain feelings in words, but emotions have to be dealt with in another form altogether; they not only have to be described, but in order to be relatable to the reader, they have to be shown as they would be experienced in life. If your readers can’t experience the moment they won’t have empathy for your character – and that’s where the difficulties often lie.
To illustrate this, in my book 31 Days, A Memoir of Seduction, when I first meet Bill, I have a visceral emotional reaction – a reaction as powerful as if I were experiencing sudden fear or pain. I tried to illustrate my emotions visually as I lived them at that moment. As mentioned, emotions are often evoked by something unexpected. In this example, I’m an art student on my first day in a foreign city looking for my painting studio when I see a man, my instructor, standing in a doorway.
As he turned, about to shake my hand, his eyes met mine for a fraction of a second. I felt a sudden, powerful sensation wash over me as my mind went blank. I saw him in a flash of white light and knew that image would be engraved in my memory forever. As we both looked away I blinked, my mind awakened by the image. I reminded myself to breathe. Whatever that was, I knew it wasn’t a good thing. Stay away from this man, I warned myself; he’s much older and there’s something dangerous about him.
It’s a lengthy description for something that happened in a split second, yet it coveys a powerful emotion that encompasses attraction and fear all at the same time. I described it as sensation for that’s what the emotion produced. I could have said something like, “Seeing him, I was immediately attracted, but I also perceived an innate danger,” but the reader would not experience the power, nor the jolt of the moment.
I think when writing emotions – as opposed to writing about emotions, we have to experience that emotion as if it was happening to us and translate our physical response to the written page. Whether it’s a reaction to someone saying “I love you” or “I hate you,” or whether it’s fear or disgust or unexpected happiness, try for a few seconds, minutes, or even hours, to live within – actually become – your character as he or she experiences the emotions and the responses that you want to convey.
Exercise 1 In order to describe your characters’ emotional responses to diverse situations it’s necessary to have the words. While some words and phrases may be more evocative than others, it’s important to find the ones that fit the particular moment. Your personal style will determine this.
Try to picture the visual images that illustrate your character’s response to emotions: a sharp intake of breath and a step back in reaction to fear; a gasp of surprise, joy, or perhaps even anxiety for a stolen kiss; a nervous laugh and surreptitious glance around in an uncomfortable situation. What are the words you would use to describe physical responses to emotional situations your characters encounter? If necessary, look up articles on emotion on the Internet to understand how they are described neurologically. Once you can paint a picture with them, you can then begin to create your own “vocabulary” of response and description.
In writing 31 Days, I actually became a twenty-year old student again. I was able to inhabit “her” mind and experience the joy and the pain she was experiencing on an almost daily level. There were times I laughed and times I cried. It not only generated renewed energy in my “real” life, it created a visual and verbal empathy intended to engage the reader in relating to the characters, their experiences, and of course their emotions. In this way, they truly come alive.
In another exchange, Bill has just told me to meet him, that he has to talk to me:
Sensing trouble, I stopped and looked at him. “I’m not going to have an affair with you,” he said bluntly. Feeling like I had been slapped in the face, I stepped back from him in shock. Without thinking, I said quickly, “I don’t want to have an affair either.” Was that the stupidest thing I could have said? Holding back tears I stared at him, knowing instinctively that crying would be a huge mistake and arguing with him would only make it worse.
Here I was showing an instinctive emotional response to a statement that was truly shocking. The first emotion expressed is visual: “feeling I had been slapped in the face and stepping back from him in shock.” The verbal discussion that follows continues the response, holding back tears while trying to buy time by talking back to him. It’s a moment the reader can easily visualize and that provides not only empathy, but impact. So here you have a “picture” of my reaction and then a brief verbal exchange that extends the moment. As for my feelings about that moment, they follow a few paragraphs later, after the conversation has ended and when I can stop and think about what has just happened. Although the action is over, (the visual part) I am still in an “emotional” state, but can now express my feelings verbally to herself and others.
A final example is one that actually illustrates Dr. Damasio’s description (that I read only after writing 31 Days). In this passage one of my friends is telling me about Bill’s infidelities:
As it began to dawn on me what Nico was implying, I felt myself go pale. “Are you saying he seduces those girls?” I whispered. I could hear the tremor in my voice. “I think he spends more time with you,” he said, ignoring my question. “How do you know that?” “Marcia, I’m not the only one who has seen you with him late at night in the Altstadt. This is a very small place.” I was suddenly cold, as though a dark cloud had passed over me, blocking out the light and warmth of the sun. I forced myself to breathe. “Why me? I’m certainly not the prettiest girl in the class,” I whispered.
Here it’s obvious; she describes her paleness, the tremor in her voice and chill, all emotional responses to another, unexpected shock. It’s another moment the reader can not only visualize but empathize with as well.
Exercise 2 Create a character, either a new one or, even better, one you may already have already created. Become that character by putting yourself inside his or her mind for a long as you can; for minutes or even hours. Get to know how your character thinks and how he or she may respond emotionally to a specific situation or event.
Then create a situation: a moment of psychic pain, for example, as in a rejection by a lover, or a job you (as your character) were sure you had, or a friend who has suddenly turned on you. Or, conversely, make it a happy moment, such as winning a contest, the excitement of a chance encounter with an ex–lover you still desire, or the first second of seeing someone that you instinctively know will change your world. If you can become your character you’ll not only experience the emotion, but the physical response to it as well.
As you live the moment of the emotion – for that’s what it is, only a moment – then write, not about it, but describe in both visual (physical) and verbal terms your first responses to that moment. By illustrating it in your writing, your reader will not only relate to your character, but empathize as well, and that’s your goal.
To sum it up, I believe as writers our job is to bring readers into our characters’ innermost lives. In doing so we then create three-dimensional, relatable characters who are believable in expressing genuine emotions. And, within this context, we must try to paint as vivid a picture as possible of those same characters’ emotional responses. In this way the reader engages in key and intense moments with all the power and empathy they are meant to convey.
* Damasio, Antonio, and Manuela Lenzen. “Feeling Our Emotions.” Scientific American. N.p., 24 Mar. 2005. Web. 30 Apr. 2014. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/feeling-our-emotions/>.
About the Author…
Marcia Gloster has lived most of her life in New York City. Born in Los Angeles, she began drawing as a young child, believing even then that she would pursue a career in art. While in college, she spent a summer studying painting at Oskar Kokoschka’s School of Vision, in Salzburg, Austria. After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design, she hoped to continue painting while working as an assistant art director in publishing. When that proved impossible, she put aside her brushes for many years and built her career as an award-winning book designer and art director. After working for two years in London, she returned to New York, becoming a founding partner of Peartree Advertising, a boutique advertising agency specializing in fashion.
Marcia continues to consult on marketing and graphic design for select clients. But more importantly she has returned to her first love, painting. A member of the National Association of Women Artists in New York City and Studio Montclair in New Jersey, she has exhibited her paintings in New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Her book 31 Days, a Memoir of Seduction, is about her summer at Kokoschka’s school in Salzburg and will be published by the Story Plant in September 2014. She has one daughter and lives in Verona, NJ, with her husband, James Ammeen. http://www.marciagloster.com