Monday, November 28, 2005

Swimming Underwater

Exploring the emotions of your characters is a lot like swimming underwater.

You dive beneath the surface of a character's skin, trying to follow the reef of an emotional spine, the backbone of his or her personality, searching for what propels each character through the water of his or her life.

Jacqueline Woodson is a master of swimming underwater, fleshing out the emotional worlds of her characters in such books as If You Come Softly, her heart-breaking tale of first love and loss in Brooklyn.

How does she do this?

Look at this passage from If You Come Softly and see if you can name the emotion that Woodson's writing about:

It rained again on Friday, a warm, steady rain that turned the whole city gray. I sat in Mr. Hazelton's history class watching it. There was something sad about the rain. Marion had left on a rainy day. And Anne. The day she moved out it rained and rained. I turned back to my textbook. Jeremiah must have left Percy. It was already October and still I had only seen him once since that first day. That's what the rain made me feel now as it slammed against the windowpane--that I should stop hoping. People would always be leaving.
Using words like "rain" and "gray" and "sad"... Woodson creates an internal mood in the reader, a sense of gloom as it "rained and rained," layering the emotion by filtering it through the narrator's memory of other sad days when it rained.

But she goes deeper than sadness... into another emotion... that gains in intensity with the description of rain "as it slammed against the windowpane"... so that the reader feels as if the rain is slamming into her, hurting her... to the point that she "should stop hoping." Hoping what? That the rain will stop? That life will one day be different? That people wouldn't always be leaving?

How would you write about sadness? Would you use rain as an image, as Woodson does here? Or would you draw your reader into a character's sadness in a different way?

Here's another passage that uses rain... to get at a completely different emotion... from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street:

But my mother's hair, my mother's hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama's hair that smells like bread.
Rain draws us inside a character's emotional world again, but Cisneros, unlike Woodson, uses it to create a sense of security and safety. How does she do that?

The images rush toward us almost like a waterfall: hair, rosettes, little candy circles, curly and pretty, sweet, safe, warm smell of bread. And the smell of bread becomes the smell of her mother's bed, still warm with her skin... and then the rain... a gentle sound (not "slamming against the window" as in Woodson's story) that beats in rhythm to Papa's snoring.

Again, how would you write about the love between a child and mother? Would you use rain to help a reader understand the intimacy involved in that relationship? Or as a way to show the distance separating them?

Here's another passage of a mother-daughter relationship... from Norma Fox Mazer's Goodnight, Maman, a story about 12 year old Karin Levi, whose family is torn apart in June 1940, as the German army advances on Paris:

Her eyes, her beautiful, beautiful eyes. Her beautiful, sad eyes.
Here's what I learned about sadness--it was catching. Get in the way of someone else's sadness, and before you knew it, you had it, too. And then time collapsed, and turned the day so shapeless you couldn't see to the end of it.
That's when I learned something else--to turn away from Maman's eyes. And from the sadness. Away from thoughts of Papa and Grand-mere, of home and our little cat, Minot, and of friends and school. Yes, just turn away.
But then there was the other thing I learned--that sometimes I couldn't do it. I had to look at Maman. I couldn't live without looking at her.
So I did. I looked at her. And I never stopped looking. And loving her. Loving her so much.
Can you name the emotion that Mazer's writing about in this passage? Is it sadness? Or fear? Or love? Or a combination of emotions, each swirling into one another?

How does she use Maman's eyes as a way to get at Karin's emotional world? Notice that Mazer gives us not merely a description of Maman's eyes, but a description that shows us how Karin feels about her mother's eyes... and their life that's been torn apart by the German invasion.

In those eyes she sees her past... and the sadness of having to leave that world... and yet she can't not look at the eyes because of her love for Maman, an internal conflict that makes this scene all the more poignant, I think.

Or here... what about this excerpt from Carolyn Coman's Many Stones:

I wish I could tell Josh. I wish I could open my mouth and talk--say how I put the stones on me, one by one, like I am the paper and they are the paperweight and they keep me from flying off, right out the window. Tell him how I have to do it--move them, one by one, from the nightstand onto my body, how they start out light but add up to heavy and how they keep me weighted so I know there' s something there to be weighted.
But I'm like the stones: dumb. As in, can't speak. I turn back to Josh. He has cupped his hands under his head, his elbows are splayed out across the pillow. The look on his face registers next to nothing.
What is Coman trying to get us to feel here? "I wish I could open my mouth and talk..." How does that make you feel? Or: " I am the paper and they are the paperweight and they keep me from flying off, right out the window." Or: "how they keep me weighted so I know there's something there to be weighted." Or: "The look on his face registers next to nothing."

This is another example of a character working her way through grief, but contrast it with the samples from Mazer's and Woodson's work. What does Coman do differently? How does grief feel for this character... and how does Coman enable us to feel it, too?

Each of these writers takes us deeply inside the emotional worlds of their characters.

We swim with them... underwater... beneath another person's skin, into another person's view of the world. Through the magic of fiction, we feel the pulse of another human being... as if it's our own.

You can do this with your stories, too.

Study how your favorite authors swim underwater, diving beneath the surface of each character's skin to reveal a hidden world of emotions.

In time you'll swim underwater with your own characters and bring back jewels from the deep--the rich variety of emotions--that all of us share.

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