Writer’s Challenge #32: Describing the Effects of Emotion on a Character’s Face

We all know it: eyes can’t fill, can’t tear up, can’t water or leak; tears can’t roll down cheeks, or flood, or track. Lips can’t quiver, tongues can’t get tied, color can’t drain from faces. We can’t freeze and especially we can’t freeze like “a deer caught in the headlights.” Our mouths daren’t drop open, nor our jaws. We can raise our eyebrows, but we best not furrow our brows.

Oh! all the cliches we can’t write, and most especially we can’t write them when our characters are experiencing those Big Emotions. You know, the ones our writing group tells us we must “show” our characters experiencing, rather than just telling about it.

coverhuge_theressomethingHow I love it when I come across something in my reading that shows me how it’s done and is just so darn much fun to read. I came across this knock-out example while reading Charles Baxter’s collection, There’s Something I Want You to Do. In this example, from the story, “Loyalty,” the narrator, Wes, is describing what happens when he brings his long-absent ex-wife, Corinne, into the kitchen where his current wife, Astrid, is preparing dinner. (p.35-36)

“In the kitchen, Astrid has been sprinkling seasoning onto some salmon when she glances up and sees Corinne, who looks worse than she did a few minutes ago because of the kitchen’s overhead light. First Astrid looks at Corinne. Then she looks at me, and then she looks at Corinne again. Expressions pass across her face so quickly that you might think you hadn’t seen the previous one before the next one appears. First she’s confused: her eyebrows rise up. Who’s that? Then she’s in full recognition mode: her mouth opens, slightly, though she says nothing. Her tongue licks her upper lip. Then it’s time for pity and compassion, and her eyes start to water. Then she’s shocked, and her hand with lemon juice on it rises to her face. “Uh,” she says, but nothing else comes out. A little spot of seasoning stays on her cheek. Then she’s angry, and that’s when she looks at me, as if I were the cause of all this. But the anger doesn’t stay posted up there on her face for long. It’s displaced by an expression we don’t have a word for. You see this expression when someone is hit by circumstances that are much bigger than expected, and the person is trying to restore things to normal, which can’t be done. Actors can’t duplicate this look. It only happens in real life.”

For me, it doesn’t get much better than that — all voice-y and true to character and to the tone of the story. I just had to share it and recommend this collection of stories and, well, anything by Charles Baxter.

Got an example of a writer’s work that made you stop and go “Wow!” and have to share it with somebody and then write a love letter to that writer? I’d love to read it.

Process Journals and The Art of Slow Writing

I’ve been an advocate for and practitioner of “slow writing” for decades though I never knew there was a name for it. Others can have their NaNoWriMo or their finish-your-novel-in-six-weeks or -a-weekend or however speedily they want to go. A daily practice of anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours with an occasional long weekend or even longer retreat thrown in is what works for me.

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Writing Yourself as Character

Last night in our Wild Women, Wild Voices writing group, our focus was on Body Writing: Voice of the Senses. The session included several writing explorations, and as always, there wasn’t enough time to write all we wanted to write, discuss all we wanted to discuss, and share all we wanted to share.

One of our writing exercises, which I hadn’t done in a group before and which I found more than a little interesting, was to write a character description of ourselves.

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