Thursday, January 6, 2011

Emotion- Its Rawest Form

The smell of the place was a combination of old and new- of old pews, dry paper hymnals and Lysol cleaner. The flowers overflowing at the altar sent off a sickly sweet smell that cloyed in my nose and stifled my senses. I didn’t like it. People slowly flowed into the church, first passing by the large poster board filled with pictures, memories snagged from the passage of time and given credence to a life well lived.

Family congregated in a back corner, not a smiling face among them and at the tender age of seven years old, I wasn’t sure what my response should be. A smile seemed inappropriate, but tears weren’t clogging the back of my throat. It hadn’t hit me yet with the speed of an empty freight train- sure to come later. I tugged on Daddy’s arm, trying to get his attention.

“What hon?”

“Daddy, I want to kiss Papa goodbye.”

His eyes softened and he put a hand on my shoulder, a hint of moisture wetting the corners. He cleared his throat. “You bet you can. We’ll do it after the service.”

The front pew was so close to the casket covered in the pink and white flowers. The smell was overpowering. I hated the scent- unidentifiable it left only a bad taste on my tongue. They were not symbols of beauty, but vestiges bearing the memory of loss.

The service closed, the moment had come. Apprehension churned in my stomach. What would it be like? My hands turned sweaty in Daddy’s grip and my heart thumped in my ears as he guided me through the departing throng and to the casket. I couldn’t see in. The dark oak of the wood gleamed under the lights. I knew Papa wasn’t really in that box. His body yes, but Heaven had gained a wonderful man. Jesus, please tell him how much I love him.

Daddy lifted me up and I got my first peek into the casket. He lay so still. Never again to be the first at the screen door to greet me. Never to kiss my cheek with his gristly gray mustache. Never to feel his loving arms around me. I leaned down and planted a kiss on his forehead.

So cold. So waxy. It wasn’t how I wanted to remember Papa. The scent of the tight space about me filled my nose with a strange scent, one I couldn’t place and would always hate.

My loss, Heaven’s gain, but now years down the road, I would not trade that kiss, that moment of goodbye for all the world.

Years down the road I found out what that smell was- the flowers about his casket. What I had always thought to be something from the funeral home to prepare his body for burial, was really the scent of the flower chosen to grace his casket. From that day to this I cannot smell those flowers without thinking of Papa’s funeral. And I can’t stand them.

Emotions fill our lives. Grief, joy, anger, the entire gauntlet. When we sit down and give our characters the emotions they crave, where do we draw from for those realistic emotions?

From our own experiences.

I am sure most of you know this already, but it is hard to look back on such moments and drain those feelings and put them onto the page. Our characters will live them and though it isn’t often the same experience, we have to remember all over again. It is often a trialing journey down that emotional memory lane.

Writing that about the funeral of my grandfather is one of the hardest things I have written, though granted it has gotten easier with time. But to relive those emotions all over again is difficult to say the least. I was nearly crying as I wrote this.

You won’t realize the depth of your emotion until you start writing. During a class once I wrote this same thing, only not in as great a detail. I was sobbing from the core of my soul and couldn’t finish reading it aloud. It was embarrassing in a room of complete strangers to not be able to cease sobbing, but the writer in me knows that such a moment is golden.


The same isn’t just for grief, but also anger or extreme joy. Brandilyn Collins says in her book, Getting Into Character that you don’t have to be a murderer to think like one. (and this is certainly an extreme case). She gives the example of as you sit down to read a good book, a fly begins to buzz. You shoo it away. It persists, darting against the glass of your window and distracting you from the thoroughly enthralling world of fiction. Annoyance burns in your gut which grows to upset and from upset to pure revenge as you hunt out the fly swatter and attack the innocent fly. It lies in a pile of broken wings and black body. Satisfied you are return to your book…only to again hear the buzz, bitz, bitz of the cousin of the fly you just assassinated.

Emotions aren’t something to be feared or shied away from. They add the emotional layer to the story that every book needs to give it impact and a way to connect with your readers on a visceral level. You have to relive them to pull from them. Which is why writing is like “sitting down to the computer and slicing open a vein”.

It is frightening to put ourself on the page. We are taking something near and dear and asking someone to judge it. But your reader will have the most impact from it. They will feel as if the book was written directly to them- because though they might not have lived through that same event, emotions are universal and everyone has experienced grief, anger, fear, love, joy. It is the author’s job to advocate on the part of the reader and let them relive those emotions. Your book will have more power for it.

Have you read a book recently that had gut emotional impact?

18 comments:

Keli Gwyn said...

I love it when an author can evoke my emotions. What's even more satisfying is when I'm moved while writing my stories.

I attended the book signing Nicholas Sparks had at a bookstore in his childhood hometown, Sacramento, this summer. He was asked if he planned to stop writing stories that make people cry. He said no. His reason is that people read because they want to feel. His stories do that. I want mine to--but I'm still a romance writer who believes in delivering happy endings.

Thank you for sharing the story of your grandfather's service with us, Casey. You definitely made me feel. I'm sorry you had to endure the funeral, but I'm glad you had such a great relationship with your papa.

Misha said...

That piece almost made me cry too. Not just because of your pain, but because of a memory of writing something similar when my grandfather had died.

Ours was always a difficult relationship, but his death while I hadn't yet dealt with my feelings left me shattered.

Anyway, I wrote the essay by feeling the keyboard. I was too busy bawling my eyes out to actually look at the screen.

My cousin told me that she stumbled across it once and couldn't help herself. She said she cried for hours after she read what I'd written. I wasn't upset with her, since it felt right that she read it. It was about OUR grandfather and she knew all about our relationship. It was strangely gratifying to know that my words could have so much power over people.

The prayer you wrote "Jesus, please tell him how much I love him." almost had me in tears again, since it's exactly what I prayed for months after his funeral.

Haha sorry, this is a bad case of too much information, but I just wanted to say that I'm honored to have read this very emotional and difficult-to-write piece of your life. I know exactly how much it burns to write something like this.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Casey,

It's amazing how smells stay with us. I believe very much in writing into the heart of a piece. Vulnerability enables our work to be real and tested.

Thanks for digging deep on this one.
~ Wendy

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wonderful post, Casey. It's been a while since I read Brandilyn's book, but the part about emotion memory (I think that's what she calls it?) still sticks with me.

Casey said...

KELI, I read one of Nicholas's books a year or so ago, A Walk to Remember. He really can tug on the emotions and I don't cry easily with books! I think there is a great deal to be said for evoking such emotion and I think to add such a layer to romance will give it a wonderful second "seaoning" to use Mary's terms from yesterday. :)

Casey said...

MISHA, no that was not too TMI. It is wonderfuly therputic wouldn't you say? I was so young when Papa died that a great deal of the sorrow hasn't come until later when I think of all the things my still younger siblings have missed. I visited his grave for the first time last year (we live a long ways from it) and to do so was like saying good bye all over again, but a moment that I will forever treasure.

To be able to speak with words what burdens our hearts takes courage and a willingness to open ourselves up. Thank YOU for sharing today. You blessed me.

Casey said...

WENDY, I know. It is amazing I would catch of whiff of that scent and isn't be back in that church saying good bye. But it wasn't until several years later and someone gave me a basket of flowers that I realized it WAS a flower. Never cared for it since. :) But yes, smells are amazing and can add a wonderful height in tension or elicite a good memory. It is a world of possiblities.

SARAH, thank you. Her book is great, isn't it? I need to go back over it eventually as well. She might have said something like that, but I just love the "fly" story. Makes you realize you are capable of writing such an emotion you might not have experienced.

Saumya said...

Beautiful post. You are so right about us reliving our emotions when we create certain scenes. It takes a lot of skill to evoke those emotions from a reader and you gave me a lo t of helpful ways to try and do that. I'm happy that you are tapping into your emotions and allowing them to shine through your writing.

Casey said...

SAUMYA, thank you and I'm glad there was a bit of food for thought in the post. You are absolutely right, it does take a great deal of skill and perseverance, but the battle is completely worth it!

Mary Vee said...

Wonderfully crafted, Casey.
Such powerful words refresh memory scents and sights for others to chew on as needed.
Thanks for sharing from your heart.

Casey said...

Thanks Mary. :)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Casey, beautiful. Just beautiful.

I love emotions. I love writing emotional scenes. Great therapy.

And while as Christians the thought of death doesn't dishearten us, (or shouldn't, I guess) the thought of loss does. We're never quite ready to say that last goodbye.

I'd say your hand with emotions is pretty solid there, Casey. Good job.

Casey said...

Thanks Ruthy, that means a great deal coming from you! :) No, death isn't disheartening and Papa loved the Lord a great deal, so I know exactly where he is. :) But you're right sometimes MY loss is difficult to bear. God is good in those times though. Thanks for coming by today!!

rbooth43 said...

Casey, I want to send you this poem that was read at my husband's funeral in 2001.
WHEN TOMORROW STARTS WITHOUT ME
When tomorrow starts without me, and I'm not there to see.
If the sun should rise and find your eyes, all filled with tears for me.
I wish so much you wouldn't cry, the way you did today,
While thinking of the many things we never got to say.

I know how much you love me, as much as I love you..
And each time that you think of me, I know you'll miss me too..
But when tomorrow starts without me, Please try to understand..
An angel came and called my name and took me by the hand,
It seemed my place was ready - In Heaven far above,
and that I'd have to leave behind, those things I dearly love..

But as I turned to walk away, a tear fell from my eye.
For all of life, I'd always thought, I didn't want to die.
I had so much to live for, so much yet to do,
It seemed almost impossible, that I was leaving you..
I thought of all the yesterdays, the good ones and the bad..
I thought of all the love we shared, and how much fun we had..
If I could relive yesterday, just even for a while,
I'd say goodbye, then kiss you ‘til I saw that special smile..

But then I fully realized, that it could never be,
'Cause emptiness and memories, would take the place of me.
And when I thought of all those things, I might miss come tomorrow,
I thought of you, and when I did, my heart was filled with sorrow. .
But when I walked through Heaven's gates, I felt so much at home.
When God looked down and smiled at me, From his great & golden throne,

He said, "This is eternity, and all I've promised you.
Today your life on Earth is past, but here it starts anew.
I promise no tomorrow, but today will always last,
and since each day is the same day, there's no longing for the past. .
But you have been so faithful, so trusting and so true,
Though there were some times you did some things you shouldn't do. .

But you have been forgiven, and now at last you're free,
So come and take me by the hand, and share my life with me.."
So when tomorrow starts without me, don't think we're far apart,
for every time you think of me, I'll be right there - in your Heart..
Written by Hank Snow in 1989

Pepper Basham said...

What a lovely post, Case.
Beautifully written and felt.
My grandmother's funeral in October thrust me into an experience I'd never experienced. The death of an extremely close person. One of my top three closest friends.

As weird as some people might think it is, the night before her funeral I withdrew to a room and just examined my feelings. Even wrote them down.
I do the same thing now, three months after her death. Shock has been replaced by a low ache. The weeping has given way to momentary episodes of brief cries - unpredictable ones over the strangest little things.
But now...
I can write that ache from a real perspective
We are all humans, and with that comes emotions. We have them. God gave them to us, and it's why many of us choose to read the books we do.
We want to 'feel'.
Thanks for the reminder to cherish the 'feelings' adn learn from them.

MaDonna Maurer said...

I had tears in my eyes just reading your post! It brought me back a few years ago to my father's funeral. I wasn't there when he passed, so the long airplane ride home I spent sitting and writing about him. It brought so much healing, like I was able to say "Good-bye".
Anyway, thanks for the reminder that we can use those emotions in our writing.

Casey said...

Rebecca, thank you for sharing that. What bravery to read that during your husband's funeral, but wow, that has spoken to my heart this morning and I thank you for sharing. I know it will touch many hearts, what beauty!

Casey said...

PEPPER, at 7 I wasn't really thinking along the writing lines, but I think now I would do the same thing. When you examine something you take a great deal of the sting out of it. Plus you (and I) have the deep reassurance that we WILL see our loved ones again. Amen?

MADONNA, don't shy away from that emotion! It is a golden gift God has given each of us for our fiction, to then use it to minister to someone else. Thank you for reading my post today. :)