Weird. Dumb-ass. Late bloomer. How wonderfully my family described me. Yeah, you guessed it. I hated me, too. At fifteen, I had the social skills of a toilet brush. I spent most of my day desperately trying to say the right thing, so maybe I’d have some friends. Only in World History did I feel accepted. With her fantastic stories, my teacher brought history
alive. She encouraged discussion. Even seemed to like me.
Forty-plus years later, I still remember how the room smelled of chalk and the musky perfume of the cheerleader who sat four chairs away; how it had a cooped-up warmth from the hour-long exhaling of twenty people. We sat crammed into small desks, the kind you slid into from the side with a writing surface big enough only for a single sheet of paper. Up front sat the teacher, the green blackboard behind her filling the entire wall.
Eager to express myself, I was quick to add my opinion on socialism. I spoke against welfare and social security. Rather, I said we should take care of each other. I didn’t believe the government needed to provide these services. In fact, I thought the government did a rather poor job. I suppose I didn’t express myself well; I wasn’t clear. Even to this day, I don’t fully understand why my opinion that people should look to themselves, rather than the government, to help their neighbor, should ignite such anger. Surely, at most, I was hopelessly naïve.
For a full twenty minutes, the class raged against me, calling me mean, harsh, unkind and unfeeling. Bewildered, I tried to explain my position, but the voices only grew louder more hateful. At the end of the class, the teacher asked me to stay behind. I stood beside her desk shaking from the effort to hold back my tears. Tall and skinny, I clutched my books in front of me, my shoulders rounded down against the recent blows. I thought she would apologize to me for letting the class get out of control. I thought she saw my hurt. Instead, very gently, she said, “I’d like to tell you
about the Christ.”
Perhaps I should thank her. In one sentence she managed to teach me why the separation of church and state is absolutely necessary. After all, I’d just been told by a person, put in a position of authority by the government, that my political opinions were so heinous that I must be a heathen and in need of religious indoctrination, which she was eager to supply. I politely informed her that I regularly attended church.
Pivotal moments in our lives are marked by strong emotions: rage, hatred, shame, regret, fear, joy, hilarity, ecstasy. It is essential that we writers learn to convey these strong emotions to our readers. Story is emotion based. If we are not feeling, we’re not reading. So how does a writer learn to convey emotion? How do we teach ourselves this skill? My solution is to feel the emotion myself by first writing about a pivotal moment in my life. By grappling with my own past, by dredging up a betrayal, or the bitterness of regret, by reliving a moment of pure joy, I find that my subsequent writing tastes real. Of course, when the emotions I’m reliving are negative, the cost to me is huge, because I must bleed again, before my characters bleed at all.
I believe every licensed driver should be issued a traffic dart gun.
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