Writers are here to give words to the wordless. Playwrights, novelists, poets and songwriters put ideas and emotions into words where others cannot, or will not, say it. There’s a song ‘Everybody Hurts‘ that touches all who hear it – a wailing solo voice that makes you think ‘yes, it’s true. Everybody does hurt, sometimes’. Hitting on a truth in art is what matters.
Second only to music, emotions are our common denominator. Across the world we writers can empathise with the way other people feel, regardless of language and culture.
We learn emotions, far more easily than we learn plain facts. Emotions rub off on us from things we experience. Some are good – like love and faith; others are protective, like fear and disbelief; and still more are destructive, like hate and ennui.
Harness your emotions and share them with the reader
The heartfelt pleas from jolted lovers, the anxious cries of deserted mothers, the lonely hearts of posted soldiers. The guilt-ridden angst of a palsied child’s mother, the poverty stricken waif who knows of no future, the helpless family of adults with an ageing father. We need to understand, get messages understood, put emotions into writing because the written word gives power.
Personal experience is incredibly valuable to the writer. When you’ve written about an emotional encounter that shook you through and through, there’ll be a bond of truth that you’ll recognise; and you’ll strive to capture it in everything you write.
If you can handle such strong emotions in writing, then fiction writing will come easily to you. And it will hit the reader where it matters.
Think about the feelings listed here. How can you show them without using the actual word? If the reader has to work it out, the stronger will be your message. This is your therapy, but it’s put to good use. Take temporary ownership of any words below, stir them with empathy, add some complications like unfinished business or a rekindled grudge. Explore through fiction and make the world a better place.
How do you show any of these emotions? Here is fiction for stimulation:-
I got blisters on my palms last time I went to see him. Well, it was me own fault really, I wanted to show off me new bike. Try it out, give it mileage.
I hadn’t even meant to visit him but I was on my way up the slow old hill away from home, grinding my knee joints and jerking my head now and then with the effort, and I thought, once I get to the top I can go anywhere I please. And it pleased me to see him.
It pleased me to gush across the countryside, hedgerows pregnant with blossom buds, fresh new blades cleansing the stale flattened hay cushions of last year. Pillows, you could call the verges. Pillows tucked up against bramble-bordered duvets. Each field is an eiderdown of lumpy brown soil, soft enough to dive onto but scratchy enough to graze my temperamental skin.
Phew! It was hard work up that hill, and I felt hot inside big gloves but didn’t think I’d get blisters. Had a look when I stopped at the village. I mean, you get blisters with new shoes, not a new bike.
Beside the gentle purr of my easy gears, the gravel popped and I scoured the road surface under the tyres. I swear I could hear my knees creak too. A pheasant shot out from a ditch as I passed, and its flight path christened the hedgerow with fear.
I stopped at the disused post office, to look at the postcards in the window. Sam hadn’t retrieved his ad. Why had I bothered helping him to write it!
No newcomers were taking over yet. Blue oranges lay beside shrivelled apples, a few months’ worth of free papers carpeted the doormat and I could just see an envelope addressed to him. Yes! Him!
That’s what made me do it. I had an excuse to go and visit. See him. A kind of back-handed jibe. “It’s no-one or me if you don’t even pick up your mail.”
I could tell him there was a letter ‘care of’ the village post office, and if he knocked up the person next door, they might be able to help. It looked personal: didn’t look like a bill. “You can’t be a hermit for ever.
Aren’t you curious?”
He answered the door. My legs felt like jelly. Oh no, not nerves – well I tell myself – it was from cycling for so long. I couldn’t feel the blisters then, only sore. Hot and shaky, I was, from the effort.
He treated me like a princess, but without genuflecting. He didn’t kiss my hand, didn’t touch my arm, and didn’t demonstrate our long strong bond in any way. He stood back, inviting me in, sort-of polite, careless, wordless. He’s growing away, unlearning to love me, strangely distant: cancelling my vibes.
Before the bike ride out to see him I’d been pruning the roses. Last year’s black spot was still evident on the few leaves. One or two petals were brown and shrivelled but most were quite gone, blown away. A single bud had failed to open and was still in one piece, the petals fused and brown.
I thought about us, then.
I cut the roses hard. I snipped the cuttings into finger-length twigs and put them in a paper sack. It waits in the shed, for burning in a fire.
My fingers were still sore from the thorns as I cycled up the hill, pleased as punch with my new transport.
Now I can go see Sam any time I want, if only he wanted.
My ultimatum had no real punch, I wonder why I bothered. He won’t even open a letter from someone else. He pretends he wants no-one.
I have to let sleeping dogs lie. A new bike, a new future. Wider horizons. Maybe the finger-pricks camouflaged the gradual chafing from my handlebar grips.
I didn’t tell him, it would have stirred up old sores.
© Bernie Ross 2001
Do you understand how it feels to be adopted?
Different fictions ‘work’ for different people but I never really thought about an adopted child needing to find its natural mother until I watched Secrets and Lies, the film written and directed by Mike Leigh.
What is it like to lose a baby in cot death?
What are the dangers of malpractice in a factory near you?
Birth, marriage, death, divorce, imprisonment, injury, etc.. The major stress points of life are the obvious emotions worth exploring, but nothing is simple. Don’t ignore the emotions that are trapped in your characters’ blind spots (see Get a Life!) because your writing deserves to make the most of the opportunity – to touch your readers with real and believable truths.
It takes someone to write about an issue in a heartfelt way before it’s taken seriously or a campaign is launched to make a change. Without writers who can articulate the strong feelings, the rest of us simply don’t know.
Freedom Through Writing
When you’ve written about a deeply affecting experience of your own, it frees you to move on and away from it. You’ll know how to capture the essence of truth in some other emotional issues because you’ll know ‘that special feeling’ when you get there.
In Ellie’s story ‘Terminated‘, she deals with angst, anger, fear, sadness, frustration, acceptance, regret and more. Ellie is a forty-something novice writer, who lives in the Midlands with her partner and 2 daughters. Having recently trained as a counsellor, she decided not to pursue this avenue, although she is still fascinated by people and their relationships. She has handled these emotions so well, yet it is literary fiction. It hits on truth that women (and perhaps men) everywhere, will recognise.
I’ve never killed a man in real life but I’ve written about it convincingly; and a whole lot of other emotional incidents too. And I plan to explore plenty more, and put them into words, to help others understand. If people can read something that makes them feel that they’ve ‘been there’ then maybe they will avoid the emotional pitfalls it revealed.
One Person, Only One
Within every enormous disaster there are individuals each with their own deep emotion. It is occasionally these personal accounts that bring home to us just how terrible a situation has been.
Without personal stories we might just as well have been watching cartoons. True, touching, personal stories we understand – and are all the more determined not to allow such atrocities to be worth instigating. It is difficult to relate to the victims of disasters or acts of terror when the individual stories cannot be told.
Handle emotions in writing; get to grips with the argument for or against, and – like some of the greats mentioned in Literary Clout – you’ll be in a position to help change the world.
Terminated – by Ellie McLoughlin
5.50am. The luminescent figures of the alarm clock pierced the darkness. By this time tomorrow it will be over. An unreal, dreamlike quality pervaded her consciousness. She turned her head slowly, ensuring she barely moved the bedclothes. Deborah didn’t want to wake him yet. She needed this final half hour to herself, alone with her thoughts. Once she got up, she’d be drawn into the process of getting ready.
The quiet stillness embraced her, calming her chattering mind. Gingerly moving her hands beneath the duvet, she rested them on her abdomen. She caressed her soft flesh, trying to detect some sign of movement, although she knew it was too soon. She turned her head to look at her sleeping husband. She’d thought she knew him so well, but was no longer sure. In the half-light his face looked serene and peaceful, as if his dreams were sweet and his conscience clear.
How could he sleep at such a time, she wondered with a mixture of amazement and disgust.
As if he sensed someone watching him, Jonathan opened his eyes and looked at her. “What time is it?” he asked, stifling a yawn.
“Ten past six” she replied. “S’pose I might as well get up and get ready. I don’t want to be late. You stay in bed a bit longer, if you like.”
He positioned his hands behind his head and closed his eyes again. She noticed his beard was turning grey at the sides and slight pouches were developing beneath his eyes. An unexpected feeling of tenderness for him swept through her.
They hadn’t talked about anything, other than domestic trivia, since making their decision. Now a tension hung between them, palpable and heavy, the air thick with feelings neither of them dared to voice.
As if by unspoken agreement, they’d ceased physical contact. Sighing, Deborah got out of bed and donned her peach housecoat and slippers. The new lilac satin dressing gown was packed ready in her overnight bag.
In the kitchen, Deborah felt the radiator. Still cold. She advanced the timer and the central heating clunked reluctantly into action. She poured herself a glass of water and placed it deliberately on the worktop. This was to be her sole sustenance for the immediate future. Her stomach growled, sounding like water regurgitating in a plughole.
Of course, she was hungry for two now.
Out of habit, she filled the kettle and switched it on, making a mental note to descale it next week. No doubt, Jonathan would languish in bed, expecting her to take him a cup of tea. Usually she would do his bidding rather than risk the withering look of disapproval on his face.
She picked up her water and shuffled into the lounge. There, she set the glass on the coffee table and flopped onto the settee. She grabbed a purple cushion, wrapped her arms around it and buried her face in it. It was rough against her cheek and smelled faintly of fabric conditioner.
She’d never liked the week between Christmas and New Year. It was neither one thing nor the other, a kind of holiday limbo. The paper-chains hung tired and limp. Even the artificial Christmas tree appeared to be wilting. But it was too early to take them down. They had to keep up the façade, stop people becoming suspicious. What if someone visited unexpectedly? It would seem out of character if all their Christmas decorations had disappeared before New Year.
Deborah had gone through the ritual of family festivities in a daze, unable to absorb what was to happen. The world mocked her with its sudden abundance of pregnant women and babies. In the paper, on the television, in shops: she couldn’t escape the cruel reminders of the joy she should be experiencing. She daren’t let herself contemplate the possibilities or what ifs. In the queue in Tesco, two young women behind her had been discussing their morning sickness. She wanted to join in their conversation with her own experience, wanted to be a member of this nameless club that united countless women.
Jonathan was up. She could hear him moving about in the bathroom. That creaking floorboard gave him away. She sipped her water slowly, savouring its sharp coolness in her mouth. She looked at the clock, then at the photo next to it, on the mantelpiece. It showed Jonathan and his children. James and Anthony, the eight-year old twins, stood on each side of him grinning, and little Lucy, the apple of his eye, stood in front, with her father’s hands resting on her shoulders. She remembered the day it was taken. She had been in bed with ‘flu and Jonathan had taken the children to a safari park for the day. She flung the cushion down. “No point in putting off the inevitable” she mused aloud and went to get washed and dressed.
They arrived at the hospital at half past seven exactly. A young nurse, fresh-faced and oozing energy, showed them into a small white room off a long straight corridor of identical doors. She told Deborah to get undressed and put on the white gown on the end of the bed.
The room looked cold and austere and was sparsely furnished. A heavy iron bed stood against one wall. The mattress was very high. Deborah had to stand on a small step to climb onto it. To one side of the bed were an armchair and a locker, to the other, an oxygen canister and several pieces of medical equipment laid out on a shiny steel trolley. She took off the clothes she’d only put on half an hour previously and pulled on the white regulation hospital gown. The fabric was cool and slightly stiff. She felt absurd, her small frame enveloped in so much billowing material, complete with full length split up the back. Jonathan said nothing except “I’ll put your clothes in your overnight bag under the bed.”
“Sure you want to go through with this?” Dr Forsythe asked as she ripped the sterile wrapper off the plastic tubing on the trolley beside her.
Deborah wavered. She studied Jonathan, sitting in dispassionate silence at the side of the bed. Whatever reassurance or reaction she had hoped for was not forthcoming. Jonathan fumbled in his pocket, withdrew a tissue and blew his nose. She’d turned the whole thing over repeatedly in her mind, since her pregnancy had been confirmed, before Christmas. Initially, Jonathan accused her of being devious, unable to believe that she hadn’t realised sooner. Her periods had always been erratic.
Jonathan, who as he put it, knew her better than she knew herself, had eloquently and convincingly given her a list of reasons why this baby was out of the question. When they got married, he reminded her, it was with the understanding that there would be no children. He already had three, from his previous relationship and he did not want to be a father again. Jonathan’s next point was that they couldn’t afford a baby given their current financial position. OK, so, they weren’t well off, but neither were thousands of other couples who had children. They managed. Finally, he’d said, Deborah was in no fit state to look after a baby, what with her panic attacks. As usual, she couldn’t fault his logic. She knew it made sense, but had hoped he might soften once he knew she was carrying their child.
Trapped, she had to choose between her husband and her baby. She wanted both. Losing her husband – the mere thought filled her with blind panic. And the thought of a baby, small, helpless and dependent on her… He was right; she would never cope. The underlying message, unspoken but insidiously implied, was that if she ignored his wishes and went ahead with the pregnancy, he didn’t intend sticking around. Ultimately, she knew her loyalty had to be to her husband.
Without him, nothing else mattered. And they had agreed to no children when they got married, so of course, she couldn’t let him down now.
Deborah, apparently, was already about twelve weeks pregnant. Dr Forsythe had talked to them about a termination and what it entailed at this later stage. A detailed description of what she would have to go through did nothing to lessen Jonathan’s resolve. Ending the pregnancy was the only solution, he claimed, and Deborah like a good, compliant wife, agreed.
Dr Forsythe inserted the small tube between her thighs and into her cervix, explaining the procedure.
“This liquid prostaglandin will cause your cervix to dilate and eventually you’ll go into a sort of mini labour. It will be painful and protracted, but I’ve prescribed morphine for you for the pain. If you need a nurse, just press this buzzer.” She placed a small plastic unit, with a rubber button on it, in Deborah’s hand.
“I have to go now. Good luck,” she said, patting her hand before leaving the room.
Terror seized Deborah and held on tight. She wasn’t so sure about this now that she no longer had a choice. Inside she was crying, “no, no!” She wanted to tell someone she’d changed her mind, that she wanted her baby. But it was too late. Nothing could change the chain of events that she’d put into motion. They were hurtling towards an inevitable end like a runaway train. She was on a collision course of no return. Whatever happened, she would never hold this baby in her arms. The realisation was excruciating; she couldn’t bear to think about it. With great willpower, she harnessed her mind to concentrate on her surroundings. The room looked unfriendly and clinical. The walls were painted pale green and the floor was covered with a green patterned lino. Easier to wipe the blood from, she thought. She looked at Jonathan, hoping for some distraction, if not comfort. He was leafing through the newspaper and chomping on a Mars bar.
“There should be a crossword in here somewhere,” he said. “Fancy doing it with me?”
“Not at the moment”. She couldn’t comprehend how he could sit there eating chocolate as if he was at the cinema, while she was about to slowly and intentionally get rid of their baby. Her resentment stuck in her throat like dry toast that won’t come up, but you can’t swallow either. She’d always been unyielding in her belief that abortion was unacceptable under any circumstance. Until now, that is… Since discovering she was pregnant, she’d been unable to utter the word, “abortion” preferring “termination,” which sounded less violent and destructive.
She awoke an hour later to a growing pain in her abdomen. It grew and grew in intensity, levelled out to a plateau and then slowly subsided. She bit her lip and clenched her fists tightly. Jonathan was now holding a book, but looking at her.
“How do you feel, Debs?” he asked.
“Rough. I’m getting bad pain now too. Has anyone been in while I was asleep?”
“No. Why don’t you ask the nurse for an injection? The doctor said she’d prescribed morphine for the pain.”
Deborah hesitated, “I’ll probably be OK for a little while yet.”
As the pain increased in intensity and frequency, she realised she couldn’t tolerate it. It took her breath away. It tore through her abdomen like no pain she’d ever experienced. In desperation, she pressed the little button in the palm of her hand. After several minutes, a fair-haired nurse wearing wire-rimmed glasses, poked her head around the door.
“Yes?” she said.
“Please… I’m in a lot of pain and Dr Forsythe said I could have an injection when it got too bad.”
“Right,” responded the nurse. “I’ll be with you when I can, but we’re very busy. Lots of babies deciding to be born today, it would seem.” As she closed the door, Deborah could hear a baby’s plaintive cries seeping in from somewhere along the corridor.
She couldn’t believe the brutality and insensitivity of putting her on the labour ward. Was it a punishment, she wondered, or a lesson designed to stop you repeating the situation? She had felt the nurse’s frostiness in her pointed remark.
Ten minutes later, another nurse, older but no friendlier, came in bearing a kidney dish containing a hypodermic needle. She didn’t smile or look Deborah in the eye, but told her to turn on her side and yanked her gown open at the split. Wordlessly, she stuck the needle into Deborah’s buttock and the clear fluid coursed into her veins. She left the room as swiftly and quietly as she had entered. Deborah looked at Jonathan, tears welling up in her eyes. “It’s not my imagination, is it? They’re so cold towards me. It’s because of the termination, isn’t it?”
“No, no,” he hesitated. “They’re probably just very busy,” he added, averting his gaze.
Within minutes, as the powerful drug began to surge through her body, Deborah felt light-headed and nauseous. The pain, while not having subsided, was now competing with these for her attention. She lay flat in an attempt to stop the bed swaying. Coloured spots and lights flashed before her eyes, but the pain was receding amid the firework display in her head.
The next time she looked at her watch, it was after two. She’d lost several hours to drugged sleep. When she rang the bell to ask for more morphine, she had to wait twenty minutes before anyone responded. She imagined they despised her and saw her as the lowest of the low. She envisaged them maligning her in their office over coffee. She could even sympathise with them. She wanted to tell them that she was anti-abortion herself. Yet, still she ached for someone to reach out, to hold her hand or stroke her hair.
The hours staggered by in a haze of pain and drug-induced stupefaction. Deborah tried to focus on her breathing, anything to divert her attention from the incessant, screaming pain tearing at her abdomen like a demonic beast. Throughout, she was aware of Jonathan’s constant but silent vigil at her bedside.
Intermittently, she heard the wails of a newborn baby thrust unsuspecting, into the harsh light of reality. She wondered if she would ever be in that position herself. It was a privilege to bear a child and now that she had abused that honour, she felt that God would punish her accordingly. She was swamped by physical and emotional agony. She wished her life could end too. Glancing at her husband, she saw that he was once more engrossed in a book; oblivious to her torment. She turned to face the blank wall.
“You bastard” she thought. “Can I ever forgive you for making me choose? Why couldn’t I have both? You and my baby. Most women do. Surely that’s not being greedy.”
Her outrage was overtaken by a new wave of pain that crashed over her unexpectedly, taking her breath from her and carrying her on its crest. She winced and grabbed the metal post at the head of the bed, holding it till the pain subsided.
After her next morphine injection, she drifted in and out of sleep between waves of agonising contractions. Her dreams were fragmented and surreal, merging aspects of real life with the bizarre.
When she awoke, Jonathan was standing at her bedside whispering her name.
“Debs, I’m going to go home for a bit and get some sleep. I’ll be back later. You’ll be okay?”
She couldn’t tell if she was still dreaming, this was actually happening or she was hallucinating. She looked past him to the empty chair. He was going home, to bed, to sleep… while she was here going through her own private hell. It was true all right. He kissed her forehead and left the room. She felt desolate and childlike. She glanced back at the empty chair several times as if to reassure herself that she was alone.
When she woke again, an unfamiliar nurse was standing at her bedside, looking at her. The shifts must have changed while she was asleep.
“Are you all right?” asked the nurse. Her voice was soft and kind.
“Yes,” Deborah replied, “but I think I need the loo.”
“Hang on. I’ll get you a bedpan. Oh, by the way, I’m Janice, your night nurse.”
The nurse returned with a shiny steel bedpan and helped Deborah hoist herself up into a sitting position astride the bedpan. As she had been forbidden to drink all day, save an occasional sip of water, she was surprised at the urgency of her need to urinate. But she was beyond caring. She lolled back against the bed’s metal headrest and relaxed her muscles, allowing the warm liquid to escape from between her legs.
Through the haze of morphine and exhaustion, she heard rather than felt, a dull plop in the pan. She struggled for consciousness like a drowning woman fighting to get her head above water. What had happened? Had she inadvertently opened her bowels? Before she could guide her thoughts through the sludge of her mind, the nurse reappeared and gently pulled the bedpan from under her. When she saw the contents of the bowl, her face darkened and she hurried out of the room without a word.
Janice returned moments later and standing at the side of Deborah’s bed, she picked up her hand and gently squeezed it.
“That’s it,” she said. “It’s all over.”
It took several minutes before the meaning of Janice’s words sunk in.
Deborah placed her hands on her abdomen and looked up at the ceiling. She swallowed the lump in her throat, which threatened to choke her. She’d chosen Jonathan, but now when she needed him most, he wasn’t here. She’d given up a child for him and yet where was he in her hour of need. “Has my husband phoned?” she asked, mentally willing Janice to say what she wanted to hear.
“No love, he hasn’t. But I’m sure he’ll be back soon. The doctor will be here shortly to check you over.”
“Can I go home then?” asked Deborah. “I want to go home. I want to go home tonight.”
“No dear, they’ll keep you in overnight just to make sure everything’s all right and then you can go home in the morning. It’s nearly eleven o’clock, you know.”
The doctor was young, good-looking and looked as if he’d had too little sleep. He checked her thoroughly internally and asked how she felt. She couldn’t answer that question, as she honestly had no idea. Her feelings, like her husband, seemed to have abandoned her.
Jonathan hadn’t returned and she imagined him at home, tucked up in bed, sleeping soundly.
When the doctor had given her the once over, Janice returned with a bowl of warm, soapy water and a yellow flannel and towel. “Come on, love,” she said, helping her sit up. “Let’s freshen you up a bit, eh? Then someone will wheel you over to the ward, you can get some sleep and go home tomorrow.”
Janice washed Deborah’s face and hands with exaggerated gentleness. She was touched by her tenderness, which was in such contrast to her previous treatment that day. She still yearned for someone to hold her, stroke her hair and tell her that everything would be fine.
Later, a porter wheeled her bed across the tarmac of the car park and in through the swing doors of the main hospital building. The sky was dark but clear.
“Blimey. There’s a bit of a nip in the air tonight,” he said. “Reckon we’re in for a right old frost.”
Deborah mumbled her agreement, preferring not to engage in conversation with this man she didn’t know. She wondered if he knew that she’d had an abortion.
She felt self-conscious, as if everyone knew, as if she had a discerning mark that told people what she’d done. Realising that she didn’t want to make small talk, the porter whistled instead. She recognised the tune, but couldn’t put a name to it. It was one of those irritating commercial pop songs. The kind they played repetitively on certain radio stations. If someone told you the title and asked you to hum it, you’d never remember it. But if you heard it play in the morning, it would stick in your head for the rest of the day, no matter how hard you tried to get rid of it.
In the lift, she closed her eyes and concentrated on trying to remember the name of the song as the porter continued to whistle. He wheeled her down a darkened corridor and into a small dimly lit room, which contained three empty beds. He parked her bed in the space where a fourth had previously stood.
“There we go,” he said.
“Thanks,” Deborah muttered grudgingly.
“I’ll tell Sister you’re here.”
Deborah turned on her side and drew her legs up to her chest. She wrapped her arms tightly around her knees and lay in the dark, her eyes wide open, watching and listening.
She wondered whether Jonathan was on his way back yet and if he was, whether he’d be able to find her. She wanted to warn someone that he might be looking for her, but she wasn’t sure she could stand up yet, let alone walk. Suddenly aware of a whispered rustling from the sheets, she realised she was rocking herself, slowly, almost imperceptibly. It was a habit from childhood, used to soothe herself when she’d been sent to her room for some misdemeanour or other.
A cry startled her. Even to her inexperienced ear, she recognised a new-born baby. She turned onto her other side facing the doorway, which gave a clear view of the corridor. A woman scuffed past, a small bundle in her arms. She appeared mesmerised by whatever she was holding. Another howl pierced the quiet. Deborah understood now. She was on the maternity ward, with women who had recently given birth.
As she listened to another cry emanating from along the corridor, she could no longer hold back. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks, stinging the skin in their pathway. As she gave in, deep sobs convulsed her body. She cried for her baby, lost forever to this world, but most of all she cried for herself, trapped and alone amongst women who had their babies in cots beside them. Was her baby a girl or a boy, she wanted to know? What had the nurse done with it after she’d left the room? Was it recognisable? These questions and more flooded her mind, but there was nobody there to answer them.
She must get some sleep. Jonathan would be there to collect her the next morning and she didn’t want him to see her with red, swollen eyes. She wriggled down in the bed and pulled the covers over her head. It was over now and time to put it behind her. There was no reason to mention the events of today ever again. They could pick up where they’d left off and pretend it had never happened. Slipping into sleep, she wondered if they could do something special for New Year…
Terminated © Ellie McLoughlin 2001
Photos are from http://www.ourenergymatters.com/