Going Beyond Gut Wrenching Emotion
There is a very effective writing exercise known to some as THE 500 WORD SPEW. I learned it at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, from Barnaby Conrad. Although it does go by other less descriptive names, if you do the exercise correctly the suitability of the title becomes clear.
The basis of this exercise is to begin writing for about five minutes. You write this in long hand, and your pen never leaves the page. Non-stop.
The goal is to come out with a piece that consists of a 500-word long sentence, one where no punctuation of any kind is used. Where does the 'spew' come in? The piece begins with either the words "And then my mother said to me. . ." or "And then my father said to me. . .".
The objective is honest intensity. Usually you'll be able to get about 200 words down before you find you’ve stopped yourself.
The reason for these beginnings? To get you to reach down and underneath, where the sense memories are, and to bring up something with emotion. Not something emotional, because there are several emotions that are non-spewy.
No, what this exercise is looking for is something risky and not at all safe. That's why you may cut off at about 200 words. Parents, customarily being our first teachers, often teach the lessons that hold on the longest, bite the hardest, influence the deepest.
Parents are who we rebel against, aspire to be like, run from, and pine for. What an excellent source for digging up some honest gut wrenching emotion.
These are sense memories we can spend like gold in our stories.
After the original spew of 200 - 500 words, you get to take the piece and tighten it up, but don't work on it by adding any punctuation yet, although I think capitals are OK. The third draft will be soon enough for that polish. So what we're going to do here in this lesson is taking this piece a baby step farther.
A Warning is needed here. The piece when the original version is read out loud should come across in a rush, no spacing in the words, as if it is all literally physically being spewing from you as you read.
If you are working with a group, or in a physical workshop, you will hear people read their work out loud. Listen carefully to the tone and rhythm of their pieces. Do you hear pausing, an intake of breath, does it sound like the writer took a less than visceral approach to the exercise?
This is probably because the writer did not let themselves go all the way with the piece. Most will not, cannot. It's not an easy place to sit in. Let alone to write from.
Where can this unadulterated sense memory, this spew, this seemingly dangerous toy, possibly take you as a new writer? To the heart of things. And going there once for a quick look around, or even a self-guided tour, will give you a new sense memory: a tool to utilize for getting to the heart of your character's emotions.
Once you've let yourself go there, it will be easier to travel the same course when you are trying to get behind your character's eyes, into their sense memories. You’ll end up going from a first draft like our example, to what you find in its 5th draft on the exercise page.
- Example Toggle
Here’s one novice’s 1st draft. Transcribed it ended up at 50 words – that’s the farthest our novice could go:
And my father said to me as he grabs my cheek tight in his grip oh sweetie you are just so ugly then he slaps my face hard like that's the price for asking for attention in the first place like always the opposite of what I want or need
Moving to a 3rd draft like this, with some punctuation now. 157 words:
And my father said to me as he grabs my cheek tight in his grip oh sweetie you are just so UGLY then he laughs and slaps my face so hard it stings nearly as much as his words do I can tell how much he enjoys this like that's the price he demands from me for asking for the attention in the first place.
The message is clear enough, in a totally backward language we've built for communicating with each other. Seems I always can count on getting the opposite of what I want or need from him. And mind you, I'm VERY cautious about the amounts I ask for. I know how much I need so I always ask for a fraction, less to lose out on I guess. And I know the price of what he lets go of, I've been paying for awhile now. He's good too, sly in collecting on his accounts.
The ultimate goal is to let your characters be as honest. A 3rd draft, at 218 words.
And my father said to me as he grabs my cheek tight in his grip Oh Bonnie, you are just so ugly Then he slaps my face hard like that's the price for asking for attention in the first place. Like always the opposite of what I want or need. Like just because he can do that its all just one more way of telling me no without looking bad. So I fall for it over and over every time and then have to keep my smile on and my face clean my spine unbroken in the hopes he'll see me for the first time and not see HER. So that he'll look past my mom’s eyes and her smile. Boy, how that smile must have hooked him pretty bad for me to be paying for it these eight years later. Making me hate the way I almost love it when the white drains from his face because my movements and gestures visit HER on him. And the fear in his eyes and the tremble of his shoulders just because I wave my arm raise an eyebrow There I say with my body. With my face that's not mine; that he won't let go of, there like a slap. That he gets, to feel I am so ugly.
The Exercise notes let us look at the end product in its 5th draft version, even more was done with this deeply felt material.
- Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle
Lesson Exercise 1:
You can gather some strong sense memories that this gut-wrenching emotion produces and run with it. Coming up with bio or fiction material, or story notes you can build on.
5th Draft, 517 words:
And my father said as he grabs my cheek tight in his grip, "Oh Bonnie, you are just so ugly." Then he laughs and slaps my face so hard it stings nearly as much as his words do. I can tell how much he enjoys this, like that's the price he demands from me for asking for the attention in the first place.
The message is clear enough, in a totally backward language we've built for communicating with each other. Seems I always can count on getting the opposite of what I want or need from him. And mind you, I'm very cautious about the amounts I ask for. I know how much I need so I always demand a fraction, less to lose out on I guess. And I know the price of what he lets go of, I've been paying for awhile now. He's good too, sly in collecting on his accounts.
What's the worst? The joy he gets from being sly. With him, it's as if just because he can get away with doing it, it's all a natural part of the exchange.
What's the saddest? That I'll allow it, time after time. But I can see now, the slaps and the words are just one more way of telling me no without looking bad. I hate myself for knowing, but I've got his number. For so long I'd fall for it over and over, every time his voice would say one thing and his meaning another.
I hated that, how I'd try so hard to keep my smile on straight and my face clean. How strong I tried to be and how much it took out of me to keep my spine unbroken in the hopes he'd finally see me for the first time and not see her in the face he hated. Mine. So that he'll look past my mom's eyes and her smile to see his daughter for once.
Boy how that smile of hers must have hooked him. It must have been pretty bad—pretty wonderful (see how well he's trained me). Pretty something for me to be paying for it these eighteen years later. Sad, but he's done the job well, making me hate the way I almost love the white as it drains from his face because my movements and gestures visit her on him. The power I get to see the fear in his eyes and the tremble of his shoulders just because I wave my arm or raise an eyebrow.
And I do, I relished his cringing response as I said there!, as I broke down and said it all with my body, take this! As I shouted using my face like a swift open palm on his weathered cheek, using a face that's not mine, the face he won't let go of. His memories, my smile, there!, like a slap that he gets to feel; I am so ugly.
I hate remembering the way my father's said things to me, and even more I hate remembering the way I've chosen to say things to him.
If you use this fodder as story notes, you could probably turn these 500+ words into an entire 3,000-word short story. Just as easily, this could remain as subtext. You can rely on it for the reason your narrator is acting as she does. You might only bring in hints about all this in that short story.