It was as though I’d stepped out of a time machine. Fresh off an airplane, three thousand miles from the place I now call home, I was staying in my childhood room in California, the room where I spent my high school years. The décor is a little different, but the flowered curtains I made are still hanging, the dresser in the corner is the one my parents bought me when I was twelve, and the pink carpeting’s the same, too.
This was the first time in a long time I visited without my kids. Maybe that’s why my childhood feelings started flooding back the second I arrived or maybe it’s because the novel I’m currently revising is based on a tiny seed of an idea from my childhood. Something that happened. Someone important to me who died much too young.
Driving up to my dad’s house, I was struck by the late afternoon light, how it fell across the driveway. I thought of a scene in my book when the main character is sitting in the car with golden light settling on Sycamore trees. I saw the scene out the car window, but more, I felt the frustration of the sixteen-year-old girl that I’d been, being in a place I didn’t want to be. Wanting to move on, wanting to be on my own.
The whole time I’ve been revising this story—even while I was writing, really—something’s been missing. Holding me back. It took the trip home—back in time, in place, and in feeling—to jog loose the memories. Not specific memories of places or people or things (although that happened, too), but memories of feelings, of emotions, of thought, and of ways of thinking. In short I was transported back to my sixteen-year-old frame of mind.
Late at night, I walked across the college campus (I grew up in a college town), walking past a spot in my book where the MC fights with a young man. He kicks a trashcan. I could imagine the kicking of the can. The scattering of trash, but more…as I watched students walk by, I felt the coiled, youthful energy around me.
Walking through a eucalyptus tree grove near the edge of campus, the smell of the dust and the distinctive oil from the trees mixing in such a familiar way, I could feel a teenage restlessness, an excitement and desire, stir within me. A time in life it was impossible to turn off the feelings.
The next day my father had organized a brunch—eight of his friends, all who had known me since I was a child. As I sat at the table, I was once again the youngest. I was transported into myself as a small child, that small child who always lives in my mind somewhere, but who is usually tucked away. That morning she was right at the surface. I felt the feeling of being under scrutiny by grownups, of fearing I’d say “the wrong thing,” a cold sweat breaking across my face. And I could feel a youthful frustration and competition rise within me when one of the elderly women leaned across the table to ask me, “Are you a writer like your brother?”
A few days later, I drove to a more rural part of California. Horses and cows grazed on dusty hillsides, and when I stopped the car and walked up to the corral, the horses leaned over the fence to greet me. The smell of the horses, the dust mixed in, reminded me of the riding lessons I’d taken as a child—a feeling at the heart of my story rose up within me. The desire to ride fast and hard into the canyon.
Going After Emotion
Encouraged, I took it one step further. I took a trip up the California coast to Santa Cruz, the town where I met my husband. I went to the Harbor Café for breakfast—a place where over twenty years ago—we’d go to talk over our plans for the future. I watched the young people waiting tables—about the same age I was the last time I was there—hustling and rushing and laughing together: high enthusiasm. The feeling of youth, of life just getting going coursed through me.
I stumbled on a way to make feelings available to me, and this accidental gift made me realize that by seeking out familiar things—even my oldest emotions—I can evoke fresh feelings to pass along to my readers, enhancing the depth of my story. Instead of simply describing the heat of the sun on a southern California day, the way a horse looks as it runs, the scent of orange blossoms at midnight, or driving on a dark road to a dance…I’ll push myself further. I want to evoke in the reader the same feelings and emotions I remember feeling last week—while revisiting my sixteen-year-old self—the overwhelming giddiness of first love, the fury of love scorned, the joy of a dip in the road taken at high speed, and the thrill of a flat gallop on horseback.
Clearly we can’t all go home again as we write our novels. Sometimes, in fact, there is no home or place that we can relate personally to a story we’re writing. But what I learned from this trip was not that I can recall specific memories to use in my novel (I have lots of those), but that I can evoke feelings and emotions that I barely remember I have. Because while it’s true that everything we write might not be about places we’ve actually been or people we’ve even known, every story is about feelings, and in order for readers to feel our emotion—for us to evoke that emotion—we need to get in touch with feelings that may have been tucked away long ago.
Have you ever connected with long buried feelings and emotions when you least expected it? How do you get in touch with and evoke feelings in your writing?
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