There Are No Words

showing off dad's catch
showing off dad's catch

I am 7 years old, standing on the dock, looking out at my father. He is waist deep in the lake and holding a fishing pole. The sun is getting low and he’ll come in soon. I am supposed to be with the babysitter up at the house.

I hate the babysitter. An empty lot separates our houses. It is easy for her to babysit and she is sixteen, I think. Maybe she isn’t. But she’s old enough.

“What are you doing down here?” dad asks.

I want to tell him, but I’m sure I will get into trouble. “I don’t like B—,” I say. My temperature rises.

“Don’t be silly,” he says. “Why do you say that?” He reels in the line.

I don’t know how to tell him. I can’t. I stare out at the water. The sun turns it gold, flickering with small waves. “I don’t know,” I say. “My stomach hurts.”

“Go back to the house.”

“I don’t want to. B—… she says means things.” The sun makes me blink and I rub my eyes.

“Just do what she says,” my dad replies and casts out his line. “Don’t make her mad.”

I decide I will walk up to the house, but I won’t go inside. I will stay in the backyard until B— goes home. I will never tell my father what she says to me.

What she says to me is how her and her boyfriend have sex. She laughs and tells me her boyfriend is going to come over to my house if I am not good.

Later that summer I take her cat and shut it up in my dad’s steamer trunk. The cat shreds the lining and then claws up my hands when I let it out. B— asks me why her cat is acting so strange, so on edge, and I shrug. I feel terrible though every time I open that trunk. And my father is furious.

“What were you thinking?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

In fiction we write terrible things. What difficult scenes do you write? Death, murder, rape, fear, grief, heartbreak, failure, torture? Maybe the horrors you write about are small ones–though the word small is deceptive. There is the epic death of an entire village in war and the small death of a child’s goldfish. But you can’t tell the real story if you mock the child’s loss.

Anyway, how do you write difficult scenes? Or are they easy for you? The other day I watched an episode of Torchwood with my students. In one scene, a man in murdered in front of his wife and children. Every time I watch this I look away. The first time I watched it I started to shake. But one of my students–he laughed. Like he knows it is just a tv show and I forgot.

Why is that? Why do some of us laugh and some of us feel sick? How do feel if you write a scene like that?

17 thoughts on “There Are No Words

  1. I don’t know how. I really don’t. So far, I haven’t. I’ve ditched the really tough things and I need to take the bull by the horns and do it. It has to happen. I can’t write without those really hard things in my writing; it stagnates, becomes stale.

    I don’t know how I’ll do it. I felt there were certain things I’d never write, but I have to. By saying “never” I’m instantly less a writer than I could be.

    Remembering it’s fictional might help, but from where I’m sitting right now, it doesn’t.

    1. I’m less of a writer for using cliches, but…

      …Never say never. You never know what tomorrow may bring.

      Isn’t this something your faith is for? Shouldn’t your faith help no matter where you’re sitting? I’m just asking because I think you can do anything, write anything, if you decide you can. And no one ever has to see it. Stir up that stagnant pool then, and write.

      1. My faith really has nothing to do with my writing. While I believe I have been endowed by my Lord and God with the ability to write, WHAT I write he leaves up to me. 😉

        Well, I assumed that what you wrote was up to you. Hmm. I have to think more clearly about what I was trying to say.

        I think not being able to do the hard things has to do with my being a coward and not wanting what passes through my fingers to somehow enter my reality. There’s a very (!) stupid notion that what I write will come true if I write it, but will come true on me. Since I wouldn’t wish those hard things on myself (!!) or anyone else I know, I don’t write them. It makes me … safer, somehow. In my mind. You know.

        This is probably why I wouldn’t write about anything terrible happening to my child. I know that just writing words on the page won’t make things come true, but there is that feeling… But fictional characters… again, it is hard. Some things I write I feel mixed feelings about.

        *Sigh* In the end, I’m a gutless coward afraid to write the icky things not because I lack faith — I don’t really connect one with the other for some reason — but because I’m … well, chicken.

        Forgive me. Seriously. I’m not a person of faith, so I may be speaking out of turn and saying ignorant things. I don’t mean to. But couldn’t your faith give you strength to write about difficult things? Is that an option? Could they be connected?

        And I don’t know why.

        I only even say that because if something is burning in your thoughts and you think about writing them down but are afraid to…well, I just think it would be okay to use whatever resources you have available.

        Feel free to ban me from your blog for being a moron. I deserve it.

        You’re not a moron. You are not banned. You’re smart and interesting. In fact, I rather hope I haven’t been sworn off by mentioning religion. I’d live in a very small dark world if the only people in my life thought and lived just like me. And I am always curious what gives other people the strength to write what they do–because I’m usually scared out of my wits. Had serious second thoughts posting this…but there you go

      2. I didn’t mean to sound defensive. Did I sound defensive? I hope not. You didn’t say anything to MAKE me defensive, but I wonder if I came off as prickly before?

        I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.

        Of course what I write is up to me. What I meant was, because I don’t write literature targeted at Christians, I guess my faith isn’t something I see as pervading the material. Not what I write, anyway; it’s about as far from Christian literature as you can get without being Satanic. But I do recognize where from the ideas come and where from the ability to express those ideas — for better or worse — is borne. Does that make sense? I.e., my faith penetrates the fiber of who I am, therefore it doesn’t need to be something I display in the actual prose itself.

        And yes, my faith should help no matter where I’m sitting. It should take a more active role in my writing, because it’s a gift from God and I honor the gift and the Giver by using it to my best ability. So I thank you, wholeheartedly, for the reminder. I really do.

        I don’t know why I feel the way I do about writing terrible things about my children, or spouse, or even let myself think those things. But it’s true if I’m honest — I’m afraid it will happen, come true. No idea why. Honest.

        Could my faith give me the strength to write tough things?

        You know, I wish I could answer you definitively. I can’t. I don’t know is the real answer, and the reason I don’t know is because I’ve never tried. I just … don’t go there.

        But I think I’m game to try and see if my faith helps at all.

        And thank you for not banning me, but even more for finding me interesting and smart. I guess I can include you in the list of people I’ve fooled.


        No offense taken by anything you brought up at all, in any way, shape or form. And I hope I haven’t offended YOU somehow, my gracious and wonderful host.

  2. Hardest things I ever wrote (emotionally speaking) were (a) a poem (!) about a violent rape, and (b) the climactic chapter of Draft #1 of the WIP, which really tore me up.

    I don’t think there’s any getting around the need to write hard scenes, except for writers of little children’s books. As long as you don’t let yourself get freaked out by, like, identifying with evil characters, I don’t see how it’s possible — even moral/ethical — to write of a world without darkness. (I’m not saying you are advocating that, but I’ve heard others insist writers are obligated to take people away from real-world unpleasantness.)

    1. “…a poem about a violent rape…” well, Tori Amos write a song, so sure. But that would be difficult. And anything terrible for the main character is hard. I know.

      I hear some writers insist that you must write about the darkness and others insist that you must take people away from their troubles. I never like those must sentences. Then again, write the story that must be told. If you’re not writing a scene because you’re afraid, that’s bad. If you’re writing an upsetting scene just to shock people and get attention, that’s pointless. Write the story. Answer what it needs. There are many shades of dark after all.

  3. You begin the most interesting stories, and then leave me hanging, wanting more! I had terrible sitters too when I was a kid, but this one you had – man, she sounds like a real piece of work!

    What happened to her? Did you ever tell your dad what she was saying to you? Did you ever ‘fess up to him about putting the cat in his trunk, what the real reason was? What happened??

    1. If you’d met her family, you’d know why she was a piece of work. I don’t really know what happened to her all these years later. Her parents died–her father while on some drug deal apparently–and her grandparents, who were awful, divorced and argued who get stuck with her. And her sister was a thief. Whatever terrible things she said to many–and she said plenty–they don’t compare to her own problems.

      I never told my dad–not to this day. Not about her or the cat. Never told anyone that much about her until I was an adult. And still I feel weird about it.

      1. All scenes are difficult scenes, no matter if there are only two persons in them or, even more difficult, only one. They’re difficult because we have to take in the full nuanced reality of their being and understand how something as seemingly inane as “Would you like a cup of coffee?” could mean something quite other and quite revealing.

        As I see it, your gift with story is your ability to convey vulnerability and those humid, gravid moments that hover when the characters can’t find the words they really mean…or when they do and the implications splatter out like ketchup in a truck stop cafe, drowning its target and creating an even deeper sense of being vulnerable.

        My way is to keep rehearsing those scenes until the result is like someone trying to offer a heartfelt proposal of marriage in the midst of that famous Marx Brothers stateroom scene, or the Jack Nicholson scene in the cafe in “Five Easy Pieces,” where the waitress asks Jack, “You want me to hold the chicken.”

        Humor is the sad awareness of pain. If it weren’t so painful, it wouldn’t be humor, only comedy. Humor is a group of persons thinking to converse, to exchange feelings and ideas and, in the process, completely misreading one another. Humor is the space between earnest and sincere attempt and actually being understood. Thus is humor a threat as well as a result.

        I love the idea of you putting the cat in the trunk. Your cat tops Schrodinger’s cat for dramatic impact and from now on, I will think Marta’s cat, Marta’s cat. The story you told is a perfect story. A young girl is intimidated by her babysitter to the point of being resentful and suspicious. She carefully entices the cat to a position where she can trap the cat in her father’s trunk. The story ends there because the reader can visualize the effects, because the cat represents the girl’s helplessness and the anguish it causes her. And because she knows, on some level she knows what that cat will do, which is the things she would do if she were able.

        Just as there is no law requiring stories to be told chronologically, there is no law or even a convention that speaks to the necessity for a character to learn her lesson in the story; she can realize the truth days, perhaps even years later.

  4. andewallscametumblindown

    “Why do some of us laugh and some of us feel sick?” When I first saw “Love Story” I laughed at all the blowing of noses around me when it finished. Nowadays, such scenes mean a lot more to me and make me cry. Our experiences can change our reactions.

    1. Absolutely. I react differently now to lots of things. But some us become harder and others become softer… why? And some people have few troubles and can still be moved by an emotional scene. I’ll never be able to answer the question completely, but I wonder why anyway.

      1. andewallscametumblindown

        In the case of “Love Story,” it wasn’t that I’d suffered troubles, but that I could imagine something bad happening. When I didn’t love anyone, I couldn’t imagine it. ~Miriam

  5. Shelly, yes, every scene is hard. As to whether or not my characters learn anything, half the time I’m not even sure. Or at least I couldn’t tell you. I’d rather let the reader decide.

  6. Darknyt,

    No. Not defensive. You’re okay. It is always tricky to bring up someone’s faith (and hey, I started it), and since we can’t hear tone of voice and see body language on a blog, it is hard to know how someone means to sound.

    I just would like everyone to use whatever gifts/beliefs/call-it-what-you-will to write what they need to write. You haven’t fooled me. You are interesting and smart–you’re fooling yourself if you think you aren’t. So there.

    No offense anywhere here. Thanks for your reply.

  7. when writing, i know it’s not ‘real’, the same as i know tv, film and videos are not, but the good ones still make me sit up… better ones make me gasp… gratuitous violence i won’t even watch, and i’m a huge fan of horror/fantasy…

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