His knuckles and jewelry battered against my nose and the bones in my face negotiated their positions as if they had always longed to invert themselves, to shuffle lines and sockets like new puzzle pieces. My hands swiped at his jugular before the emerald ring hammered into my mouth, prying my teeth out in groups until I looked like a piano without keys. Choking on saliva, my head jerked back as he pulled my collar toward his face. Blood pooled under my tongue and canines scraped along my stomach lining, pushing up vomit as he shouted in my ears. He was asking me questions. I’m sure he was asking me questions.
“Avoiding the obvious when writing about extreme states of mind is a real challenge for any writer,” writes an anonymous contributor to What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. “Resorting to such cliches as “his heart was in his mouth,” “she was on cloud nine,” and “he flew off the handle” is far easier than figuring out what is really happening to someone scared, happy, or angry. You must translate the emotion of feeling into fresh, interesting language, rendering precisely or metaphorically what is taking place within the character.”
This is something I’ve gotten better and better about, particularly since the start of my novel, but truthfully, this is a continual struggle. Characters are put in a slew of situations which push their buttons and, as a writer, it can be challenging to uniquely and perceptively describe intense emotions each time. We writers have a lot to worry about like pacing, plot, setting… the list goes on. And occasionally, we can fall into the trap of describing an angry outburst with a cliche like “he flew off the handle.” It’s also hard to write hundreds of characters who all experience the same umbrella emotions like fear, anger, and pleasure in unique ways. So, I’ve got to do this exercise suggested by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
“Write three short paragraphs, the first “fear,” the second “anger,” and the last “pleasure,” without using those words.” (Easy part.) “Try to render these emotions by describing physical sensations or images.” (Harder part.) “If you want, write mini-stories, dramatizing these emotions. Try to make your language precise and fresh.” (Hardest part.)
So I’m going to publish three flash fictions, each focusing on fear, anger, and pleasure, in that order. Help me out by commenting on my attempts or by emailing me your own attempts at email@example.com and I’ll put them up on the last day if they follow the rules above.
Let’s do it!
My brother lifted the white tarp and rushed me into the tent. Inside it was dark except for spotlight circles aimed at the stage as people noisily filed into the tiered seats. The fair’s volunteers monitored the lines and checked tickets with military precision, even stamping hands for a secondary check down the line. The two of us didn’t bother to go cut in line and climbed the steel supports under the seats instead and wriggled into the aisles unnoticed before calmly taking a seat on the edge, the seats nobody wanted. The seats around us filled up fast and soon the lights went down. The sound of mallets battering on drums rolled into the audience from the stage wings and for the next forty minutes, I forgot about our parents and all the doctors.
have we walked toward your promised land, toward the foothills of your mountainous grace and glory. For two hundred years, we have walked with locks snapped from between our feet, but still we feel the weight of iron as chains drag behind us like metal tails, pulling our heads under the dregs of life while white men swim in the clear water above us, looking as far off as the sun. We are drowning, Lord. You birthed us without buoyancy and though we fight with powerful arms to reach your heavens, we remain at the bottom of life’s pail like black smut suffocating in familial ashes. Give us something, Lord, we pray. We believe in your presence and your righteousness, Lord, that one day you will make us irradiant phoenixes, burning high among stars and our black skin will glow with your divine solace like night. But today, 40,000 families are dust and embers, Lord. And our buildings blaze like matches. They splinter under our feet. So I ask, in desperate repetition:
What do we do now, Lord?
Where do we go, Lord?
What do we do now?
Where on earth do we go?
I’m so happy!
The sun shines and the flowers bloom!
The Lord be praised for there’s nothing happier than
to-day’s happy day.
Press a gun to my temple and let petals
burst from the warm barrel and
with smiles and roasted marshmallows!
O, how I giggle at the men of the past:
Neanderthals, Victorians, Bohemians, and, too,
the muslims, buddhists, atheists, and
jews and blacks on this happiest of happy
My insides float in warm strawberry jam.
O, happy day! Is there no end to the good
that glides over the world like peach syrup?
Thailand is blooming!
Louisiana is singing!
Koreans are holding hands!
Ethiopia is laughing!
Who could tear through my impenetrable, faith-full
ballistic vest of happiness?
Who could wring the happy perspiration
from the bright underpants of life to-day?
Together, let’s walk unafraid
through the flowering minefields of happy.
Fine grooves split down the shells of refulgent embers, carving outlines of Halloween teeth into blackened wood, and spheres of tangerine held in your eyes like dry planets while water stole up the sand to make negatives of our toes. Lying back, the smell of marshmallows and ash filled our noses and stars clumped and circled overhead like a halo stretched over Earth. I said something about not being able to see the leaves changing color and we laughed at our seriousness. With an exhale, we closed our eyes as freckles of red danced over us like fireflies.
Sirens pounded in my head as I leapt up from the shattered glass table I didn’t see. Pops was carrying the heavier bags and ran ahead down the dark and empty street. “They ain’t gon’ come quick enough. Haha, we good. We good,” he whispered to himself while I limped behind. After an hour, we made it under the Jenson bridge and unpacked the goods in our bags to wheelbarrows. My leg was cut up and bleeding. It stung like someone was taking a cheese grater to my calves, but I kept packing and lay black tarp over the loot. “You ever think this’s wrong?” I asked as pops lifted the rubber handles. The rusted metal dug back into the mud and pops squeezed my jaw. His eyes were flat, like manhole covers, and he started talking like he was reading from a book. “Morality is optional,” he said. “And we opt out a long time ago.” He let me go and we got going down the moonlit trail. As the handles of my cart bounced in my hand over the gravel, I thought about what he said and couldn’t shake the feeling that what he really meant was that we’ve never had many choices and damnit this was the best one.