Sometimes what is really worth saying is what is most difficult to say. Perhaps anyone can tell a story, but it’s the unsayable that charges the tale with compelling if not conflicting emotion. Writers write because they have something within that is urging to be said; the challenge, though (and the reason why I think not just anyone can tell a good story), is articulating what we feel so strongly when there may be no direct means of doing so. This is why people use metaphor and simile or play off the sounds of words themselves to recreate an experience that is otherwise unrelatable.
To help us say the unsayable, page 23 of Room to Write asks us to “choose a feeling, idea, or experience that you haven’t been able to express to anyone no matter how hard or often you have tried.” In trying to convey this, we are encouraged to use any of the following writing strategies:
1. Comparison – compare the sensation to a similar feeling that it reminds us of;
2. Juxtaposition – describe conflicting aspects of the sensation, side by side; and/or,
3. Rhythm – structure the words/syntax of our sentences to audibly mimic the sensation.
At times, it felt my eyes would propel from their sockets, or splash out of them with the popping burst of a water balloon breaking against blades of grass…as if I might literally ‘cry my eyes out.’ My heart felt it might split open my chest cavity like a crab leg gripped in the toothed metal of a lobster cracker; holding my heart back from rupture, however, was an opposing anvil of pressure at my sternum, compressing my breast as though I’d plunged into ever deeper waters. The dulling of other senses was likewise like treading below the water’s surface, looking up to see the pool of light above while deliberately sinking myself toward what was cool and black, obscuring my perception of life as it actually was through the dark and refracting depths and clogging my ears to reason. At other times, it was like being strained through a sieve, dispersing the atoms of my being into the broader environment, a melding into the background as I soaked into the carpeting or evaporated into the walls, becoming more and more transparent from my own sight. A water-logged cadaver deadened by apathy alternating with the quick-pulsing, hyperventilating, lurching engine of emotion that, either way, spun me off the road and left me paralyzed in the ditch, tangled within the weeds where no one could see or hear me. This is what depression felt like.
Yeesh, I feel like gulping for air after trying to re-feel the sensation of a dark, momentary blip in my life. Thank goodness this experience was temporary, triggered by a few too many life changes that occurred at once—good changes overall, granted, but changes nonetheless that entailed adjustment and sacrifice. Ah, the bittersweetness of life…but as I learned in Istanbul’s bazaars last autumn, it is good for their elaborately woven Turkish carpets to be trodden on, as it only makes the knots stronger. And thus we all strengthen into something of more beauty just when we may want to pity ourselves for being stepped on.
In any case, while I don’t have any issues talking about it (I prefer to, actually, as being able to speak of it in the past tense makes me revel in the happiness of my present and optimism for my future), I never feel I can adequately get the experience across. And I can’t say for certain I’ve done so here, nor really approached it in the way that Bonni Goldberg has asked; all I can say is that I wrote what came to me most readily, and I know I could rewrite it through various other lenses.
I didn’t deliberately attempt rhythm, but if I want to grasp for sound effects, I detect some unintended assonance and alliteration in the penultimate sentence: the repeated “aw” sound in “water-logged” that draws out the words like the slowed feeling of trying to run under water, the interspersed “a” and “eh” sounds in “cadaver deadened by apathy” that sound listless and whiney, then the “d” sound in “cadaver deadened” that falls with dull thuds. The action words with strong, snapping consonants and short “i” sounds that follow (“quick–pulsing, hyperventilating”) seem to then speed up the sentence a bit. At least that’s my take on it…or maybe I’m just making this all up as I go along 😉 But seriously, though, although my little analysis here might be stretching because I didn’t try to strategically embed devices like this, I point out these examples just to show how the sound of language could be used for certain effects, and obviously more effectively when done on purpose. I think this is at least the 2nd time I’ve bypassed rhythm as a writing technique in my responses, so I really need to start challenging myself more in this area.
But enough about me. How might you say the unsayable?
April 12th, 2010 at 08:01
What a powerful piece of writing, and what a compelling description of depression. It put my own fairly brief and rather mild encounters with this emotion into crystal-clear perspective. I’m so glad to hear you speak of it in the past tense, long may you continue to do so. I don’t know Bonni ‘s take, but I have to say I think you really got your point across. I was feeling almost lightheaded by the end of your description! It felt visceral.
Still love your sock monkey; he makes me smile every time.
April 12th, 2010 at 15:10
Thank you, Melody, for your complimentary and caring words. As I’m sure you can relate with your own encounters, the experience was uncharacteristic and unexpected, teaching me the hard way that no one is immune if the timing of factors is just right. I guess I’d been thrown for a loop when adjusting to a new marriage and overseas move at the same time (my husband literally accepted the new job during our honeymoon)…life felt acutely lonely and empty without family, friends, and career, but it was just a matter of time when I would regain the identity that I felt I’d left behind and carve out fresh purpose in my new environment. It also taught us both valuable lessons in marital sacrifice: since then, my husband has been beyond supportive of my aspirations after I had given up so much for his, and we set goals together.
And if there’s one thing one can never underestimate, it’s the laughing-power of a monkey, so I’m glad you enjoy–it makes me giggle, too 🙂
April 12th, 2010 at 08:22
Wow – this is heavy stuff. Very courageous of you to share. Thank you! I haven’t tried this myself yet as I usually let my characters speak for the various emotions in me. But taking it directly by the horns must be hugely liberating. I might try it at some stage …
April 12th, 2010 at 15:27
You’re so kind, Eva! I’m about as courageous as one can be hiding behind the persona of a monkey 😉 I was definitely hesitating with my cursor hovering over the “Publish” button on this one and thought perhaps some writing activities are best restricted to a personal journal…yet by now relating this feels more like an out-of-body experience for me, something I have to work to remember, so that detachment helped me undertake the exercise and dare myself to put it out there. The nice aspect of this prompt, though, is that you could also draw from a positive experience/feeling, so maybe you could try it first from that angle?
August 6th, 2010 at 23:32
Wow – great description. I had the “baby blues” after my first and could feel your words. So hard to explain, yet you did so beautifully. Especially loved the image of the water balloon bursting.
August 7th, 2010 at 09:20
Again, my heart is welling with gratitude for your thoughtful comments. I shocked a few readers by discussing this, but I think it’s something more people undergo than will openly mention, and for me, it’s just a relief to address it in retrospect. It’s comforting that you empathize.
September 8th, 2010 at 08:29
God, do I know how that feels. Sadly, I am too familiar with it. Lately, it’s happening more often. This writing business has been at times, a little too intense for me.
What I found interesting was that your descriptions were so vivid and physical. I get kind of numb and the best way to describe depression for me is that it’s like falling into a deep hole out of which, I cannot crawl out. I think, I purposely switch off so I don’t look at how I am really feeling, I become an outsider looking at things. Guess it’s trying to detach myself from the situation. I hope you NEVER experience those feelings again. Glad to hear it’s all in the past.
September 8th, 2010 at 19:51
Yes, I do empathize with the numbness…it really is like trying to detach from yourself so you don’t have to confront what’s getting you down, or you don’t have to think about why you’re not even sure that you’re down (to which I’m prone). For me, it was this wicked vacillation, though–I’d feel deadened when alone, but as soon as my husband came home, I would rage and sob…because, naturally, I blamed him for everything justifiably or not. Eck, even just thinking about it gives me shivers. Definitely glad to be past it, though accept it could happen again. How how are you doing?