I’ve been thinking about triggers. Words, events, personal history, people, a slant of light that gives rise to a memory, any and all of these can trigger a trauma response in our bodies, igniting unhappy somatic experiences, shadows pass over our faces, our hearts. I’ve also been thinking a lot about agency and focus and choice.
Nearly every morning, while I (ma)linger in bed, my husband goes downstairs to let the dog out and to get us coffee. Soon I hear the patter of Stanley’s paws running back up the stairs, and then he pogoes into bed beside me. That galloping sound? That’s a happiness trigger. Same as it was when the patter was my children, running into our room in the morning. My husband, holding two mugs is also a happiness trigger. I started making a joke when the coffee, Stanley, and my husband arrived, “Well, best part of the day is over!”
But why? A happiness trigger is the expectancy of good to come. It’s anticipatory pleasure. Surely those can happen all day long. I want to pay more attention. Here’s a few of mine:
- waking to birdsong
- smell of popcorn
- self-help section of the bookstore (hope springs eternal!)
- ping of a text from a pal
- opening notes of a fav song (“Sweet Baby,” by Macy Gray. “All I Want,” by Joni Mitchell. “April in Paris,” by Ella.)
- freeway exit for my hometown
- new Lorrie Moore, Tana French, James McBride book
- onions and butter on the stove
- tight fist of a peony
- smart women talking and people listening
As we move toward a covid-thaw, after the last year of struggling, worrying, managing (perhaps barely), maybe we can look for micro-happiness triggers (henceforth to be known as MHTs) to see us through while we wait for everyone to be vaccinated. I am truly curious, what are your MHTs? Maybe your joy will become mine as well.
In addition to my regular workshops, which I ADORE, I’ve been teaching a series called Let’s Talk Craft! I mention this here because I’ve been reading, re-reading, and enjoying all over again a lot of individual stories for our discussions. Here’s just a few great story collections:
NATASHA, by David Bezmozgis is so good. This collection came out in 2005 and I am delighted that I had the opportunity to reread the eponymous story. The collection is linked stories about Russian Jews who emigrate to Toronto and the difficulties of navigating two cultures. Funny, smart and wrenching.
ANTON CHEKOV STORIES, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is something any writer should own, but if you don’t have it in you to read a collection, you can find “The Lady with the Little Dog,” here. It is a gorgeous story about how even a cad can surprise himself by his capacity to love. Plus, the way in which Chekov conveys boredom with a watermelon is amazing! You’ll just have to read it.
HEART SONGS, by E. Annie Proulx. This is a beautiful collection full of weather and landscape, surprising tenderness and perseverance. The story, “A Run of Bad Luck,” is a favorite of mine. I will never unsee the “high hat” of snow on a pick-up truck, an overnight accumulation that indicates infidelity, a man staying too long in the house. (Talk about the perfect detail!)
BARK, by Lorrie Moore. What can I say. I adore her. I wish I could have dinner with any one of her women. I particularly love the story, “Thank You for Coming.” Check this out:
“Mom, What are you doing?” asked my fifteen-year-old daughter, Nickie. “You look like a crazy lady sitting in the kitchen like this.”
“I’m just listing to some music.”
“But like this?”
“I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You are so totally disturbing me.”
Nickie had lately announced a desire to have her own reality show so that the world could see what she had to put up with.
Just a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommended in the newsletter.
At the start of this note I mentioned triggers and somatic responses to triggers. Paying attention to those responses, the elevated heart rate, the exhaustion, the sinking feeling in your stomach, the agita, is not only good self-care (naming and pausing, baby!), it’s also good to notice for your writing.
Here’s a prompt, not only to consider how to convey emotions in your characters, but also to keep your writing butt in your chair.
- Think of an event that happened today, or yesterday, something which evoked an emotion in you. Record the event, but only moment to moment, through your senses. Never name the emotion. Never explain, analyze or interpret the emotion, just write the responses. After you’ve practiced this on yourself, try it for characters in your stories. Here are some cues to help get words down.
- Write about:
- Signals inside the body—temperature change, heartbeat, muscle reactions, neural change
- Signals outside the body—posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, etc…
- Flashes of past/experiences of the emotion—little bursts that reference what we experienced in the moment of the event. (oh, I’ve felt this before when I was six and my mom was late to pick me up from school…) These come not as analysis, but as sense impressions.
- Flashes of the future—something we desire or anticipate or dread that comes to us through images, bursts of a waking dream.
- Sensual selectivity—our emotional culling of the environment to only let in certain clues. For example the experience may put us into a space where we can only see positive things: the blue sky between the clouds, the tiny blooms on the azalea, etc… Or, of course, only the negative things: the ribs of the stray cat, the painfully scabby nose of the man living outside, the car driving slowly down the street with smoky windows.
- I encourage you to try this prompt when you feel stuck in your work, or when you feel a character isn’t coming to life on the page.
If you’re interested in working with me, check out these two upcoming classes. Let’s Talk: Scene online through Grub Street on April 3rd, find it here. My Craft Talk: Setting class is online through Literary Arts on May 15th, find it here. If a class/discussion on Dialog, Writing Beautiful Sentences, Plot (Meaningful Action), Endings, or Revision sparks your interest, shoot me an email and I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve been seeing articles and listicles about what we will abandon from the before-time, and what new habits and behaviors we’ll all maintain after the covid-thaw. One thing I know, I’ve permanently given up underwire. A thing I won’t give up? You’ll have to wrestle me to the ground to keep me from making the sauce that got us through the pandy.
I think I made it eight times. I kept frozen quarts at the ready. We had it on scrambled eggs with sauteed chard. On mushroom ravioli. With meatballs of every variety. We added more red pepper flakes and put it on shrimp and linguini. I ate spoonfuls while staring out the window, mystified and depressed at the rain and the empty streets. When our power was on-again-off-again during the ice storm, we simmered it and had it on cheesy polenta. I’m telling you, with this sauce, you can’t go wrong! Thank you, Ina Garten.
2/3 cup good olive oil
1 c whole peeled garlic cloves (24 cloves…not joking!)
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
2 t whole fennel seeds, crushed
1 t crushed red pepper flakes (+ or – to taste)
1/3 c dry red wine, such as Chianti
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In a medium pot or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the garlic has softened and is lightly browned. (Watch carefully. Don’t get cocky and look away or it will burn and you’ll have to peel all that garlic again. You don’t want to do that!)
- Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes, place them in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and pulse until they’re roughly chopped. With a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic to the food processor and pulse again to chop the garlic. Pour the tomato mixture into the pot with the olive oil, add the fennel, red pepper flakes, red wine, salt, and black pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Pretty much I’ve just given you the keys to the kingdom! Put this on anything and you will be happy.