Last year I read a novelette by Ted Chiang called “Understand,” which is about a guy with rapidly accelerating intelligence due to a super-secret experiment. As part of this process, he realizes that he feels things that other people don’t feel because they don’t dissect their experiences as deeply or understand nuance.
Part of writing well, based on my early-career assessment of my writing that sells vs. what doesn’t, and what I enjoy reading, is allowing the reader to wear another life through emotion. If a writer has correctly conveyed an emotion that I’ve either felt (relevant connection) or want to feel (wish fulfillment), I will enjoy wearing their written life more. I listened to an interview on the radio several months ago in which an artist talked about capturing a feeling that would resonate with maybe just one person, but that would bring them a sense of connection that they didn’t get elsewhere. Perhaps you’re the only other person who’s felt that exact thing, and by writing it well, you’ve just become a reader’s most intimate friend.
So I’ve been making a study of things I feel that don’t seem to have names, or that I see written/acted rarely.
We moved several times when I was growing up, but the places we moved to were within an hour or so drive of each other. I travelled through that area recently, and so I visited the place where I went to grade school, and the place we lived when I was in high school. I revisited my undergrad college recently also, and simply jumping in this time machine brought memories out of my head and into reality. I’ve had the same experience when going through old paperwork to compile resumes, background investigation forms, etc. I don’t think “haunted” is the right word. It’s too generic. When I go on these physical trips to facilitate mental travel, I get all the bad with all the good. Even stranger is the feeling that one of my grade schools is an antique store (most of it had to be closed because it was a death trap) and a building where I had some fun memories at college had been torn down completely. My high school is going to be demolished in the summer of 2019, and I was fortunate to get one last look after-hours when a Spanish teacher let me in. Part of me resides in not-so-ancient ruins, and places that no longer exist. That is a useful feeling–one worth putting onto the page.
I got onto the elevator at my church (I’m lazy) a couple of months ago, and there was a woman whose body-language was very introverted. We were the only two people on the elevator. I’m usually a bit of an introvert too, but she seemed to be honestly afraid that I was in the elevator with her. I hadn’t spoken a word to her, and held the door open when she went inside. Sometimes when I’m alone with people, and thinking entirely benign, non-aggressive thoughts, they will give me the vibe that I’m a scary person. I have a little bit of rank in the military also, and sometimes, before I get to know the new kids and they realize I’m laid back and often not serious about anything, I’ll get the scary-officer vibe from them. I was on the other end of it when I was brand new too, so I get that one. Is there a name for the fear of causing fear in others? That seems like a character trait worth giving to someone on the page also.
What about the guilt of feeling some joy at the horrible death of someone who’s done you wrong? Schadenfreude is a word, but it means something before that guilt kicks in. What is the guilt of having felt schadenfreude? Is it just normal, every-day guilt?
What about the feeling of becoming detached from your own emotional experience so that you can observe and record it for your work? Is “going to the balcony” (from negotiation doctrine) or “observing ego” (from psychology) descriptive enough?