It’s all the same. In acting, writing, life, the real indicators, the emotional movers, the things that forward the story and touch our hearts are the little things.
Here’s an example. The scene above from “Scream at the Devil” was a culmination scene. That means of course, that a great deal leads up to it. This scene begins with Detective Johnson, played by Tony Todd, finding me huddled, trembling and emotionally destroyed in a small closet. What leads up to it is a night of delusion and horror that have reduced me, and my mental health, to a quivering glutenous mass. My home is completely destroyed, everything in it is upside down, closets are emptied, dishes are broken, suffice to say that when Det. Johnson’s parter, (played by Kiko Ellsworth) comments. “She’s not much of a housekeeper, but we can’t arrest her for that!” he is making the understatement of the film. (And he’s really funny.)
So that’s the set up. Now, as they can’t find any evidence of a crime other than destruction of my own home by me, they have to go. But Det Johnson is not convinced, he sees a woman who is truly afraid of something. He sits down to try to talk me into leaving with him, to getting help, but I refuse. I cannot go back to a mental institution.
Following the script, we act out the scene, I tell him I won’t, can’t, leave, he gives me his numbers, and tells me to call him if I need anything. Then he stands to go.
Then he does something that was not in the script. He pauses, looks around at the devastation that is my living room, then leans down, picks up a candleholder on its side on the coffee table, sets it up right, gives me a sad but hopeful smile, and heads for the door.
And I began to weep.
This film was very emotional for me, so I was already very raw, but that simple move, that small action of righting something in a world so topsy turvy, just said so much. He didn’t say, “If you clean this place up, you’ll feel better.” He didn’t get out the vacuum cleaner, he didn’t do or state anything obvious, just that small, simple kindness that illustrated to a broken woman that she could begin to heal with tiny, baby steps.
Wow. What a wonderful actor, to find that moment.
And it’s the same for writing. When my new character Ellen is reminded of one day in her horrific childhood, the day she was rescued from starving alone in a halfway house, she remembers only one thing clearly. The taste of a packaged cinnamon bun, though she has no idea why. Back in real time, Ellen’s reliance on cellophane wrapped snack foods as comfort and safety are an ongoing theme, though she doesn’t ever really understand or even question why. We will discover later that she was given the sweet treat by the same neighbor who called the police, and being five years old and not having eaten for several days, it’s the most wonderful thing she had ever, or will ever eat. If I had stated in the opening chapter, “Ellen used snack foods as a substitute for affection and family,” it would have been, as we say, “Too on the nose.” It would have meant the same thing, but as it is implied, and subtle, it moves us more. At least, I hope it does.
And what about life? I recently had to put down not one, but two beloved pets. One thing I insist on is being with them, so that they will have something familiar and comforting as they leave this world. You would think that the memory of that, the shaving of the limb, the hypodermic filled with what the vets call, ‘the pink juice’ the glazing of eyes, would be what makes me sad. But it isn’t.
It’s the tiny things that move me. A few crushed leaves in my herb patch release a minty smell that makes me recall my lab lying there to cool down, her tail thumping and her brown eyes hopeful. A glimpse of white tissue on the sofa beside me make me think for just a second that I see my cat, who loved to curl up in the small space between me and the arm while I was writing. Both of these things, and many more bring me that cloying sadness of loss, sweet and empty. They are small things, yet so filled with richness for me, and me alone, that I can only smile at the remembrance as my throat tightens and my eyes well up.
So how would I write that? The smell of mint in the light wind would bring a choking clench to my character’s throat and her fingers would move against her thumb with a tactile memory of stroking the softest ears while the recall of a soft snore makes her laugh out-loud, forgiving the tightness in her throat. A bark in the distance slows her step as she walks back to the house, lingering to savor the scent of freshness and the memory of devotion. I don’t have to say, “She thought of her dead dog and it made her cry.”
There is something in comedy, and in good literature, called ‘the skip.’ That’s what I call it anyway. It’s a matter of association, from one thing to another that skips the steps in between. It’s hard to think of a good example, but I’ll try. I was watching a movie screening of a film I had done with a well known comedian, and there was a scene where I take my dress off, toss it on a chair, and stand there arguing in a bra and panties. It was quiet in the screening room, and all I could think was, “This scene is lasting forever!” though it had probably been all of fifteen seconds.
Then from the darkness next to me, the comedian said flatly, “Nice chair!” And I busted up laughing.
He had skipped the filler thoughts. If he had said. “You’ve taken your dress off, your wearing black lace panties. Oh look, you’re half naked, that must feel really exposed, let me take the focus off of you..nice chair.” It wouldn’t have been funny, would it?
So, if you are an aspiring writer, and want some practice, try this. It’s a version of a ‘sensory’ technique for acting. Take a real emotional time in your life. Relax quietly and ‘live’ it. Let all the memories and feelings about it pass through you, focus on the little things, the temperature in the room, the light on the trees, the smell of traffic, the feeling of the slate on your bare feet, whatever it is, remember the sensations.
Now write about it. Not in a linear way, but recalling the details as your primary indicators. Here’s one of mine, my ex husband is telling me he won’t pay for college, I notice the condensation growing on my ice tea glass and then gathering into droplets that are finally heavy enough to fall, leaving a trail that reminds me of snail slime. The smug smile on his face is accentuated by an unpleasantly hot wind that lifts my hair and fuels my rage.
Sure, now I know I should have thrown the tea at him, glass and all, but that’s probably better left in fiction. Though, unfortunately, the abandoning his girl’s education for his Porsche and petty revenge on me is very much real life.
See? Not even fun or interesting to hear that last bit is it? It’s the details that make it drama, it’s the obvious facts that make it melodrama.
And the same can be said even if you’re not a writer, or an actor, or have any use for words and actions other than on that greatest of stages, Real Life. Look for the little things. The reflections of sky on water, the smell of butter sauteing, the giggle of your niece in the other room, the splatters of dew on a smooth rock, the kindness of someone in a hurry who pauses to hold a door open for an elderly person, the music of gratitude in the scratchy ‘thank you’ that results.
Notice these things, feel them, keep them, take them home with you. They are what life is made of.
I wish you a million and nine small things, hundreds of thousands of special shining moments, smells, sounds, memories. Pull one out and it will take you back, bind them together, and you will have a life worth living.
Love, and tiny glints of beauty, to you all.
Shari, September 1st, 2013