Love, Loss and Emotion in Our Writing

James Scott Bell

Her name was Susan and we were in the third grade. I saw her for the first time on the playground. She had blonde hair that was almost white, and eyes as blue as a slice of sky laid atop God’s light table.

She looked at me and I felt actual heat in my chest.

Remember that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, sees Appolonia for the first time? His two friends notice the look on his face and tell him, “I think you got hit by the thunder bolt!”

When it happens to us at eight years old, we don’t exactly have a metaphor for it, but that’s what it was––the thunder bolt. Love at first sight!

I remember the ache I felt the rest of the day. My life had changed, divided into two periods (admittedly of not too lengthy duration)—before Susan and after Susan.

Now what? Having no experience with love, I wondered what the next step was supposed to be. How did love work itself out when your mom was packing your lunches and your allowance was twenty-five cents a week?

I’d seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. He climbed up the vines to Maid Marian’s balcony. Was that a plan? Not in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of mostly one-story, ranch-style homes. Clearly, the balcony strategy was out.

I had also seen the 1938 version of Tom Sawyer(I was getting most of my life lessons from movies and Classics Illustrated comic books) and was enamored of his love for Becky Thatcher. And what had Tom done to impress Becky? Why, he showed off, of course.

There was my answer. I would show off in front of Susan.

What was I good at? Kickball. Athletic prowess would be my ticket into Susan’s heart. So out on the playground I made my voice loud and clear when I came up for my kicks. Susan was usually nearby playing foursquare.

And every now and then we’d make eye contact. That’s when I’d kick that stupid ball all the way to the fence.

Yet I was shy, afraid to talk to her directly. I mean, what was I going to say? Want to see my baseball cards, baby? How about joining me for a Jell-O at lunch? Hey, that nurse’s office is really something, isn’t it?

Flummoxed, I thought of Susan for weeks without ever exchanging a word with her.  She had no problem with that, it seemed. But she knew I liked her. The rumor mill at school was a fast and efficient communication system. Which only made me more embarrassed.

I considered running away and joining the circus, but my parents were against it.

Then one day circumstances coalesced and the stars aligned.

School was out and kids were heading for the gates to walk home or get picked up. I usually went out the front gate. Susan went out the back, and this day I fell in with that company and quickened my pace to get next to her. Heart pounding, I said something suave like, “Hi.” I don’t recall that she said anything, but at once I found we were side by side, walking down the street.

I started talking about our teacher, Mr. McMahon, who was tall and imposing and a strict disciplinarian (thus, in hallways and safely out on the playground, we referred to him, in whispered tones, as “Mr. McMonster.”)

Susan said nothing. I started to get more confident. Maybe, just maybe, she was interested in what I had to say. And maybe, just maybe, oh hope of all hopes, she actually liked me back.

All of that showing off was about to pay dividends!

And then came one of those moments you never forget, that scorch your memory banks and leave a permanent burn mark. Susan turned to me and spoke for the first time. And this is what she said:

“Just because I’m walking with you doesn’t mean you’re my boyfriend.”

It was the way she said boyfriend that did it. It dripped with derision and perhaps a bit of mockery. If I could have found a gopher hole I would have dived in, hoping for a giant subterranean rodent to eat me up and end my shame.

This all happened fifty years ago, yet I can still see it, hear it and feel it as if it were last week.

Is that not why some of us are writers? To create scenes that burn like that, with vividness and emotion, rendering life’s moments in such a way as to let others experience them?

Even if it’s “only entertainment,” the emotional connection that takes us out of ourselves is something we need. “In a world of so much pain and fear and cruelty,” writes Dean Koontz in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.” And the way into that escapism is to create emotional moments that are real and vibrant and sometimes even life-altering.

The best way to do that is to tap into our own emotional past andtranslate moments for fictional purposes. Like an actor who uses emotion memory to become a character, we can take the feelings we’ve felt and put them into the characters we create on the page.

Thus, Susan was part of my becoming who I am and how I write.

So Susan, my first love, wherever you are, thank you. Maybe I wasn’t your boyfriend, but you taught me what it’s like to love and lose. I can use that. All of life is material!

I hope you’re well. I hope you’ve found true and lasting love, like I have. I want you to know I hold you no ill will.

But always remember this: I’m still the best kickball player you ever saw.

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17 thoughts on “Love, Loss and Emotion in Our Writing

  1. Great piece Jim! My first love was in the third grade as well. And her name was Susan – Susie, really. She also had the same last name, Williams. So you can imagine how the playground rumors flew.

    And I chose showing off as my approach, too. Only instead of kickball, I chose hanging upside down on the jungle gym while imitating Curly of the Three Stooges.

    I had about the same success as you did. Thankfully we moved to a different school for the fourth grade.

    Later, as a senior in High School, my mother drove school busses for a few schools. She was scheduled to pick up the pep club from the opposing school at my school’s Homecoming game. She didn’t want to drive home alone after the game, so she talked me into riding with her.

    So there I was, the only guy on the opposing team’s pep club bus, going to my Homecoming game. And who happened to be the head cheerleader for that team? Yep, Susie Williams.

    She was drop dead gorgeous, and the thunderbolt hit me again there on the bus. I tried to look as cool as I could under the circumstances, and asked her if she remembered me.

    “Sure I do,” she said, smiling. “you used to hang upside down on the jungle gym and make Three Stooges noises.”

    There were no gopher holes on that school bus.

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  2. Thank you for the word “translate” as readers and friends and family are always asking what’s true and what’s not, and how realistic fiction (mine) isn’t about me. I tell them it’s emotionally true, but not literally true. Just because I can write a scene that is sad doesn’t mean THAT happened, it means I can tap into something sad and use that to write something fictional. I’m using the word “translate” from now on!

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  3. Thanks for a great tool to help create characters that jump off the page in real and vivid emotional moments, the spice that makes readers identify with those characters and want to keep turning the pages.

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  4. Wonderful post, James. This brings to mind something David Morrell talks about when he asks the question “why do you write?” I heard him speak at SleuthFest one year and what he said hit me like a board to the head. (in a good way…but it WAS painful).

    Writers discover who they are by what he calls “fiction by self-analysis.” And then he said, “Ask yourself what you are most afraid of and that is what you need to write about.”

    He didn’t mean snakes or heights. He meant what gnaws at your soul. If you figure that out and address it in your fiction, your writing catches emotional fire.

    It isn’t an easy question to answer but I think he is right. Once you can answer it, your writing becomes honest.

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  5. I love this! Such a great reminder of how tender our hearts are, from the vulnerable third graders to the grieving adults who’ve experienced deep loss.

    Thanks for the reminders. 🙂

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  6. Great post. You articulate abstract aspects of the reading and writing experience brilliantly.

    Some consider “escapism’ as hiding or avoiding life. I think you have eloquently described how a gifted writer allows the reader the opportunity to visit/revisit the emotions that are part of life’s greatest dramas. One could say that reading (and writing) are not escapes from ‘real’ life – but celebrations of the passions and emotions of life at its most intense.
    Uh, er, or something like that 🙂

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  7. That was snarky for an eight-year-old girl! Your way of showing your interest in her was gentlemanly and age-appropriate, but it isn’t always like that.
    When I was about that age, one boy in class teased me mercilessly. My mother told me to ignore it, that it just meant he “liked” me. It got worse. Then my (feisty) aunt told me to give it right back to him. So the next time he singled me out, I said, ” You’re big and mean and ugly, just like your Mother!” (Note that I’d never seen his mother.) Whoa, did the heavens fall after that one! His mother called my mother and my aunt, and it was the high drama of my third grade year. After that, my female friends and I would walk around the playground, pretending to hold scissors as we dismembered my “admirer’s” innards. I hope that little boy didn’t actually like me before all that–it could have been traumatic!

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  8. Love the story, Jim, and the comments. Mine was also when I was about eight. I liked a boy in my class, Willy. I fell in love with him during our class play about Abraham Lincoln. He was Abe, I was Mary consoling him about his mother’s death (remember, this was 50 years ago, so I probably have something wrong here) He had to put his arm around me. Later during class, when we were studying in silence, I walked past him, impulsively patted him on the cheek, asked how my Willy was doing, and kissed him on the other cheek. The class roared. No one was as surprised as I was. Public humiliation is one of my greatest fears.

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  9. I can really see what you are writing about by looking back at some of my earlier efforts. Insightful. Also like the quotation from D. Koontz.

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  10. Another excellent post, Jim! I think we all have childhood hurts, embarrassments, and traumas (as well as some moments of joy, I hope!) that we can draw on and “translate” (great term!).

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  11. JSB– Your story has the ring of truth. From the perspective of adulthood, don’t you wish you could turn the clock back, and whisper in your own ear that the pretty blond girl with perfect blue eyes has just unwittingly revealed that she–not you–has thought of JSB as a boyfriend?
    But I think the essential truth of your post can be summed up this way: fiction not driven by passion of some kind cannot “live.”

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  12. Your first love was Susan. Mine was Mindy. Also in third grade. The thunderbolt is a great word to describe the feeling. I never looked at females the same after Mindy. Sadly, I pretty much worshipped her from afar, which meant across the classroom. Too embarrassingly shy to proclaim my love for her, or anything remotely close to that.
    Thanks, James.

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