An editor I heard speaking at a conference once told the roomful of writers she wouldn’t buy a manuscript unless the magic words were on the page somewhere. “I love you,” was mandatory in her book, a sina qua non of the genre.
I agree, and I don’t. I don’t agree that HEARING the words matters that much. My companion animals never say them to me, babies can’t say them, many adults have no powers of speech, and yet, the ability of these wordless souls to love and make others feel loved is beyond question.
Turns out, the words are important for the character speaking or thinking them. When we’re beset by emotion, our minds rabbiting around with feeling, our hearts full, putting a label on the feeling reduces our sense of stress and calms our brains. This is especially true of negative emotions, which can ricochet around inside of us for days.
I see this in the courtroom, when therapists who work with upset children are asked to testify. One of the basic questions put the therapist is, “What are your therapeutic goals for this child?” The answer, inevitably, includes something like, “Caleb is working on saying what he feels.”
This does not mean working on getting him to admit he doesn’t like his mom’s nasty boyfriend–that will come much later–but rather, simply saying, “I feel angry,” or, “I feel hopeless.” Just giving the mind a word to describe the feelings calms down the mental riot the emotions generate. Brain scans confirm what the child can tell you: Being able to name what you feel helps you control your emotions, rather than be controlled by them.
Think about all the material on the internet intended to sway our emotions, to lure us to click, comment, sign the petition, speak out, do this, get up on our hind legs, don’t stand for that… How often are we invited to stop, think about what we feel, and stay with it long enough to find an accurate name for it?
No wonder a hero or heroine can take 343 pages to realize, “This is love.” But when they do recognize their sentiments as the real deal, we can almost see them become calmer, more resolute, clear-eyed people in our mind’s eye. The same transformation takes place when somebody, in the midst of great upheaval, can say, “I feel betrayed,” or, “I feel powerless.”
A few words, a big impact, a start on moving past those uncomfortable sentiments. And “just keep swimming” as a strategy? Erm… maybe not. Trying to ignore or repress negative emotions can make those brain scans go truly haywire. That’s why the character who pats the hero’s hand and reminds him, “It could always be worse. You mustn’t over-react, put it behind you…” is often in cahoots with the villain.
Name what’s in your heart. It matters.
Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment when you came up with the right label for feelings that had been plaguing you? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of “Matthew–The Jaded Gentlmen, Book II.”